Alabama is doing both.
As for the latter — higher fees — Alabamians should brace for what’s coming should they find themselves in the state court system, as an article in Thursday’s Star explained. The business of jurisprudence will soon get more expensive thanks to the passage of HB688 last month in the state Legislature.
Get a speeding ticket in Calhoun County? It’ll cost you a minimum of $272, up from $246.
Involved in a civil court case in Alabama? Your court-cost fees are going up $45 in both circuit and district courts.
Have a case in small-claims court? There’s a new $15 filing fee to pay.
Are you a defendant in a criminal case? You’re on the hook for an extra $40 fee.
Those examples, among others, are proof that lawmakers are increasingly considering this method of direct payment to augment state coffers. Instead of increasing taxes — an established political no-no — legislators are charging more for the state services that already are not free.
Today, lawmakers predict that HB688 will save the jobs of hundreds of court employees and, through that staffing, will increase the effectiveness of the courts system. That isn’t an insignificant victory.
As long as the effects of the Great Recession linger in Alabama, residents should expect the Legislature to employ this tactic rather than suggest tax increases or machinations of moving money from one fund to another (a tactic Gov. Robert Bentley tried this spring to prop up the beleaguered General Fund).
Of course, this method is a tax increase; lawmakers just aren’t using that forbidden term. One man’s fee is another man’s tax. What’s more, data show that those most likely to repeatedly be involved in the court system are more likely to sit lower on the state’s income scale.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with increasing fees for a service — in a business sense, that’s a basic practice. But when applied to state services, which all residents use, this practice is inherently regressive — which only hurts those who already have the least among us.
We understand the criticisms of HB688 offered by the bail-bond industry. Several bondsmen quoted in The Star voiced strong concerns that increased fees will increase jail overcrowding and cause some bail-bonds operations to close because their business will decrease.
Logic says they may be right.
Nevertheless, Alabama’s huge problem — how to keep its court systems running efficiently despite lagging revenue — is a matter of leadership and fiscal planning. Courthouses are vital for all residents, whether you’re involved in a court case or seeking legal documents. A part-time court system that’s closed as much as it’s open is a blight on Alabama. At least that’s been averted, for now.