Lawmakers weigh court efficiency incentives; counties fear loss of revenue

By JACOB KANCLERZ

Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan counties could lose up to $60 million if they don’t get their courts to comply with best financial practices under proposed incentives supported by Gov. Rick Snyder.

A bill before the House Appropriations Committee would tie counties’ access to local court revenues to incentives designed to save money and encourage consolidation. The money is generated by court fees and other revenues and redistributed to counties to pay for the court system and other general expenses, said Deena Bosworth, the legislative aide for the Michigan Association of Counties.

Bosworth is opposed to the bill, saying counties don’t have direct control over what courts do, putting them at risk of losing a critical portion of the state funding that they need.

“They’re the third branch of government, which counties don’t have control over,” she said. “So, the concept behind the legislation is, ‘We’ll just withhold this court equity fund,’ in order to make the judges do whatever they want the judges to do. But there’s no direct correlation. This money is to help counties deal with all of their expenses.”

Counties already foot the bill for half of the $1 billion it takes to run the state’s court system, Bosworth said. Losing another $60 million would deepen the loss in state revenue from other areas, including revenue sharing and help with local public health systems.

While state officials say they understand counties’ concern about the threat to their funding, they see courts complying with these best practices as common sense.

While the judicial system is separate from the other branches of government, counties still hold financial influence because they fund the courts, said Marcia McBrien, the public information officer for the Michigan Supreme Court.

“Can they tell the court this is how you’re going to hear cases and this is how you must operate every day? No, clearly not, because they’re separate branches of government,” she said. “But the funding unit always has the power of the purse, so there is some degree of control.”

Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, the sponsor of the bill, said it should start more cooperation between local governments and their courts.

“We’re forcing the courts to work more collaboratively with their local unit of government,” he said. “They’ve got to start talking to each other.”
Heise said he introduced the bill to enforce the same financial standards that have been adopted for Michigan’s schools and municipalities.

Courts have to comply with three requirements to be considered for funding:
• Improve use of technology
• Consolidate
• Report progress on those objectives online

One method of consolidation, concurrent jurisdiction, has already made 20 Michigan courts more efficient, McBrien said. It makes district, circuit and probate courts work closely and combine resources.

Under concurrent jurisdiction, one judge handles all matters by a family in a divorce settlement, as opposed to one judge handling the divorce and a different judge handling child custody.

“Back in the old days, if you were getting a divorce and you had children, you would go to circuit court to get the divorce, but you would end up in probate court with anything having to do with the children,” McBrien said.

Improving court technology has also paid off, she said. Using video conferencing for hearings has eliminated the costs for transportating and escorting prisoners to court.

“We have already found that the system has paid for itself in a matter of months,” McBrien said.

© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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