It’s hard to ignore the call Wednesday by the chief justice of the Kansas Supreme Court for higher pay for judiciary employees. But at the moment, it’s harder to find the money.
Salaries were a focal point of Chief Justice Lawton Nuss’s State of the Judiciary address to a joint session of the Kansas Legislature, and justifiably so. It isn’t right that about 400 employees in the judicial branch — about a fourth of the judiciary’s total employment — had starting salaries lower than the federal poverty level for a family of four.
Nor is it a good sign that pay for every job classification in the judicial branch is below market rate, with hundreds of staff being paid 20 percent below market rate. What’s more, Justice Nuss said about one-third of the branch’s employees hold second jobs to make ends meet. Justice Nuss hoped to persuade legislators to boost the judiciary’s budget by about $22 million, or 16 percent, mostly to pay employees better.
Trouble is, asking for a budget increase these days is a bit like asking for the moon. Lawmakers are trying to offset a budget shortfall of about $270 million by June 30. Other state agencies that, like the judiciary, have tried to cope with growing austerity in recent years, are scrambling to prevent further cuts.
And although lawmakers might be sympathetic to Justice Nuss’s desire to raise the pay of many rank-and-file court employees, Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican, merely stated the obvious when he said, “It’d be very difficult to vote for a pay raise for a judge making over $100,000 a year.”
Given the tension between the Supreme Court and many legislators, particularly conservatives, over court rulings on school finance, the death penalty and abortion, the hospitality Justice Nuss received Wednesday was notable.
Four years ago then-House Speaker Ray Merrick, a conservative and sharp critic of the judiciary, snubbed Justice Nuss. Rep. Merrick dismissed the justice’s request to address legislators in the House chamber as “just another thing to take up time.” As a result, the chief justice has for the last three years given his speeches in the Supreme Court chambers in the Justice Center.
The new House speaker, Rep. Ron Ryckman Jr., a conservative Republican from Olathe, deserves credit for taking a more welcoming approach. He invited Justice Nuss back to the House podium for this year’s address.
The gesture won’t heal all the divisions between the two branches of government, but Rep. Ryckman was right in recognizing that it is important that lawmakers “have a better understanding of what the other branch is doing.”
Well done, Rep. Ryckman.