Joint Judiciary Committee Report
By: Pete Obermueller, WCCA Executive Director
In an effort to improve communication with all members of the WCCA, this year during the interim I intend to write short blog posts following committee hearings I attend regarding subjects of interest to counties (and sometimes, maybe just of interest to me). Through these posts I will include in italics a paraphrase of questions and answers from committee members to witnesses, including myself, using just the names and the basic point of the question and answer. The first of these meetings was the Joint Judiciary Committee that met in Thermopolis last Thursday and Friday. The topic was courtroom technology.
First, some quick background: WCCA members will recall that the Judicial branch sought and secured an additional $10 for their court automation fee in court filing fees. The $10 fee they currently collect for that purpose is almost entirely dedicated to staffing. This new fee could be used to cover courtroom technology.
In March of this year a group of Commissioners made up of the WCCA's Government Operations committee, as well as the Executive Committee, met with members of the court's technology committee and discussed a framework for delineating in law the counties' and the courts' responsibility to pay for technology in the courtroom. The basic framework is that counties are responsible for power and wiring to the wall, and the courts would be responsible for the equipment and maintenance from the wall.
In my opinion, even if we are successful at crafting legislation that more clearly outlines responsibilities, every county will need to establish an MOU with the courts detailing specific obligations of each entity. Sweetwater county is in the midst of an MOU negotiation right now with the courts that could serve as a model for other counties moving forward.
Last week the committee first heard testimony from the Judicial branch, including Court Administrator Lily Sharpe, and District Court Judge Skar from the 5th Judicial District and Judge Tyler from the 9th Judicial District. They discussed the state of technology in courtrooms based upon an assessment of all the courtrooms done by an outside consultant. The consultant's opinion is, not surprisingly, that many courtrooms need significant upgrades to reach ADA compliance, but also to provide a "basic" level of service to citizens, judges, lawyers and juries.
Senator Nethercott - Who decided what is determined to be basic needs?
Answer - The consultant was the same company that helped Sublette County with their courtroom upgrades, and they used a scale of 1 - 5 to show the varying levels of technology. That assessment is available for review.
I testified next and outlined four basic points:
- I indicated that Commissioners are willing to work with the courts to develop legislation that outlines the basic framework mentioned above, but that even if we are successful there are significant hurdles to accomplishing the kinds of technology upgrades the courts desire.
- The first hurdle is simply that many of the courthouses are historic buildings that would require difficult and expensive remodels to significantly alter the power and broadband capability.
- The second hurdle is county budgets. I outlined the decline in budgets across the state. Here I suggested that the committee could help on this front by sponsoring and passing the bill offered by the Clerks of the District Court to raise the county portion of those filing fees.
- Even if we can clear the first two hurdles we must recognize that adequate broadband coverage is not uniform throughout the state, and that the legislature made that more difficult by passing the bill to ban counties from tying into the unified network.
Rep. Winters - When was the last time the fee was raised? Why did the bill to raise the fee falter in the Senate after we passed it in the House?
Pete - The county portion was last raised in 2000, various other fees for other reasons have been tacked on over time. The Senate committee had questions during the session that could not be adequately answered at the time, which is why the bill should be a committee bill moving forward.
Rep. Olson - When we passed the bill in the House, the Clerks of the District court told us the fee would be used to offset expenses within their office, now we are hearing it could be used to offset the cost of technology upgrades. Would the counties be okay with us dedicating the fee to a specific use?
Pete - The fee currently goes to the county general fund. Having the state dictate to local government how to spend their general fund dollars would likely be met with some resistance.
Rep. Biteman - When the state had lots of money the counties didn't do these upgrades voluntarily. Why not? Were courtroom upgrades even discussed?
Pete - There is a distinction between counties that had lots of money and those that didn't. Sublette county upgraded their courtroom because they had the means to do so. Other counties simply did not. Further, just like the legislators, Commissioners must prioritize. We take our responsibilities to maintain our courthouses very seriously, and the issue is always discussed.
The committee took no action on any of these items, instead looking toward their next meeting to see suggested language to move forward on all these topics. In conjunction with the courts, I plan to work on delineation language. In conjunction with the Clerks, I plan to work on updated fee increase language. The fee increase may be difficult in this committee because it is populated with members resistant to fee increases of any kind.