Ala. Legislature to consider raising court fees
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Hanging in limbo as Alabama legislators head into the last day of the 2012 session Wednesday is a bill aimed at keeping Alabama courts running in the midst of a brutal financial crisis.
Court clerks from all over the state have been frequent visitors to the Statehouse in recent weeks to urge lawmakers to pass a bill that would raise court costs and a fee paid by bail bondsmen.
The House sponsor, Republican Rep. Mike Hill of Columbiana, said the bill would raise about $40 million for courts, which have been hurt by several years of budget cuts.
The bill passed the Alabama House after lawmakers engaged in bitter debate for much of a day, with opponents saying the fee hike unfairly targets low income residents.
The bill is expected to come up for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, the last day of the 2012 regular session. The court costs bill was expected to come up for debate in the Senate last week. But senators carried it over several times.
The issue has brought judges and other court officials from a across the state to urge lawmakers to pass the bill. On Thursday a couple of Supreme Court justices were outside the Supreme Court chambers on the seventh floor of the Statehouse to push for passage of the bill.
Court clerks said it was critical for the future of the state courts.
"If the bill does not pass we're looking at losing around 500 jobs," said Pickens County Circuit Clerk Bobby Cowart when asked about the effect statewide of not passing the bill. "That would be devastating. It would basically leave me alone in my office."
One of the opponents of the legislation, Democratic Rep. Alvin Holmes of Montgomery, said he knows that the courts need money, but said court officials should find some other way to raise it, rather than asking the Legislature to raise court fees, which he said is no different than raising taxes.
"They call it court costs, but really it's a tax on poor blacks and poor whites," Holmes said.
Tuscaloosa County District Court Clerk Libby Hamner said her staff has dropped from about 25 workers to 11 in recent years. She said her staff has managed to keep its workload current, but that has often meant asking workers to log long hours.
"Everybody is doing the work of two and a half people," Hamner said.
She said she thinks the proposed fee hikes are fair. She said she has gotten some complaints about the fee hikes, but not too many.
Supporters say the bill would raise close to $4 million for the courts. The legislation would raise court costs for a traffic ticket by $25. Costs for filing a civil lawsuit would go up $45 and the court fee for a criminal case would go up $40. The cost of going to small claims court would go up $15.