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Judicial Pay Raise Bill Passes Senate

By J. Lyn Carl,

Austin, TX –

With Gov. Rick Perry having added judicial pay raise legislation to the "call" of the 79th Special Session, the Senate today wasted little time in taking up the Committee Substitute to SB 11, relating to judicial pay raises.

Author Sen. Robert Duncan (R-Lubbock) said the bill is similar to what was passed in the Senate during the 79th Regular Session. The bill, he said, provides for increases for district court judge salaries up to a maximum of $125,000 from general revenue raised through fee increases. Those judges also would be eligible for a supplement from counties of up to $5,000 below Court of Civil Appeals salaries for serving on juvenile boards and other county-specific functions.

Court of Civil Appeals judges' salaries would increase to $137,500 annually and judges in the Court of Criminal Appeals would see salary increases up to $150,000 per year. Duncan said the bill also allows for a pay increase for prosecutors and for county judges who "provide judicial type functions for their counties," which he said would apply mostly in small counties - up to a $5,000 increase.

Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) offered an amendment that would increase criminal court fees (upon conviction) by $3, with that money dedicated to the Fair Defense Account for representation for indigents.

Expressing his concerns about additional fees tacked onto court fines, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) asked Ellis if that included criminal traffic tickets. He said fines and fees on such offenses already are high. "It would be shocking to most members if they saw, for instance, that the Crime Victims Compensation Fund is about $15 on every traffic ticket, then you have a courthouse security charge, and a computer charge..." Whitmire said the trend is fast-moving to the point where the fees in the court applied to defendants are more than the state fines. He said that also tends to reduce the state's revenue from the fines because "the poor folks can't pay the fines after they've paid the fees."

Saying state fines and fees "are completely out of proportion," Whitmire said many of the dedicated fees are not being used for the stated purpose. He cited the courthouse security fee, of which he said there has been "no application" of those fees to courthouse facilities' security. Whitmire said the legislature should probably consider sunsetting all the fees - not only in the criminal justice system but throughout state government, "and see if they are being used for the stated purpose and are they reasonable when applied to those already in existence."

He further suggested that perhaps the Senate should have a rule that when a member proposes raising a fee, there should be a comprehensive explanation of to what that fee is being added.

Ellis said Whitmire's suggestion is a good one, but pointed out that it probably does not apply to his amendment, since the fee is small and "will go to help poor people pay for legal representation to offset the mandate we gave to counties."

Whitmire responded that Ellis' amendment, which he would support, has a "good purpose," but when more and more fees are added onto fines, the system becomes "out of kilter." Whitmire said this is the last time he'll support such increases without a study of the fines and fees schedule. "It's hard to take that giant step to say, 'No more,'" said the Houston Democrat. He said the "responsible" thing to do would be to sunset them all and study fees in both the criminal justice system and all of state government - from tuition increases to fee increases. "A fee is a tax, it's just called something different."

The bill, with Ellis' amendment, was passed out of the Senate.