The day after Chief Justice Mark Martin gave a rare address to the N.C. General Assembly imploring legislators to invest more in the financially struggling court system, Gov. Pat McCrory issued a spending plan for the coming fiscal year that would provide far less than Martin requested.
McCrory’s budget would allocate an additional $6 million in the coming fiscal year to the North Carolina justice system for jurors, witnesses, interpreters, expert witnesses for prosecutors, equipment maintenance and computer hardware and software.
An additional $813,000 would go toward expansion of the N.C. Business Courts, adding one new location after July 1 and aiming for a second the following year. The North Carolina Economic Development Board sought an expansion, according to the budget narrative.
In Martin’s address to legislators on Wednesday – the first time in 14 years that legislators had invited a chief justice to deliver such remarks – he requested more than what the governor’s plan provides. The court system has asked for about $16 million for operational costs.
The governor’s spending plan also calls for adding six laboratory technician jobs to the state crime lab in October to assist with nonanalytical assignments. The intention is to free forensic scientists from doing paperwork and record-keeping that non-scientists can do so they can tend to the backlog of testing that has plagued the court system. In recent years, prosecutors have complained about not getting DNA tests and other lab results in a timely manner.
As the prisons see more inmates with mental health issues, the budget allocates $6.6 million to establish behavioral-health units at eight high-security prisons and another $2.2 million to add 35 new workers to help treat mentally ill patients at the Central Prison Health Care Facility.
The plan adds to the indigent defense fund for private assigned lawyers representing people deemed indigent by the courts. In recent years, the state office of Indigent Defense Services has had to suspend pay for attorneys before the end of the fiscal year because resources have been exhausted. That has slowed the courts and made it difficult for private attorneys trying to balance budgets.
The Animal Welfare section currently housed in the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services would be transferred to the Department of Public Safety, a recommendation from the North Carolina Government Efficiency and Reform initiative. The idea is pitched as a shift that would make it possible for animal welfare to be more effectively addressed by law enforcement officers.
KEY STAT: $6 million added to the operating budget for essential North Carolina court system operations. The courts want about $16 million.
HOW LIKELY? It’s unclear whether the legislators will want to add to the justice and public safety budget to address concerns relayed by the N.C. Supreme Court chief justice or to look for cuts. The courts system has hired former Rep. Tom Murry, a Morrisville Republican, to press the case.