FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s prosecutors are the latest group to warn state lawmakers their offices can’t withstand potential significant funding cuts.

In the face of a predicted $200 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, Gov. Matt Bevin’s office has asked state agencies and offices to prepare for a potential funding cut of 17 percent, which would equal roughly $8.5 million from the prosecutors' budgets according to some estimates.  

County attorneys say they are already strapped with rising caseloads, an opioid epidemic and increasing child guardianship cases.

That kind of cut could lead to the loss of one-third of employees in commonwealth and county attorneys’ offices, the prosecutors said, and those types of staff reductions will affect public safety and the operation of the criminal justice system itself.

Bevin aims to save $350 million to cover that $200 million shortfall and replenish the Rainy Day Fund with $150 million. That fund is expected to be depleted by withdrawals to balance the budget and to cover unanticipated expenses and emergencies by the end of the fiscal year on June 30, 2018.

On top of that, Bevin is warning that failure to address the state’s poorly funded pension systems could lead to more budget cuts throughout the rest of government. 

The governor's budget director recently sent out another letter to state and local officials and school districts indicating their contributions to the pension systems are likely to rise dramatically if lawmakers are unable to reform the system in a special session.

Prosecutors’ offices would have to fund those increased contributions even as their state funding is cut. But that’s not the worst of it, according to one Commonwealth Attorney.

A 17 percent cut in funding means the “criminal justice system will come to a halt,” said Chris Cohron, Warren County Commonwealth Attorney. 

Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold said 99 percent of his office budget is in the form of salaries.

“So if we cut, we’re cutting people and, honestly, we don’t have enough people as it is,” Gold told lawmakers. “This is something that poses real existential issues for us.”

Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders told the Interim Judiciary Committee that he and Cohron told Chilton they simply can’t withstand a 17 percent cut but Chilton said they must nonetheless provide a plan to cover such potential cuts.

Sanders said he told Chilton the only plan prosecutors could offer would be “to close our doors.”

Lawmakers were sympathetic.

Committee chair Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, a former assistant Commonwealth Attorney, called the prospects described by the prosecutors “ugly” and said he hoped they can be spared budget cuts.

“I don’t see how you do what you do with what little we give you now,” said Rep. Jason Nemes, R-Louisville, an attorney. “We need to give you more money (rather than less).”

But lawmakers aren’t willing to attempt tax reform which might generate additional revenue in a special session this fall, as Bevin originally proposed.

Instead, they want to wait until after the 2018 General Assembly — when they must craft a new two-year state budget. It presumably won’t include any new money to prevent the funding cuts Chilton says are likely.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow him on Twitter  @cnhifrankfort.

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