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Current Legislative Session
May 11, 2020
Hiring freeze, 4-month judge vacancies OK’d
A hiring freeze was imposed on the state’s Judicial Branch last week, and a four-month Great Recession-era mandate for holding open judicial posts was revived.
The Minnesota Judicial Council approved both measures during an emergency meeting on April 24. They are meant to help prepare the judiciary for possible budget cuts related to the COVID-19 pandemic https://minnlawyer.com/2020/04/20/latest-covid-19-bill-tackles-justice-system-needs/. Both went into effect Monday.
Supreme Court Associate Justice G. Barry Anderson told Judicial Council members Friday that a conversation he recently had with two unnamed legislators left him concerned that a budget-cutting special legislative session will come after the regular session ends on May 18. “And it is probably sooner rather than later,” he said.
The hiring freeze and four-month vacancy mandate each passed with a lone no vote from Hennepin County District Court Judge Lois Regnier Conroy, who was filling in as the Minnesota District Judges Association’s representative to the council.
The Judicial Council will reevaluate its decisions in June, after members have had time to digest a much-anticipated Minnesota Management and Budget economic forecast update, due in early May.
Ten previous budget guidelines—a possible overtime freeze, temporary-employee reductions and potential voluntary separations among them—were approved during the Judicial Council’s March 16 meeting.
The statewide hiring freeze is in effect at all levels of the judiciary, from county trial courts to the Minnesota Supreme Court. It does not affect current employees’ promotions or transfers—though any resulting vacancy would be subject to the freeze.
The Judicial Council also approved a freeze-exception process that, in limited instances, could allow critical positions to be filled by new employees. That process will be managed by a Judicial Council Hiring Freeze Subcommittee, chaired by 3rd Judicial District Chief Judge Jodi L. Williamson.
The hiring freeze does not undo any job offers already extended and accepted before Monday. Offers extended but not yet accepted may be honored, withdrawn or postponed at the discretion of the relevant District, Appellate or State Court administrator.
But other prospective hires must be reviewed and an exception granted before that job can be filled.
“It would have to stopped, reviewed and go through exception process,” said Dana Bartocci, the branch’s director of Human Resources and Development. “Because if we don’t start taking action now, later on it could be worse action.”
Any request to hire a new court worker must first be submitted to local court administration. If approved, the request goes to Williamson’s Judicial Council subcommittee. If that panel also approves, it needs final signoff from Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Gildea.
Though a number of Judicial Council members expressed regret about the freeze, most verbally supported it.
“Planning is the sensible thing to do,” said 10th Judicial District Chief Judge Douglas B. Meslow. “Now is the time that we can save for a rainy day. I just think this is prudent.”
But Conroy was unswayed, saying the COVID-19 emergency means that an avalanche of backlogged cases will soon be dropped on the desks of district court judges and their clerks.
“My concern about the hiring freeze is that we may be not filling judge positions or clerk positions in areas where we don’t need less work, we need more work,” she said. “I don’t know how we address the avalanche that is coming without that.”
Both of Friday’s measures were adopted at a time when access to the courts has been curbed and case backlogs already are mounting. Meslow said it is likely that sometime in 2021, courts will be “running almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week” to catch up.
Still, Tim Ostby, the 7th Judicial District’s court administrator, sees the hiring freeze as necessary to avoiding layoffs of existing staff.
“I would anticipate that we will suffer some budget cuts in next biennium, if not in fiscal year 2021,” Ostby told the council. “The more staff vacancies we have going forward, that will put us in a better position to deal with whatever cuts are coming. If we don’t have cuts and the next biennium is fine, then we can hire positions back.”
The Judicial Council declared on April 16 that avoiding staff layoffs is its top budgeting principle in the face of possible funding cuts.
The idea behind the four-month mandatory judicial vacancies, Gildea said, is to share with judges the pain that inevitably will be felt by court employees during the hiring freeze.
Hennepin County Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson voted for the requirement, but worried it will cause problems. Already, she said, Hennepin County is short about six judges. (Bernhardson is herself retiring in June.)
“Couple that with the tsunami of cases that is going to start coming at us and it puts us in an impossible position to be able to handle the workload,” she said. “That troubles me a great deal.”
Nonetheless, a proposal to carve out an exception process for mandatory judge vacancies was rejected as cumbersome and unworkable statewide.
Williamson said there might be ways to make the mandatory vacancies less onerous, however. For instance, she said, if judges are shared across districts and utilize technology to do that work remotely, some of the worst impacts might be reduced.
