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April 30, 2009
Clerks bills refined

Both the House and Senate measures provide for greater budget scrutiny

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

House and Senate bills to bring legislative oversight to the clerk of the courts’ budgeting process are moving closer in the waning days of the session, but lawmakers say the issue still has a long way to go.

The House and Senate versions of the clerks’ funding bill still subject the clerks to the state appropriations process other court related entities go through, but both bills have been stripped of controversial provisions that would have transferred some of the clerks’ court supporting duties to the courts.

The House version, however, calls for a study of the clerks’ court-related functions that the clerks contend is “predisposed” to adversely impact the way they function.

The clerks favor the Senate bill — which easily cleared that chamber 36-1 on April 16 — as a more “workable approach.”

The Senate Ways & Means Committee took up, amended, and moved CS/SB 2108 April 7 after Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, offered a strike-all amendment that eliminated the provision that redirected $100 million in court fees collected by the clerks from the general revenue fund to the new state court system trust fund. Pruitt said to leave that fee transfer in the bill would have thrown the Senate’s appropriations bill out of balance.

Pruitt said the amendment still gives the Legislature budget oversight of the clerks’ court-related functions and clarifies the budgeting process for the clerks as follows:

• The Clerk of Court Operations Corporation would become a budget entity for the clerks’ court-related functions and be administratively housed in the Justice Administrative Commission.

• The chief justice would designate one member to serve on the CCOC Executive Council.

• The corporation would develop its performance measures in consultation with the Legislature and the courts.

• The CCOC’s budget would be appropriated by the Legislature and CCOC staff would be state employees, while the clerks’ staffs will not.

• The clerks would submit budget requests to the CCOC for court-related services based on unit cost for such services. The CCOC would approve the unit costs and submit a comprehensive budget request to the Legislature for the clerks.

• The Legislature would appropriate the total amount for the budgets of the clerks in the General Appropriations Act, and could reject or modify any or all of the unit costs.

• All court-related revenue received by the clerks for use in performing their court-related functions would be considered state funds and deposited into the Clerks of the Court Trust Fund.

• The corporation would release appropriations to each clerk quarterly.

• The CCOC would be defined as a state agency for budgeting purposes under Chapter 216.

The Ways and Means Committee also adopted an amendment offered by Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, to give the clerks an added incentive to help collect what is currently more than $391 million in outstanding fines.

“What it does is provide a 10 percent commission to the clerks on every dollar they bring in on the fines only,” said Crist, adding the funds collected will be sent to the state and appropriated back to the clerks for their Public Records Modernization Trust Fund.

“We estimate [the clerks] probably easily could bring in about $100 million with more aggressive attempts,” Crist said, noting the amendment also requires the clerks to begin more “aggressive” collection efforts of fines after they are delinquent for 90 days.

Sarasota County Clerk Karen Rushing, speaking on behalf of the clerks, thanked Sen. Pruitt for addressing many of the clerks’ concerns.

“While clerks do not favor moving from the business model of budgeting established by the Legislature in 2004 to a state appropriations process, we do feel that the strike-all amendment is a workable approach,” Rushing said. “We do look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Pruitt and the staff, and it is our hope that this product . . . will be the one that prevails in the conference process.”

In the House, HB 1121 — by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Ft. Lauderdale — was significantly amended and passed the Appropriations Committee on Criminal and Civil Justice by a vote of 7-1.

Bogdanoff offered a strike-all and other amendments to the bill she said brings “accountability and transparency” to the clerks’ budgeting process by placing it under legislative oversight. The amendments also stripped out of the bill any transfer of duties from the clerks to the courts — bringing it closer to the Senate’s version — but does call for a study of the clerks’ court-supporting functions.

“It will give us an opportunity to scrub every dollar and to review and make sure that everything is distributed properly and that everybody in the justice system gets their fair share,” Bogdanoff said.

The bill also prevents the 67 individual clerks from spending new money to develop computer systems and software so that a study can be completed to enable the state to develop a statewide integrated computer system for the courts.

“Right now we have way too many computer systems out there that can’t communicate with each other,” said Bogdanoff, noting the clerks would be allowed to replace old or broken equipment and maintain their current software.

The bill also picks up the provision now in the Senate version to allow the clerks to keep 10 percent of the fines they collect as an incentive to step up collections.

“This bill is also about creating greater efficiency in government — a theme I have been working on throughout the entire session,” Bogdanoff said.

“Do the courts support it? Absolutely, because everybody is part of a much larger system of justice which includes the clerks, the courts, public defenders, state attorneys, and everybody that has a vested interest in a system of justice,” Bogdanoff said. “Everybody is accountable and everybody has transparency in their budgets. The only folks that do not right now are the clerks.”

Bogdanoff said while the clerks are currently budgeting totally within their statutory authority, it’s time for the Legislature to take back that authority.

“They have complete discretion on their budgets; they can give out salaries the way they want; they can give out bonuses; they can pretty much do as they want,” said Bogdanoff, adding that 32 clerks have chosen to hand out merit pay or bonuses while other judicial entities were experiencing sharp cuts, furloughs, and layoffs.

Fred Baggett, general counsel of the Florida Association of Court Clerks, said the clerks oppose the House bill because it is designed with the “expressed written intent of putting the clerks into the full state budgeting and appropriations process by 2011.”

Baggett countered that “there are very strict guidelines as to what the clerks can budget and how much they can budget” based on a baseline of collections and expenditures.

“The only way a clerk’s budget can increase is if they were able to increase their collections,” said Baggett, adding each clerk’s budget is set by law, not by the clerks.

He said the clerks have just taken a statewide 10 percent cut in their budgets — including some clerks who took as much as a 30 percent hit for the fiscal year — based upon declining revenues the clerks expect to continue.

Baggett said the study contemplated in the bill says it is the intent of the Legislature that the clerks’ budget and appropriations functions “shall be a part of the state budgeting process” by 2011-2012.

“The study is designed to have an outcome that is already predisposed,” Baggett said.

He also said the moratorium on implementing new computer systems will shut down the major efficiency initiatives clerks already have underway.

“The bill is designed to ensure the failure of the clerks to perform their duties in an efficient manner as they have been doing and continue to do,” Baggett said.

“The clerks are local county constitutional officers,” Baggett said. “The constitution says they are to be adequately funded from fines, fees, and service charges set by the Legislature. It did not contemplate putting the clerks as county constitutional officers in the state budgeting process. That is what this bill is designed to do. If not today, then no later than 2011.”

When questioned by Chair Sandy Adams, R-Winter Springs, Baggett said the clerks do not object to legislative oversight of their budgets, but oppose this bill.

“The strike all, we believe, is designed to take over the budgets and require the clerks to participate in the full budgeting process,” Baggett said. “The first part of the strike all — the part that would be effective from now until 2011, which has a [Legislative Budget Commission] review process, is a process we quite frankly suggested to the Legislature, so it is not that process that is at the heart of our objection.

“It is the fact that it is a predetermined intent of the Legislature to put us in the full process come 2011,” Baggett said.

“So it is the clerks’ association opinion that they do not belong within the legislative budget process?” Adams asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Baggett said.

Adams said she believes “it is the Legislature’s responsibility to ensure there is oversight and accountability of the funds being expended.”

At press time, the House bill still had three committee stops to go.

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