By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
The State of Alabama has a General Fund that is and has been challenging for several years now. Legislators are reluctant to pass new revenues and be accused of raising people’s taxes or of sponsoring a bill to expand gambling in the State of Alabama. Similarly they have not (to this point anyway) been bold enough to come forward with a plan that addresses the real problem in the General Fund: that Alabama Medicaid benefits are growing faster than state revenues or the economy as a whole. While Medicaid is eating a larger and larger piece of the General Fund budget the State has asked the other State agencies in the General Fund to deal with tightening budget requests. The legislature also ignored a previous call by Governor Robert Bentley to merge the General Fund with the bigger and healthier State education trust fund.
Instead of any bold action to address the Medicaid problem, find new revenues, permanently eliminate whole State agencies, or reform the budgets the legislature has puttered along for years diverting money, raiding the Alabama Trust Fund, taking Obama stimulus dollars whenever available, using road and education dollars for General Fund needs, raiding the reserves, and budget cuts or proration when nothing else would work. Nowhere has this been felt harder than in the State’s court system.
On Wednesday, April 7, Sen. Bill Hightower (R-Mobile) went to the Senate Finance & Taxation General Fund Committee with a bill, SB297, asking the legislature to create a new circuit judge position in Mobile County. The Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) have identified Mobile County as the place where the caseload is the greatest and where another judge is most needed. Sen. Hightower said that his bill was conditional to funds becoming available to fund the new court. The Committee voted to table Sen. Hightower’s bill, effectively killing the Mobile legislation for this fiscal year, unless the committee changes its mind.
Two and a half hours later the Senate Judiciary Committee met to consider a bill sponsored by Senator Greg Albritton (R-Bay Minette) that SB223 would establish a new circuit judgeship in Baldwin County in the 2016 fiscal year.
Sen. Albritton said that for the first 24 months the Baldwin County Commission has agreed to pay for the position out of their own funds. The State would not take over the budget responsibility until the 2018 fiscal year.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) said, “I know Baldwin County needs a new circuit judge, but we had this conversation with Mobile County today. That bill was carried over.”
Sen. Albritton said that we have a letter from the AOC stating there is a need for a new circuit judgeship in Baldwin County.
Chairman Ward said that he is not sure that the court system can absorb that cost. Mobile County is the greatest need, followed by Madison County, then Baldwin County, then Shelby County. “Baldwin is number three.”
Sen. Tom Whatley (R-Lee County) told Albritton, “I am going to support your bill and I hope you support my bill to get one for Lee County.”
Chairman Ward said, “Y’all know what the general fund looks like.” A reallocation bill may help in the long run. Shelby County needs a judge too.
Senator Phil Williams (R-Rainbow City) suggested that he would support it if Baldwin County would agree to fund their new judgeship in perpetuity. “Baldwin County with all the industry that has come in there has the wherewithal to do that.
Baldwin County Judge J Langford “Lang” Floyd suggested to the committee that perhaps Baldwin County could fund the additional judge until the start of the 2019 fiscal year, by then the AOC could be fully funded.
Chairman Ward said, “I would be shocked if the AOC has that money by 2019.”
Judge Floyd said that the starting salary of a new judge is $119,000.
Sen. Ward said that it is not the pay that is the problem but all the peripheral costs: ballif, clerk, etc.
Judge Floyd suggested that Baldwin County could certainly looking at funding some of those additional costs. “I have been on the bench for 18 years and I have never been involved in asking for a new judgeship before.” When I started practicing law in 1984 we had two circuit judges. We are up to five now; but we are so overloaded that one of our two district judges is doing up to 70 percent of her caseload in circuit court. Baldwin County is willing to work with you.
Senator Vivian Figures (D-Mobile) told Judge Floyd, “I feel your pain.” Mobile County is the number one need in the State. Mobile is first. Madison Second, THEN Baldwin. “Until we get new revenue we keep kicking the can down the road. I will not consider the thought of voting for this if it is eventually paid for by the State.
Sen. Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) made a motion to carry over Sen. Albritton’s bill. Sen. Figures seconded. The motion carried with only Sens. Whatley and Albritton opposing.
Next the Committee considered Sen. Arthur Orr’s reallocation bill, SB230. Sen. Orr said, “As judges retire in areas that have not grown in population or have actually declined that judgeship would be reallocated. This will take a long time.
Sen. Phil Williams said that Etowah County also needs a new circuit judge. This bill would create the Alabama Reallocation Commission to decide where new judges go. “I recognize that while I am not 1 2 3 or 4. We do have a process in place.”
Chairman Ward said, “You are going to have four counties that are going to desperately need those circuit judges and there are four counties where they don’t need those circuit court judges. Mobile, Madison, Baldwin, and Shelby County will eventually receive new judges. Montgomery and Jefferson Counties will see the impact as retirements come.
Ward said he is not for redrawing the judicial district lines.
Sen. Linda Coleman (D-Birmingham) said that while Jefferson County judges have a lighter case load they have higher crime rates.
Sen. Ward said there is a large number of people who have moved out of Jefferson County. Their caseload has dropped. The courts in St. Clair, Shelby, and Blount are overwhelmed.
Sen. Coleman said, “We have more capital crimes. They don’t have that out there.” Jefferson County has a higher incidence of those types of crime. Those cases take more time.
Sen. Ward said there is a reason why Mobile County is #1. The population has gone up. Their caseload is higher.
Sen. Figures said, “There is no mention of diversity.” Figures introduced an amendment to include diversity language: “All appointing authorities should coordinate their appointments so that they reflect the diversity of the state including race, gender, urban, and rural.”
The committee voted to add Figures amendment.
The committee also added a Sen. Williams technical amendment to change some wording in Orr’s bill.