Could’ve been worse

In his first year as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, Robert P. Young, Jr. could have felt a little disheartened to see the newly seated Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed budget. The governor is recommending that the judiciary’s budget for 2012 remain flat — no increases,no decreases — from the 2011 level, at roughly $260 million. He also recommended a negligible — 0.6 percent — increase for 2013’s $261.9 million judiciary budget.

Could’ve been worse, Young said.

What will allow the State Court Administrative Office, or SCAO, to work with that budget, which represents a 27 percent reduction in operations expenses since 2000, is that it also includes a recommendation to eliminate six trial court judgeships, which will save the state some $942,000.

It’s about time, if you ask Young.

“I’m actually optimistic and pleased,” he said. “In every prior year for at least the last 10 years, the judiciary budget has been cutting away at muscle, and has cut into the bone. …. We have been incredibly vocal in asking the governor and legislature to reduce the number of judgeships that are no longer required.”

The court’s discretionary budget is small, he said. About two-thirds of it is “untouchable,” as it involves judicial salaries. So as the cost of health care, energy, and retirement funding has rapidly increased, operations in the courts have had to become leaner – very lean, in fact.

Since 2000, the number of judicial employees has decreased by more than 20 percent, with the number of full time equivalent positions dropping from 526 to just 413.

So losing those six judgeships represents some badly needed wiggle room in the budget, Young said.

But that doesn’t mean he’s breathing easy. For starters, he said, even though Gov. Snyder has recommended the judgeship reductions, the legislature is going to find that “it’s no cakewalk” actually eliminating them. Politically, it’s going to be difficult, Young acknowledged, as communities are likely to be less than thrilled about losing those trial judges.

Also on Young’s mind is that just because the budget will be easier to manage as a result of that significant reduction in costs, the trends point to little to no growth in the judiciary budget, or any of the state’s departmental budgets, any time soon. And it doesn’t matter much to taxpayers that costs are rising, so he’d better find ways the courts can do more with less. So, since taking the chief justice’s seat this year, he has met with every director in SCAO, getting an understanding of how they operate and where there is room for further efficiency.

“Now that I’ve met with all the directors, I do have a sense of the substantial work they do. They are incredible in that regard,” he said. What he said he wants them to do now is to think like entrepreneurs.

“In government, there is no entrepreneurial instinct,” he said. “I’m trying to encourage them to look for more efficiencies, to break down silos, and to eliminate replication of efforts.”

He’s been pleased, he said, at how receptive the directors have been.

“When you take someone’s shackles off, they say, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked to do anything other than work in shackles,'” Young said. “For ages, the idea has been ‘We do things this way because we’ve always done it this way.’ … I’m asking people to exercise judgment, to live dangerously.”

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