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Bell’s budget glass: Half empty or half full≠

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Chief Judge Robert M. Bell will get far less than he asked for under recommendations by key House and Senate subcommittees, but the legislators are still calling for a substantial increase in the judiciary’s budget for FY 2002.

Bell asked for a roughly 25 percent increase, but a Senate subcommittee voted yesterday to increase the judicial branch’s funding by only about 12 percent, according Senate Budget and Taxation Committee staff member Nicolle M. Fleury of the Subcommittee on Public Safety, Transportation and Environment.

This action closely parallels that taken Friday evening by the House Committee on Appropriations’ Subcommittee on Public Safety and Administration, which agreed to increase the judiciary’s budget by about 15 percent.

“There’s still a very large increase to the judiciary,” said the committee chairwoman, Del. Joan Cadden, D-Anne Arundel. “The numbers look harsher than they really are because we haven’t done anything that will slow down or stop the judiciary in any of its endeavors.”

Bell asked for a $67.9 million increase in last year’s budget, and Cadden’s subcommittee approved roughly a $35 million increase.

Bell requested $310.1 million last year and the judiciary received $242.8 million — or about 21 percent less than requested, according to Department of Legislative Services records.

The specifics of the Senate subcommittee’s actions were not available by press time, but some examples of are:

  • Funding five new judgeships in the Family Division instead of the requested 10, for a savings of nearly $900,000
  • Declining to assume responsibility for funding existing circuit court law clerks, saving $6.6 million

  • Declining to assume responsibility for lease payments for office space for existing court clerks, saving $6.7 million.

These reductions parallel those recommended recently by the Department of Legislative Services.

Cadden said that some requests — such as having the state assume more of the financial burdens for running the county circuit courts — will be deferred for a year but are likely to receive funding.Doubling ADR

Cadden praised some of Bell’s initiatives, such as the alternative dispute program that encourages mediation to keep disagreements from becoming full-blown court cases. Bell requested a 130 percent increase in ADR funding.

“We gave them a 100 percent increase” for ADR, Cadden said. “I think it’s very valuable, what it does for the communities.”

Mike Morrill, communications director for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, pointed out that the judiciary is doing better than many other agencies or departments in this year’s budget process.

“It was [a] much larger [increase] than what other agencies put in for. Very few departments received that kind of increase this year, and some were substantially less,” Morrill said. “You are going to be hard-pressed to find a department as a whole that got that large an increase.”

Morrill used education, the governor’s “top priority” this year, as an example: the budget request for K-12 was 8 percent higher than last year, and higher education got a 14 percent increase.

Under the constitution, the governor is required to transmit the judiciary’s budget requests to the legislature, Morrill added.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, D-Prince George’s and chairman of the Senate subcommittee, declined to discuss the budget before he makes his formal recommendation to the full Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. Court representatives did not respond to a reporter’s request for comment.

The subcommittees’ recommendations are expected to see action by the full committees in both the House and the Senate this week.