Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore speaks to an audience in Anniston on Friday. (Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star)
Money that was set aside to expand Alabama's pre-kindergarten program should have gone to the court system instead, Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore said Friday.
"They're giving $9.4 million to a program that didn't exist the last time I was chief justice," Moore said at a Calhoun-Cleburne County Bar Association luncheon at Anniston's Classic on Noble.
Speaking to a crowd that included several current and former judges, Moore said the court system is facing strain, as courthouses struggle to keep up with their caseload after years of shrinking budgets.
The 2014 budget recently passed by the Legislature would give the judicial branch $108.4 million in 2014, an increase of more than $5 million.
Still, that increase comes on the heels of hefty cuts in previous years, and Moore said the court system has been forced to lay off 450 employees in the last decade.
This year's increase is $8.5 million less than Moore asked for in the 2014 budget, and he said courts will have to consider layoffs of another 150 employees if the financial situation doesn't improve.
"They've cut our budgets so much for so long that it's going to affect your practice," Moore told the lawyers at the luncheon.
Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh said his office has seen the effects of the cuts.
"You don't have the money to hire people that you need, you just hire the amount of people you can get by with," he said.
Moore singled out the state's expansion of its pre-kindergarten as one expense the state could have cut to give more funding to the courts.
Gov. Robert Bentley and some legislators have been pushing for the expansion of pre-K, a voluntary preschool program for 4-year-olds that, advocates say, better prepares kids for school and shrinks the gap in academic performance between affluent and poor kids. Alabama's pre-K program, funded at $19 million in 2013, serves only 6 percent of the state's 4-year-olds.
Earlier this year, Bentley asked for an additional $12 million to expand the program. Lawmakers approved a $9.4 million expansion, which is expected to allow the program to cover 9 percent of the state’s 4-year-olds.
Moore said that money could have gone to the court system — which, unlike pre-K, is a function demanded by the Alabama Constitution.
"We're the only people, in the Constitution, who are guaranteed funding," he said.
The governor's spokesman, Jeremy King, said the governor had shown his support for both courts and pre-K.
"Courts and pre-K are both important, and both are getting increased funding in the new budgets," King said.
King noted that the court system gets its money from the General Fund budget, the state's budget for all non-education agencies. Pre-K gets its money from the Education Trust Fund, a separate budget for schools.
Pre-K advocate Allison de la Torre, director of the Alabama School Readiness Alliance, alluded to the same budget divide in a brief statement Friday afternoon.
"The Alabama School Readiness Alliance is grateful to the governor for prioritizing funds earmarked for education to go to voluntary pre-kindergarten," she said.
Moore said he had hoped lawmakers would use Education Trust Fund money to pay for some of the court system's juvenile probation officers. He said that money would help children stay in school while alleviating the strain on the court system.
Retired Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm Street said budget neglect of the court system was an Alabama problem dating back to at least the 1960s.
"Many legislators view us as a department and not a co-equal branch," he said. The court system is funded partly through court fees, Street said, and lawmakers find it easier to impose fees than to find funding in the state budget. Street said fees were beginning to reach the level at which they were denying some people access to the court system.
"It can reach a point of impeding people from exercising their right to go to court," he said.
Moore said lawmakers approved new fees last year that were intended to help courts make up for the money lost to cuts. Those fees, he said, didn't yield as much revenue as lawmakers predicted. He said judges had warned that they wouldn't.
Moore said he expected the courts to get additional money if the state's revenues exceed projections — something written into this year's budget.
"I expect it to come, and if it doesn't you will hear my voice," he said.
Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.