Capital Comments: Spending is Constrained

By State Senator Bob Odell

The lowest paid state employees are the court security officers including my neighbor.

As chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, I serve on the Joint Committee on Employee Relations.  It is a blue chip committee chaired by the Speaker of the House.  The Senate President, chairs of key House and Senate financial committees and minority leaders of both chambers serve on the committee as required by statute.

The employee relations committee has a narrow responsibility.  It must hold a public hearing on labor contracts and make a recommendation on each contract to the legislature.  So, the committee needs to meet infrequently.

The committee held a public hearing last week on a labor contract for the approximately 130 district court security officers that are currently paid $65 per day.  If they work a full week, that would be $8.67 per hour.  That is $3 less per hour than the next lowest paid position in state government.

Chief Justice John Broderick considered the issue so important that he personally came and testified.  He said that “court security is a major concern of the judicial branch …” and believes “court security is one of the greatest challenges in government.”  The Judge has been consistent saying that security is a problem and worries that one day he will get a call telling him of a killing or serious injury caused by a disruption in a New Hampshire courthouse.

The court security officers, who have not had a raise since 2001, formed a bargaining unit last spring as part of Teamsters Local 633.  The judicial branch negotiated with the union, came to a tentative agreement on Sept. 3 and union members ratified the contract on Oct. 4.

Not having a prior agreement, this is a completely new contract.  It provides $80 per day pay for a full day of work (increases to $85 on Jan. 1, 2011), holiday and leave benefits depending upon hours worked during the year and mileage if an officer must travel to a court out of his or her area.  Officers currently have no benefits.

The proposed increase to $80 per day is not really an increase in pay.  It is being thought of as a cost of living increase based upon labor contracts for other state employees from 2001 through 2008.

Given that court security is essential and that at any moment, a court security officer could be in harm’s way from a bullet, a knife or a punch, paying these officers $15 more a day got full support from committee members.

*   *   *

But there is another side to this story.  Who is going to pay the $850,000 of increased costs of the contract over the current biennium that ends on June 30, 2011?  While recommending the legislature approve the new contract, the committee voted that the judicial branch find the money to pay for it.  Howard Zibel, judicial branch general counsel, quickly responded that if the judicial branch had to pay for the new costs for court security officers, there would be more reductions in court days and more layoffs in the court system.

A letter to the Speaker from the Chief Justice clarifies the judicial branch’s situation.  He reported that the courts are operating with 59 vacancies and have committed to a reduction of $3.1 million as part of the overall state spending cuts.  “For the judicial branch,” he writes, “approval of the contract without funding is not a viable option.”

The Chief Justice concludes:  “Thus, I urge the legislature either to fund the contract or not approve it, in which case we will go back to the bargaining table in good faith.  The judicial branch strongly believes funding is the appropriate course of action because the current pay for per diem court security officers is unsupportable.”

So, there you have it.  Everyone wants to do the right thing for court security officers but the legislature is certainly not about to add more spending to state government in the current environment.  And the judicial branch, based on the Chief Justice’s words, cannot take on the extra financial burden without serious impacts on it ability to deliver justice to New Hampshire citizens.  My guess is that any pay raise for security officers will await the new budget in 2011.

I hear from constituents regularly about cutting spending in state government.  The situation with court security officers, including my neighbor’s, underlines the fact that state government spending today is constrained.

*   *   *

The 2010 session of the legislature will begin next Wednesday when both the Senate and House will meet.  This is a constitutional requirement that the House and Senate “shall assemble annually on the first Wednesday following the first Tuesday in January.”

At the first session, Senators will be asked to approve changes to our rules for the operation of the Senate.  First change will be time set aside for a winter break, February 22-26, which will be the only break during the session.  That is followed by deadlines for action by committees on bills; crossover day, March 25, when each body must finish work on bills that started in their respective chambers; and, dates for forming and completing the work of committees of conference.  The big one for many legislators is “Last day to ACT on Committee of Conference Reports” or more simply stated, the last day of the session.  That will be June 2.

NH State Senator Bob Odell (District 8) is chairman of Ways and Means, a member of the Energy, Environment and Economic Development Committee, and the Finance Committee. Senate District 8 comprises: Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Claremont, Gilsum, Goshen, Langdon, Lempster, Marlow, New London, Newbury, Newport, Roxbury, Stoddard, Sullivan, Sunapee, Sutton, Unity, Walpole, Washington and Westmoreland.

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