Indiana’s top judicial leaders made their cases for additional funding in the next two years on Wednesday, with the biggest funding boost requested to support continued court technology initiatives.
Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Loretta Rush, Court of Appeals Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik and Tax Court Judge Martha Wentworth each brought their requests for the fiscal years 2018-19 biennial budget before the Indiana House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday morning. Rush, who previously presented the Supreme Court’s proposed budget to the State Budget Committee last month, focused the majority of her budget request on a $3.3 million boost to the judiciary’s court technology fund, telling committee members that such an investment would pay off for the state in the long run.
There were three parts to Rush’s proposed court technology budget — e-filing, with a requested $7 million, the Odyssey case management system, with a requested $6.3 million, and the INcite online application system, with a requested $4.5 million for each of the next two fiscal years respectively.
The chief justice told Ways and Means committee members that before the state began rolling out those initiatives over the past few years, the Indiana judiciary had been “behind the eight ball” in terms of technological advancements. But now, with 25 percent of all Indiana counties now utilizing an e-filing system and roughly 66 percent of all cases filed in Odyssey, the state court system is moving further into the 21st century, she said.
That transition to a technology-driven system is already showing benefits to the state and will continue to save state agencies both time and money, Rush said. For example, Indiana Department of Child Services Executive Director Mary Beth Bonaventura estimated that the transition to an entirely paperless system would save DCS — which operates with an annual budget of $983 million — $3 million to $4 million a year and would significantly cut down on the time children spend in the court and child welfare system, Rush said.
In the last biennial budget, the Supreme Court was allocated $14.5 million in filing fees to put toward judicial technology initiatives. The filing fee is a reverting fund that is allocated twice a year, with half of the total funds coming down in June, Rush said. However, when the filing fees funding came in, it only came to $10.3 million for the first year and $12 million for the second year, leaving the judiciary with a budget shortfall, she said.
“It’s hard to run a business with two allocations, and we’re always in arrears with the filing fee,” the chief justice told the committee.
To remedy that issue, the Supreme Court requested an allocation of $17.8 million from the state’s general fund. However, the state, not the judiciary, would get to keep the filing fees, thus offsetting some of the cost of funding court technology.
Committee members asked few questions about Rush’s technology funding proposal, but Rep. Peggy Mayfield, R-Martinsville, questioned the chief justice as to whether the technological transition had affected the public’s ability to view court decisions and other documents. Rush said as of now, citizens can still pay a fee to have the clerk’s office print off any documents they are interested in, but eventually an online public access system will be rolled out.
Aside from court technology, Rush’s biennial proposal focused on additional funding for various court access programs, such as the Court Appointed Special Advocates and guardian ad litem initiatives. As of now, those programs are experiencing a significant shortage of volunteers. But if an additional $1.3 million were dedicated to finding new volunteers, then DCS could start to do away with the practice of paying its own employees to serve with the CASA and GAL programs, thus maintaining and potentially reducing the department’s current budget, she said.
Rush’s full proposal can be read here.
Vaidik and Wentworth each requested smaller increases to their biennial budgets, with the majority of additional funds needed for both the Court of Appeals and Tax Court requested for the same reason.
During the last biennium, the Indiana General Assembly required the lower appellate courts to pay out raises from a Personal Services Contingency Fund rather than standard personnel funds. For the Court of Appeals, that total came to $862,000, and for the Tax Court, the total came to $26,246. Vaidik and Wentworth requested those amounts, respectively, in order to “break even” on those funds.
Additionally, Vaidik requested additional funds to help cover the cost of the Court of Appeals’ lease in the downtown PNC Tower, where part of the appellate court office is located. The cost of that 10-year lease increases $7,100 each year, Vaidik said, and is currently $418,000. Although the appellate court has been able to cover that increase in years past, the existing budget can no longer sustain it, she said.
Aside from the “true-up” of the Personal Services Contingency Fund, Wentworth’s budget request was the same, she said, and included a request for $734,839 for personal services and $151,400 for fixed expenses.