DES MOINES — Iowa House members are contemplating a “sea change” in state government that most Iowans are unlikely to notice.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a proposal to move salary-setting authority for judges from the Legislature to the Supreme Court. House File 2409 would give the Supreme Court the authority to set the salaries of judicial officers and pay them from general operating money appropriated by the Legislature, Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, told the committee Monday.

“It’s a simple bill,” he said, “but a sea change.”

Setting judicial salaries is “one of the last vestiges” of the days when the Legislature set the salaries of county supervisors, sheriffs and other county officials, Worthan said.

The courts, Worthan said, are a separate and equal branch of government that should have discretion to set their own salaries.

“When we hold salary-setting authority, the argument can be made we have undue influence over court system,” Worthan said.

He and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, have been discussing the change for at least three years. A former legislator told Worthan he wanted to make the change 40 years ago.

Rep. Todd Taylor, D-Cedar Rapids, the ranking Democrat on the Judicial Systems subcommittee, supported the change, but he had reservations because the bill would “take away authority for something we should be accountable for.” He was referring the Legislature not passing a salary bill in recent years. State agencies have had to fund salaries out of operating revenues.

According to a memo from the Judicial Branch to lawmakers, Gov. Terry Branstad recommended a 5 percent salary increase for judges and magistrates in his 2015 budget. However, that has been removed from the bill, according to the Judicial Branch.

Prior to January 2014, Iowa judges and magistrates had not received a salary increase since July 2008. Between 2008 and 2015, the majority of Iowa state employees received increases in their base pay of at least 11.5 percent, according to the memo.

“Stagnant judicial salaries continue to be a major factor in the decline of interest in judicial vacancies,” according to the memo. The Judicial Branch has seen a “significant decline” in the number of applicants and diversity in the applicant pool.

Worthan said the Judicial Branch appropriation has not been determined. His budget target is $738 million, or $4 million less than the current budget.

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