Chief Judge Dwayne N. Knutsen of the 8th District agreed. “The technology we are able to use now to do hearings remotely can help us to balance workload out,” he said. “So I am really not afraid of having a vacancy for a period of time.”
But Conroy vigorously opposed the move and voted no. She suggested that budget cuts might be OK in some areas, but holding judicial slots open for months at a time would be a mistake, because it would forestall justice for some Minnesotans.
“Cases cannot move without judges,” Conroy said. “Maybe there are other opportunities for savings—maybe it’s a project or maybe it’s a staff person who doesn’t determine cases. But judges are what get cases done. I don’t know how we do this work without them.”
While courts are fully funded for now, budget cuts are widely thought possible—if not likely—in part because emergency COVID-19 spending at the Capitol has already exceeded $550 million and further emergency spending is possible. Meanwhile, tax revenues are expected to plummet because of the high unemployment and widespread business closures prompted by the pandemic.
The state has received almost $2 billion in federal stimulus money to help offset the pandemic’s effects, and some of that might offset the earlier state emergency expenditures. But much still hinges on MMB’s revised state economic forecast, which is due as early as next week.
However, Dan Ostdiek, the Judicial Branch’s finance director, said he isn’t counting on the MMB forecast to provide many answers, because it’s likely to include only “high-level” projections without much detail.
He noted that the state’s economic consultants, IHS Markit, have already projected a 5.5% decrease in gross domestic product over the next three quarters. The Great Recession of 2008, which lasted about four years, saw a 4.3% GDP tumble over three comparable quarters, he said.
If a serious recession arrives and the courts’ 2022-23 biennial budget gets cut by 5%, he said, it could mean $18.7 million a year in lost funding—about 200 full-time equivalent court employees. A 10% cut could cost 400 full-time workers, he said.
Ostdiek’s own bet is that the COVID-19 recession will not be a short one, he said.
“When you have a U.S. Senator [Majority Leader Mitch McConnell https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/494612-mcconnell-state-bankruptcy-remarks-raise-constitutional-questions saying that the states should consider filing for bankruptcy, I think that is a pretty good indication that things are pretty bleak,” he said.“I think it’s in the branch’s best interest that we prepare for potential budget reductions,” Ostdiek said.
March 16, 2020
The House has already announced that all their scheduled hearings are cancelled until further notice.
The Senate still has hearings scheduled all week, but is hopefully expected to follow suit.
At his press conference Friday, the Governor listed a number of bills he wants passed for pandemic relief to employees, parents, and employers; it’s unclear when the Legislature may take those up. One House bill dealing with public health emergencies did make it through two committees last week.
March 9, 2020
The Legislature has now completed the 4th week of the legislative session, and has two weeks remaining until the first committee deadline.
Action of interest this past week:
The Governor is also expected to release his proposed supplemental budget/tax bill this week. The February budget forecast showed a $1.513B surplus, although much of that is considered one time money.
February 29, 2020
The Legislature just completed their third week of policy committee hearings for the session, and have another 3 weeks until the first committee deadline.
Very few of the tort reform bills on your tracking list are expected to be considered this session, with the partisan divide on this issue between the House Democrats and the Senate Republicans.
The House is expected to pass a number of bills expanding rights for employees, including family/pregnancy leave, sick leave, noncompete covenants prohibition, and several human rights law changes; the Senate is not expected to pass those bills.
The February forecast was released on Thursday and shows a $1.513B projected surplus for FY 2020-21, $181M larger than was forecast in November. The Governor is expected to release his supplemental budget/tax proposal in the next 10 days.
February 19, 2020
The second half of the 91st biennial session of the Legislature convened on Tuesday, February 11, and is required by law to adjourn no later than May 18th. This year’s session is commonly the short session, since the state budget is set during the first year of the biennium. The most recent budget forecast showed the show with a $1.3B budget surplus, most of that being one time money. Another budget forecast will be released on February 27th and will dictate what funds are available for new spending or tax relief for the session. The second year of the biennium is also when the Legislature commonly passes bonding legislation to help repair and replace state buildings, infrastructure, waste water treatment facilities, housing, and economic development projects.
If there is a spending bill, the courts are expected to request an additional $3M for court security, and $3.5M for a cybersecurity program. The trial courts will also be requesting an additional 7th District court judge unit.
The first policy committee deadline is only 4 weeks away on March 13th, and the second policy committee deadline is one week later on March 20th. The Legislature will be taking an Easter/Passover break from April 4-13.
Minnesota State Legislature
For complete legislative information, visit www.leg.state.mn.us. Minnesota House of Representatives information can be found at www.house.leg.state.mn.us. Minnesota Senate information can be found at www.senate.leg.state.mn.us.
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