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State budgets propose more cuts to N.C.'s already-lean judicial branch 

Trials and tribulations

Its workers have received a .24 percent pay increase in the last five years. In Mecklenburg County, its employee turnover rate has increased by about 50 percent since 2008. These facts and figures might sound familiar, but this isn't a story about the plight of North Carolina's teachers.

The state's judicial branch has sustained about $86 million in cuts in the last five years, including a 10-percent reduction in staff. And it would suffer again under this session's Senate and House versions of the budget.

Lawmakers have reduced funding from some programs and aspects of the court to sustain others, which will prove to be an ineffective and dangerous money-saving technique, said Todd Nuccio, court administrator for the 26th judicial district, which includes Mecklenburg County. "When you make a cut here — and it's true of anything — you push down here, something pops up here. These are not cost saving in any way."

The House budget initially cut funding for the state's family court, which is charged with speeding along legal issues including divorces and child custody and child support battles. An amendment introduced by Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, restored some funding, but at the expense of the Administrative Office of the Courts, the administrative agency for the judicial department.

In an interview with the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, Rep. Leo Daughtry, R-Johnston, spoke against the amendment. The head budget writer for the Justice and Public Safety Committee, of which McNeill is a member, called the family courts, which operate in 13 counties, including Mecklenburg, "a 'boutique' court that most counties manage without ... keeping the money in [Administrative Office of the Courts] would benefit the entire state."

Nuccio said the cuts to the family court will lead to delays in child custody payments and decisions.

"You'll have unintended winners and loser. People who have the custody will retain the custody for longer periods of time."

The judicial branch generally receives about 2 percent of the state's budget, or about $456 million of the overall $20.6 billion this year. (Education receives well over 50 percent.) Nuccio doesn't understand why lawmakers targeted the courts, which are already low on the totem pole, for more cuts. "It's not like you're going to get a lot of money out of the court system."

The Senate's version of the budget would eliminate employees in the IT department, whom Nuccio referred to as the "backbone of our system." They're necessary, he said, to maintain the courts' severely antiquated computer programs.

"If there's a problem with the way the information is captured in the system ... it would have serious consequences," Nuccio said. "We deal with people's lives here."

Even he admits court administrators haven't been able to muster the same energy as teachers, who almost single-handedly drove their low pay and other issues up legislators' list of priorities this year. Voters aren't as sympathetic to the courts as they are to educators, either, nor are they as familiar with the system — until they have to be.

"There's a lot of attention being given to education," he said. "I don't begrudge education in any way ... we need to be thinking about how to pay for these things in an equitable way."

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