New trust fund seen as a ‘first step’ to a long-term solution
By Gary Blankenship
With a minimal cut in funds and employees and a new trust fund to help pay for continuing operations, Florida court officials and Bar leaders are calling last month’s special legislative session at least a good first step.
Overall, the budget for the third branch of government was cut around $5 million, or 1.25 percent, which will translate into a loss of 21 positions. That was much smaller than the 4 percent or larger cuts many executive branch programs sustained.
In addition, lawmakers created a special trust fund to pay for continuing court operations, and raised various traffic fees and fines to initially provide money for that fund. (They also provided similar trust funds for state attorneys and public defenders; see story below.)
“The substantial shortfall in state revenue has created a widening gap between what courts receive and what they need to fulfill their constitutionally mandated role as the third branch of government. This is occurring even as Florida citizens and businesses, faced with a deepening recession, turn to the courts in greater and greater numbers,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince said. “The Legislature’s special session has taken a first step toward addressing this problem in the long term. While many issues remain, I am encouraged that the Legislature eventually will find further solutions to help the state courts do their job of protecting rights and liberties, upholding and interpreting the law, and providing for the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
“Under the circumstances, we are all very satisfied,” Bar President Jay White said. “I think it is an excellent first step in the right direction and I think the Legislature is sending a message that it understands and appreciates the importance of the court system being fully funded.”
The 1.25 percent cut had been expected since last summer, when Gov. Charlie Crist announced that state entities would have 4 percent of their 2008-09 budgets withheld because of the continuing decline in state revenues. Quince had met with Crist’s office and legislative leaders in a successful effort to hold the line at 1.25 percent, at least until the special session.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, noted when the legislation came to his committee that special trust funds were being set up for the courts, state attorneys, and public defenders.
“The monies generated from these increased fees and penalties for the most part will go into three new trust funds,” Crist said at a January 6 committee meeting. “These three new trust funds are really significant reform. What we’re doing is we’re laying the foundation for a long-term, sustainable funding source for the courts, state attorneys, and public defenders.”
Crist and Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, chair of the House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, won praise from court and Bar officials for minimizing the cuts and pushing strongly for the trust funds, as did Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin.
State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said the Legislature reduced general revenue appropriations for the courts by around $15.8 million, but then replaced that with nearly $10.8 million from the new trust fund. Those trust fund revenues are expected to increase to around $45 million for the 2009-10 fiscal year. Overall, the court system’s budget was reduced to around $433 million from $438 million. The court system has now lost about $50 million in funding over the past two years.
“It is very significant that we took this first step,” Goodner said of the trust fund. “The vehicle for moving more of the court budget in the direction of dedicated funding has been established. If you talk to the two chairs, you will hear them echo that that is their intent, and this is the first step in discussing court funding and stabilizing court funding into the future.
“When times are tough, the courts’ work often increases. To be able to have the revenue streams that allow us to conform to that increased work load, everyone agrees it has got to be done. This starts us on that journey.”
Goodner said court officials had planned to make a major push for the separate trust fund in the regular session, but then Crist, Adams, and other legislative leaders indicated they were willing to take it up during the special session.
“The Florida Bar and the lawyers of Florida are grateful to the Legislature for working so closely with the judiciary in this difficult financial period,” said Greg Coleman, chair of the Bar’s Legislation Committee. “By virtue of the fact that cuts to the judiciary are so much less than cuts to other programs throughout the state, it really shows legislators’ interest in keeping the judiciary properly funded.
“I think the trust fund is a great start in designating funds for the judiciary,” Coleman added. “Hopefully, at some point in time we will have a designated source of funds for the judiciary that can’t be affected by economic ups and downs. That’s really the intent behind the trust funds, to have a dedicated funding source regardless of economic conditions.”
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, said the Legislature “tried to minimize the effect it [budget cuts] would have on our ability to operate, realizing the effects of the prior cuts.”
He said the commission would meet in February to determine how the reduction in trial court employees would be made. The revised budget cuts one employee from the Supreme Court and 20 from the circuit courts. Perry said one possibility would be to cut each circuit by one position.
Goodner said the reductions will not necessarily mean layoffs or furloughs, adding, “We have had a hard hiring freeze for over a year, so we have vacancies.”
There will also be some other shifts, Goodner and Perry said. Aside from the reduction in positions, the Legislature mandated $1.3 million for traffic court hearing officers, who had been cut in past budget reductions. The hearing officers are especially needed because it’s enhanced traffic fines that are funding the new court trust fund.
Goodner said that will lead to a shuffling of positions to accommodate rehiring traffic hearing officers. Perry noted the $1.3 million is less than the $2.3 million the courts allocated for the hearing officers before the budget cuts.
A report from the State Courts Administrator’s Office noted the changes the Legislature made to fund the new court trust fund:
• Eliminating the 18 percent reduction in fines for those who elect to attend traffic school (though they would still avoid points on their traffic record).
• Increasing the fine for speeding between 10 and 19 mph over the speed limit by $25.
• An additional $5 for moving and nonmoving traffic violations.
• Designating all of the $12.50 administrative fee imposed for civil traffic infractions for the courts. Previously, that was split with several other noncourt trust funds and the state’s general revenue fund.
• Designating, similar to the $12.50 administrative fee, all of the $10 Article V assessment in civil traffic fines for the courts.
• Making clear that judges can impose fines when adjudication is withheld and designating those fines for the trust fund.
• Allowing a judge to withhold adjudication in nonfelony cases without placing a defendant on probation and placing fines imposed in such cases in the court trust fund.
The OSCA report also noted that the original Senate position had been to fund the court trust fund with filing fees, but the House preferred to use the fines and related fees, and the House prevailed on that point.