The 2020 Oklahoma Legislature tentatively waved so long to the Capitol on May 15, hoping its in-session work was complete two weeks before the constitutionally mandated 5 p.m. May 29 deadline.
There was drama galore in the pandemic-shortened session: lawmakers sticking it in Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ear with four veto overrides and threatening to return for more, if necessary – all fodder for Observercast to explore in the coming weeks.
Today, though, we dive deeper into the plight of Oklahoma’s judiciary – constitutionally established as one of state government’s three co-equal branches, yet dependent for funding on a Legislature and governor over which it is supposed to independently provide oversight.
The fact is, state courts have been teetering on the fiscal edge, way too reliant on legislatively-created budget gimmicks like fees and fines, rather than straight-forward general appropriations, to keep the lights on.
As the session opened, the situation was so bleak that lawmakers were forced to approve emergency funding for the courts. By mid-April, as the looming budget shortfall took shape, Jari Askins, the administrator of the courts, reported it would have difficulty making payroll before the end of the fiscal year June 30.
Oh … and by the way … it just so happens the Oklahoma Board on Judicial Compensation recommended a 9.23% pay raise for the state’s judges.
In this week’s Observercast Episode 16 – Administrator Of The Courts – we visited by phone with Askins, the state’s former lieutenant governor, to gain a better understanding of what it means that our court systems rely so heavily on such volatile and unreliable revenue sources to stay open. And more importantly, what it means for criminal justice reform in our state, if the fines and fees that go with the criminal justice system fund the very system it seeks to reform.