The head of Iowa’s court system warned lawmakers Wednesday of more court delays and possible courthouse closures if they cut more funding from the judicial branch.
Iowa courts got a $3 million budget cut last year. This year, lawmakers are considering cutting another $1.6 million for the fiscal year that ends in June.
“At current funding levels now, we’re not meeting the need,” said State Court Administrator Todd Nuccio.
He told lawmakers in charge of judicial branch appropriations that he’s holding 134 positions open in anticipation of further cuts.
“We would not be closing any courthouses or closing clerks of court offices, to be more specific, with the 1.6 [million dollar cut],” Nuccio said. “You go beyond that 1.6, we start to have to look more seriously.”
An earlier proposal would have cut $4.8 million from the courts this year. Nuccio said that would have caused the closure of more than 30 county courthouses.
Some lawmakers asked Nuccio if changes to court fees, or how they’re collected, could help with the budget shortage.
“Can you provide this committee with some suggestions and some options with how we can holistically look at our collections system? On a multi-year chart, our collections are down,” said Sen. Dan Dawson, R-Council Bluffs.
Nuccio said most people involved in criminal cases can’t afford to pay the current fees.
“You also have an access to justice issue on the civil side,” Nuccio said. “There’s a tipping point where you want to make sure you’re not making the bar too high for people to gain access to the court.”
After last year’s budget cut, the judicial branch eliminated 67 positions, established a hiring freeze and stopped the expansion of specialty courts.
“The basic message was to let legislators know that there are needs that are not being met when it comes to providing access to justice for citizens in the state of Iowa,” Nuccio told reporters after the subcommittee meeting.
He said court delays negatively affect businesses, children and families.
The Iowa Legislature has yet to make budget cuts for this fiscal year.
Nuccio is asking lawmakers for some additional funding in the next fiscal year to restore the 134 open positions. It’s unclear what will happen with that request as the state waits for its next revenue estimate.