House conservatives on Tuesday were unable to turn back a bill that would increase civil filing fees in order to help pay to sustain the underfunded Judges’ Retirement Fund. House Bill 660 passed 46-22, capping years of debate and consternation surrounding the depleted fund that always ended in defeat in the House.
The retirement fund dates back to 1947. It has 50 people in it, but its ongoing payout of benefits tops income by some $14 million, according to a recent accounting of the fund.
Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said the bill is the result of years of haggling, and while it raises civil filing fees by $8, it also requires a larger contribution of taxpayers and judges. In addition, the spousal benefit for new judges would be lowered from the current 50 percent to 30 percent. Lake said those changes would solve the problem of underfunded retirement account.
“You can see this has been a controversial issue for a long time,” Lake said. “The courts were not satisfied (with the bill), we were not satisfied, but that’s what compromise does. It’s something that we owe, and this is the simplest way we could pay for it.”
Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said leaving the fund as is will result in a continued draining of the account no matter how much the economy recovers.
But Boise Republican Rep. Cliff Bayer said state judiciary officials have long been fighting fee increases, including those that would benefit victims of domestic violence. “Last year, a filing fee increase was proposed and the opponents in committee said we cannot raise civil filing fees because we must maintain affordable access to justice,” Bayer said.
Republican Rep. Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene said everyone’s retirement accounts have taken hits. He blamed the judges’ retirement fund managers for believing in “a never-ending good time.”
“Everyone was investing in real estate. Equity was growing in homes. We all thought we were filthy rich,” Nonini said. “”You can’t take a high risk and think the reward is going to be there forever. If this is about access to the courts for people, now we’re lowering that access.”
But Lake said the Legislature has to act. “If we don’t do it now, the question is when do we do it, because we still have the obligation. It does not go away.”
The bill goes to the Senate.