Published: 4:11 pm, Tue. Aug. 23rd, 2016Updated: 4:09 pm
New Mexico jurors and court interpreters are the latest group to feel the pinch of a budget crunch that has all of state government tightening its belt.
A fund that pays jurors and interpreters has been struggling for several years and the shortfall is now approaching $1 million, according to court and legislative officials. Analysts with the Legislative Finance Committee, which is instrumental in crafting the state budget each year, suggested this week that the gap could be lessened if the courts slash juror pay rates to $4.25 an hour.
State statute calls for jurors to be paid at least minimum wage, but the state Supreme Court has been authorized by the Legislature over the last few years to adjust the payments due to consistent underfunding. Court officials have set the rate for the current fiscal year at $6.25 an hour. That’s 50 cents lower than the rate during the past two years.
Court spokesman Barry Massey said the new rate for jurors went into effect Aug. 1 and that the reduction was necessary because the current budget is projected to fall $963,000 short of covering jury and interpreter costs this year.
“The lower payment rate won’t fully offset the shortfall, and the judiciary expects to ask the Legislature in January for funding to cover the shortage,” he said.
The requests for New Mexico lawmakers are piling up as the state faces a possible $200 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that ended in June and a projected deficit of as much as $500 million for the current fiscal year.
Gov. Susana Martinez already has asked state agencies under her control to trim spending, and she’s expected to call a special legislative session in the coming weeks so lawmakers can address dwindling tax revenues and weak oil and gas prices as they look for ways to balance the books.
Juror pay in New Mexico remains among the highest in the nation even with the reduction, according to court officials. Only New Mexico pays an hourly rate to jurors, while many states pay jurors nothing or a daily rate at or below $40. It’s unclear whether the lower rate in New Mexico will have any effect on the ability of prosecutors and defense attorneys to seat juries.
Jurors already have the opportunity to claim numerous exemptions to get out of serving, from physical and financial hardship to costs that would keep them paying necessary daily living expenses for themselves or their dependents.
Missing work and the payment rate aren’t valid reasons for being excused, officials said. If a person summoned for jury duty willfully fails to appear as ordered, they could face a petty misdemeanor.