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MailTribune.com
  • Local judicial system is at risk

    State's appetite for revenue from fines threatens municipal, justice courts
  • Linn County Justice of the Peace Jad Lemhouse paints the issue in fairly stark terms, and he's right to do that.
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  • Linn County Justice of the Peace Jad Lemhouse paints the issue in fairly stark terms, and he's right to do that.
    Unless the state figures out a way to wean itself from using fines imposed by local courts to fund a variety of programs — often with little or no connection to the violations that have triggered those fines — the future of Oregon's municipal and justice courts is in jeopardy.
    The threat isn't theoretical: During the decade ending in 2005, one in five municipal courts in Oregon closed its doors.
    That means all legal matters in those counties, including things such as traffic tickets, flow to already-overburdened circuit courts — which often require parties to travel to county seats to take care of legal issues.
    And handling, say, a traffic case in circuit court is considerably more costly than dealing with it at the municipal level.
    At issue is what's known as the priority levy, the cut the state takes from fines levied in municipal and justice courts. In the mid-1980s, the state started taking a cut of $10 from fines to help pay for certain programs.
    You probably can guess how the rest of the story goes: As the years went by, and state government found a ready source of fresh revenue, it kept drinking more and more deeply from that particular well.
    By the time the calendar had flipped to 2011, the priority levy had increased to $60 — and, to make matters worse, the state got to move to the front of the line. The state got its money first, and the local courts had to make do with what was left.
    And the list of programs funded through the priority levy has grown over the years as well. Originally intended for the state's Department of Public Safety Standards and Training facility, which helps to train Oregon law officers, the list now includes about 10 separate programs.
    The result, in Lemhouse's apt metaphor: The state is on the verge of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs.
    Lemhouse has been on a lonely crusade on this issue for year. In the legislative session just past, he gained an ally, Democrat Rep. Phil Barnhart, who helped pass a bill that reduced the priority levy to $45.
    It's a start. But more work needs to be done.
    We have no beef with the variety of state programs that draw some of their funding from the priority levy. But legislators need to find other sources of money for those programs.
    We fail to see how anyone comes out ahead by placing our local courts in a fiscal stranglehold.
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