The chief justice of the Kentucky Supreme Court wants lawmakers to increase salaries for judges, clerks and non-elected Judicial Branch employees in an effort to make the positions more competitive with jobs outside the state.
Lawmakers are currently writing budgets for the state’s three branches of government amid a financial crunch spurred on by lax revenue growth and a pension crisis.
Chief Justice John Minton said the courts system is losing employees to surrounding states and other parts of state government.
“The future health and viability of the courts system is at stake,” Minton said. “There needs to be a pay scale that really serves as some attraction for keeping a diverse and experienced and independent judiciary.”
The request comes after Gov. Matt Bevin proposed cutting most of state government by 6.25 percent in the upcoming two-year budget.
Minton said the Judicial Branch accounts for 3 percent of state spending, but its workforce of 3,300 non-elected employees and 404 judges and clerks makes up 10 percent of Kentucky’s public workforce.
He said 400 non-elected employees fall below the federal poverty level.
The Judicial Branch budget is passed separately from the Executive Branch budget, which includes most state agencies.
The proposed judicial budget asks for more than $29 million over the next two years to raise salaries.
“If you can understand a lack of progress on this issue has left our judges feeling discouraged and undervalued,” Minton said. “It also provides a little incentive for the best and brightest attorneys to leave a successful law practice and bring to the bench their legal skill and their ability.”
Minton also asked for the legislature to continue funding veteran drug treatment programs in Fayette and Hardin counties — both currently receive federal funding.
In 2016, Minton warned that proposed budget cuts would shut down the entire courts system for three weeks because they would be unable to perform necessary functions.
The final version of that budget set aside more money for courts and a veto by Bevin eliminated a provision that would have transferred money back to the state’s general fund.
Minton said the move gave the Judicial Branch the “healthiest budget in a decade.”