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Herald-Leader: State spending spree hits bottom line with courthouses

February 11, 2010

Last week, the Mesenger-Inquirer editorial board weighed in on the aggressive push by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts for new courthouse construction.

Workers cover concrete blocks to protect the material from the weather in December as construction continues on the Hancock County Judicial Center in Hawesville.

That push was headed by former Chief Justice Joseph Lambert, who previously committed to have new courthouses in each of the state’s 120 counties. Lawmakers, who love to announce such pet projects to the folks back home, seemed to buy into the plan without fully addressing how the state was going to pay for such a construction binge.

One of those courthouses is under way next door in Hancock County, where the new facility will provide more than four times the space of the current courthouse that dates to the 1800s. Surely each community that is waiting for their courthouse can make some case, with some stronger than others, for why the new facility is needed.

Our view of the issue was that the state needs to curb its spending on those courthouses that are still in the planning phases, but follow through with the funding for those already in construction, such as in Hancock County.

As Hancock County Judge-Executive Jack McCaslin put it, his government would be “in a pickle” if the state backed away from plans to foot the bill for the construction and operation of the courthouses. County governments around Kentucky approved bonds to pay for these courthouses with the understanding the state would pay on those debts. The state can’t now push off the bills onto county governments.

To be sure, this situation is a pickle not just for the counties, but for the state, as the Lexington Herald-Leader points out in its editorial today

So, with $880 million already poured into the courthouses, judicial officials are asking for another $76 million to meet the new debt payments and avoid massive layoffs throughout the state court system. The system, which laid off 47 people last fall, will struggle to keep the doors open every day without the infusion of new money.

It’s an impossible choice: Squeeze overburdened courts even further, effectively removing access to justice for some Kentuckians; or take the money from threatened critical services like education, social services and public protection.

Or, stick the counties with the debt, a move that would likely push some of them into bankruptcy.

The answer isn’t to stop all building projects or to build only those that can be paid out of current funds. Building projects that will serve the public for decades should reasonably be paid for over the longer term.

The trouble is that it’s just too easy to scatter pork in the form of questionable building projects around the state and pass the bill on to future taxpayers.

The short term solution appears to be to allocate the additional money needed to complete the projects already under way, as as Lambert’s successor, Chief Justice John Minton, has done, put the brakes on those projects than can be slowed down.

Of course, that takes patience on the part of lawmakers, which as the Herald-Leader editorial board points out, can be hard to come by –

In the last budget cycle, the Administrative Office of the Courts, which Minton directs, recommended only one new courthouse — for Carlisle County where the previous one had burned.

Legislators, though, added four more in Allen, Bracken, Lawrence and Morgan counties. The economic and judicial logic may have been blurry but the political logic was crystal clear: “If people from around the state are going to get one, my folks deserve one, too,” said Rep. Mike Denham, D-Maysville, who represents Bracken County.

It will always be easier for lawmakers to make cuts to someone else’s projects than to their own, regardless of the logic.

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