State funds running out for court reporters
Illinois is set to run out of money at the end of March to pay court reporters, creating the potential for "havoc" in local courts, one suburban judge said.
The budget crunch leaves uncertainty about how the local justice system will operate if lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner don't find a fix by then.
"We need court reporters every day," Lake County Chief Judge John T. Phillips said. "It would be havoc."
DuPage County Chief Judge Kathryn E. Creswell said she doesn't want to cause panic because there's time for the state to fix the problem. Still, she said, judges have to be responsible and start planning for the coming shortfall now so that courts don't shut down in early April.
The problem stems from the budget approved by Democratic lawmakers and former Gov. Pat Quinn last year. State money ran out this week for a program that helps low-income families pay for day care, leaving child-care centers to either drastically raise rates for those families or live with delayed payments.
Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said the court reporter program is $14.3 million short for the budget year that ends June 30.
"Currently, it will run out of money at the end of March," Kelly said. "The governor is working with the legislature to find a responsible solution to the problem."
A spokeswoman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said problems shouldn't be surprising because Cullerton and others called the budget incomplete when it was approved last year.
"The financial challenges facing the court reporters is just one more stress point pushing us all to look at a solution that addresses this year's shortfall," Cullerton spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said. "We look forward to working with the governor as he outlines solutions to address the challenges for this year and the next."
In the meantime, local court leaders have to try to manage the problem. Court reporters are present for many proceedings, taking down a record of what's said. The role is critical for the justice system, the judges say.
DuPage County, Creswell said, can get by with electronic recordings in some cases. But those recorders still have to be operated by court reporters, who make important notations as the tapes roll.
"No matter what, you're going to need court reporters," Creswell said.
Earlier this week, a Rauner aide told a panel of lawmakers that the governor wants broad powers to alter Democrats' budget, but he did not detail the specific authority the Winnetka Republican desires.
Democrats have told Rauner he should ask for their authority to sweep money out of other accounts in state government to pay for shortfalls in programs that need it. Rauner has criticized that idea, saying borrowed money shouldn't be considered real revenue.
In a Jan. 20 letter that was obtained by the Daily Herald, Tammy Bumgarner, director of Court Reporting Services for the state, told her employees lobbyists are optimistic about a fix, but warned "we must remain vigilant if it does not pass quickly or without issues."
Without a fix, Creswell said, the state's more than 20 chief judges soon will have to decide how to stretch out the remaining money to keep as much of the court system operating as possible.
"You can imagine how complicated that is," she said.