Will Louisiana finally get more transparency about how the courts spend money?

One lawmaker has been seeking information about courts fines and fees for years.

By: - May 24, 2021 3:38 pm
Courtroom Gavel

(Getty Images)

The Louisiana Legislature’s current judicial budget proposal includes a provision it doesn’t include in most years — a requirement the court system be more transparent about where it gets its funding and how it spends that money.

The Louisiana House inserted a stipulation into the courts budget bill mandating that during the next budget cycle the court system use a uniform budget template similar to that used by local government entities. The House proposal also required each district, municipal, city and traffic court to hold a budget hearing before making its budget request — which is not typically required. 

But the transparency measures were watered down as the budget bill moved to the Senate. The Senate Finance Committee approved an amended version of House Bill 584 Friday without the requirement for public budget hearings at the courts. The judiciary’s budget template also won’t have to be the same as the one used by local governments, which will make it harder to compare spending across different forms of government. 

Still, the basic requirement that the lower courts provide more information about where it gets money and how it spends that money remains. The size and scope of the state system’s court budget is opaque, even for the legislators who are in charge of managing the state’s spending.

One member of the legislative leadership, House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee, R-Houma, has been seeking information for years about the courts’ dependence on fines and fees

In 2016, Pew Charitable Trusts found that people’s inability to pay such fines and fees interfered with their ability to regain their financial footing after prison and frequently landed them back behind bars. Several other independent studies have also concluded that Louisiana’s court system is more dependent on user fees and fines than other states. Magee has expressed interest in alleviating that financial pressure.

The Legislature passed a law in 2017 sponsored by Magee that would have capped fines and fees paid by people coming out of prison based on their ability to pay those bills. The law was supposed to be part of a sweeping criminal justice overhaul aimed at reducing the prison population, but Magee’s portion has never been enacted.

Magee has agreed to delay the implementation of that law year after year, out of concern from judges and court clerks that it could cause the state’s entire judicial system to collapse from lack of funding. Yet Magee has run into challenges during his frequent attempts to seek more details about the court’s fines and fees budget. 

Four years ago, Magee asked the legislative auditor to compile information about court fines and fees, but the auditor told Magee that he wasn’t able to get the data he needed to put together a requested report, Magee said.

Magee then sponsored  a new law that passed in 2020 that required the court system to use budget forms that would make it easier to audit the courts’ collection and use of fines and fees. He also convened the Louisiana Commission on Justice System Funding — which he chairs — to examine the issue.  

The current transparency measure in the judiciary’s budget is the latest effort to get more clarity about court fines and fees. 

The court’s budget bill for the upcoming budget cycle currently contains $183.6 million worth of funding — not including the fines and fees funding that the courts collect locally. It’s a $7.8 million increase over the court budget from last year, according to the bill.

Three justices from the Louisiana Supreme Court told the Senate Finance Committee Friday that they would prefer a larger funding bump, suggesting an allocation of $195 million. They described their budget as being at a “standstill” and said they need extra money to keep up with annual increases in health care and retirement costs. 

“We came to you last year in need. We come to you this year in need,” said Associate Justice William Crain. “We can’t do anything without funding, and y’all are our funding source.”

The justices talked at length about needing extra funding for programs that help vulnerable children and for drug courts, which focus on people who are addicts and managing addiction treatment.

The judiciary budget bill increases funding for drug and specialty courts as well as for children advocates, but the salaries for judges at every level of court could also go up. For example, the budget bill allocates an additional $61,821 for the salaries of the seven members of the Supreme Court, for a total of $1.2 million. 

There’s also a 40% increase in the funding for the salaries of the Supreme Court staff and “other expenses” from last year. That item in the budget bill goes from $6.5 million to $11.5 million, according to the legislation.

Several lawmakers are attorneys who practice law in front of the judges they fund. Even when other state agencies were asked to take significant budget cuts in lean budget times — years where teachers and state government employees had to forego any pay hikes — judges often got salary increases. Louisiana judges and courts have received funding increases, even though,  according to The Associated Press, they are sitting on several million dollars in reserve funding. 

The judges’ salary hikes included in this year’s judicial budget were not discussed during the meeting between the Supreme Court justices and the Senate Finance Committee Friday. 

Instead, the justices touted some new transparency measures that the state Supreme Court had put in place, after a series of stories in The Advocate and The Times-Picayune about the secrecy surrounding the discipline of judges. 

“Transparency has been a big issue. I’ve heard it. I continue to hear it,” Crain told senators.

They also joked about the stagnant nature of state lawmakers’ pay. 

“When I was a legislative assistant, I aspired to be a legislator, and then 10 years went by, and I saw y’all still getting paid what they got paid before,” Chief Justice John Weimer told the senators, “And I said, well I think I’m going to go do something else.”

Clarification: This story included a typo that implied each Louisiana Supreme Court justice was receiving a raise of $61,000 through the judicial budget bill. All of the Supreme Court justices collectively are receiving a raise of $61,000. We regret the error. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.