Supreme Court presents budget

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, being mindful of the spending controversies over the last 15 months, presented lawmakers a budget request several million dollars less than the previous fiscal year.

Chief Justice Beth Walker went before the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday with the court’s budget request. She was joined by justices Tim Armstead, Evan Jenkins and John Hutchinson.

One of the state’s three branches of government, the supreme court not only funds the highest court, but also the circuit courts, family courts, magistrate courts, probation employees, and an administrative staff.

The supreme court is requesting a budget of $131.1 million for fiscal year 2020, which starts in July. That’s $8.6 million less than the $139.7 million budget for the court’s fiscal year 2019, according to the State Budget Office.

Expenses for the supreme court and its support staff make up 6 percent of court spending, according to fiscal year 2018, with the largest 25 percent going toward the circuit court system, 23 percent toward the magistrate courts, and 21 percent to the probation system.

“Even though we are an independent branch of government, that doesn’t mean that relieves us for one moment of the need to be responsible to the taxpayers and responsible to you as the overseers of our budget,” Walker told committee members.

Voters during the November 2018 election approved a constitutional amendment that gave the legislature the authority to reduce the amount of general revenue appropriations to the judiciary in the budget bill submitted by the governor’s office to the legislature during every yearly legislative session.

The supreme court’s budget request is different than what Gov. Jim Justice proposed in his budget submitted last Wednesday. Justice’s supreme court budget is $136.1 million, or $5 million more than the supreme court’s budget request. That $5 million was set aside in case the legislature passes his bill creating an intermediate appellate court.

Additional expenditures requested by the supreme court include $3 million for pay raises for staff in the various court systems, $1.1 million to convert contract technology staff to full-time employees, and $2.4 million for additional probation staff and filling current positions.

The supreme court’s budget presentation wasn’t without one hiccup. It revealed through questioning by state Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, that the court paid intimate clothing company Victoria’s Secret $64.95 on Jan. 2. Sue Racer-Troy, the chief financial officer of the court, told lawmakers the purchase was for three personal clothing items through the Monongalia County Circuit Court as an incentive for its juvenile drug court program.

“When that came in, we notified them that this is potentially something we’re not supposed to be doing,” Racer-Troy said.

Legislative auditors last year revealed that the drug court system over two years had used a state purchasing card to buy $105,000 worth of gift cards for program participants as incentives. It was one of several audits and news stories detailing waste of taxpayer dollars at the court, including millions of dollars for justice office renovations, use of court vehicles for personal trips, and purchasing expensive catered lunches from high-end Charleston restaurants.

“That has ended,” Walker said. “We’re not using p-cards for gift cards. It’s been ended for several months now. This p-card purchase is not what we want to be doing, but it’s not a violation of our p-card policy or the (State Auditor’s Office) p-card policy.”