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Lawmakers at impasse over Arkansas Supreme Court budget

by John Moritz | November 15, 2018 at 12:13 p.m.

The budget for the Arkansas Supreme Court hit a stone wall Thursday, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers deadlocked over issues raised with the high court's spending authority.

Following the impasse, several Democrats who had pushed to move forward with the high court's roughly $11 million budget for the next fiscal year accused Republicans of wielding their authority over the court's spending in a retaliatory manner after several high-profile court decisions which had angered GOP lawmakers.

Republicans suggested that they were flexing their authority in an attempt to rein in the courts.

"Today we took steps to hold our Supreme Court accountable by holding their budget," tweeted state Sen. Trent Garner, R- El Dorado, shortly after he left the committee meeting Thursday.

Garner's tweet followed an earlier post in October in which he threatened "there will be consequences, starting with [the court's] budget," after a 6-1 ruling by the justices which blocked Issue 1, a legislatively-referred constitutional amendment, from going before voters during last month's election.

"I do think that is the genesis of what went on this morning," said state Sen. Joyce Elliott, D- Little Rock.

A so-called "tort reform" amendment, Issue 1 proposed a number of changes to the judiciary, including caps on attorneys fees, limits to certain lawsuit damages and a shift in court rule-making authority from the justices to the Legislature. In striking down the measure, the Supreme Court's majority said lawmakers had violated the state Constitution by "log-rolling" several distinct changes into one amendment.

State Rep. Bob Ballinger, R- Hindsville, who led the challenge to the court's budget Thursday, was also the chief House sponsor of the legislation to refer Issue 1.

Ballinger said his concerns with the court's budget had to do with a cash fund making up more than half of the court's appropriation without any references in budget documents to how the money was being spent.

Marty Sullivan, the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, told lawmakers the fund was paid for with Bar Association dues, not taxpayers funds, and then printed out reports for each of the lawmakers showing a breakdown of the fund's expenses in the last two fiscal years. He noted that legislative auditors had conducted routine audits of the fund and found no issues.

"There's nothing nefarious going on here," Sullivan said.

Still, Ballinger proposed eliminating all spending authority from the fund before moving on with the rest of the court's budget. Democrats balked, offering to move forward with the full requested budget, while "flagging" the cash fund for further discussions during the session.

Votes on both motions failed to pass, and the committee was forced to move on to other budgets.

Ballinger said lawmakers would likely move forward with writing their own budget for the court ahead of the General Session, which starts in January, before hammering out a compromise with court staff.

The budget recommendation being considered by lawmakers Thursday was for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins next July. The actions by the committee did not affect the court's current budget, which runs until June 30.

Read Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for full details.


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