What will lawmakers do with new power?
Approval in Tuesday’s election of a measure giving the West Virginia Legislature some control over the state judiciary’s spending should have come as no surprise to anyone.
Amendment 2 on the election ballot passed by a landslide. It gives the Legislature long-overdue authority over the judicial branch’s budget. Until Tuesday, ours was the only state without such a provision. The need for it was recognized even by most current state Supreme Court justices.
Now, the question is what lawmakers will do with their newfound power.
They have been given ample reason to take a punitive approach. Revelations earlier this year of runaway spending by the high court prompted legislators to propose the state constitutional amendment. Voters angry for the same reason were eager to vote for it.
Who can blame them? One ex-justice, Robin Davis, chewed through $500,000 in taxpayers’ money to remodel her office. Another spent $32,000 on a couch. Collectively, the court rang up $114,000 in purchases of picture frames.
During a period in which governors and legislators were forced to pinch pennies to keep the budget in balance, the justices seemed oblivious to any need for frugality. During the past decade, the state’s general revenue budget has increased by only about 12.3 percent. Meanwhile, appropriations for the judiciary went up by about 20.7 percent. This year’s general revenue budget includes $139,759,670 for courts at all levels.
So yes, some restraint is necessary.
Approval of the amendment Tuesday does not give the Legislature a free hand. There are limits on how much it can reduce amounts sought by the high court. That is a good thing, to preserve separation of powers.
Lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice already have begun considering a budget for the fiscal year that begins next July 1. So have the current members of the state Supreme Court, which includes just two justices who were serving during the free-spending period.
Rather than plan to come down hard on the court’s budget, legislators should take a wait-and-see attitude. Justices currently serving have been looking to pare down spending themselves.
And, in view of the drug abuse crisis in our state, the judiciary needs more money, proportionately, than it may have a decade ago.
Lawmakers, then, should give the current court a chance to reform itself before they use the budget as a cudgel to enforce spending discipline.