By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Some state government programs are in danger of running short of money over the next 16 months unless additional funding is found or spending is curtailed, according to new reports released Monday.
The judicial branch may be up to $6.8 million short of covering District Court costs and the Montana Law Enforcement Academy could be $1.1 million in the red, the Legislative Fiscal Division staff warned.
In addition, the swollen prison population threatens to cause ''significant'' overspending by the Corrections Department, and schools will need almost $9 million more in state aid.
The reports will be reviewed by the Legislative Finance Committee at its March 11 meeting.
Chuck Swysgood, budget director for Gov. Judy Martz, said his office is aware of the brewing money shortages.
''When you put them all together, there's a potential for 15 (million) to 16 million dollars,'' he said. ''Sure it's a concern to us.''
The problem facing the judicial branch is higher-than-expected spending on District Courts, a responsibility the state took over from the counties in 2002.
A report by the fiscal staff said spending could exceed available revenue by $5.3 million to $6.8 million by the end of this two-year budget period in mid-2005. Personnel costs, rates paid for public defenders and a growing number of cases are possible reasons, analyst Harry Freebourn said.
Jim Oppedahl, Supreme Court administrator, disputed Freebourn's estimate and said the shortage this year is likely to be $2 million. He said it's too early to predict next year's budget condition.
''If we have a shortfall this year, we will probably have a shortfall next year,'' he said. ''What it will be I can't tell you.''
The law enforcement academy's troubles are tied to its new funding source. A $10 fee imposed on convicted criminal defendants has not produced as much money as lawmakers and Justice Department officials had hoped. The shortage could be $550,000 a year, the fiscal division report said.
Larry Fasbender, deputy department director, said the agency is looking for options.
''We're trying to find additional sources of money to cover the shortfall and then, of course, we have to look at the long-term problem relating to continued funding, both next year and next biennium,'' he said.
Cutting spending would be difficult because that would require reducing academy classes when it's barely able to keep up with the demand for new recruits from local law enforcement, he said.
''We're collecting about 40 percent of what we need,'' Fasbender said. ''We don't think it's a viable option to shut down the law enforcement academy.''
He's hoping the Martz administration will be able to find some additional money to shore up the academy's budget. Swysgood, while not ruling out lending a financial hand, said the agency should look for the money within its own budget.
Fasbender said the department may ask the 2005 Legislature to add a fee to cases of motorists cited for speeding, although that was rejected by the 2003 session. Also, any legislative action would come too late to help with the current budget, he said.
Although the reports did not specify a likely shortage in the corrections budget, they warned that prison ''populations are straining the system'' and may require the department to dip into next year's budget for this year.
Joe Williams, head of the agency's Centralized services Division, said he won't know the scope of any inmate-driven budget problem until November. But, he added, ''It's not looking good, if we keep seeing this upward spike in meth cases and related crimes.''
The department appears on track to overspend its $106 million budget by about $600,000 this year, he said. Higher workers compensation insurance rates and the inability to save money by leaving jobs unfilled are the reasons, Williams said.
Schools will need another $8.8 million because enrollment is slightly higher than expected and interest earned on proceeds from school trust lands are low.