By Megan E. Davis
Budget proposals recently released by the Florida Senate and House of Representatives appropriations committees leave the state courts system well-positioned, according to State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner.
“Even though the two budgets look a little different, both the Senate and House have been giving a real showing of strong support for addressing the courts’ critical priorities,” Goodner said.
Both chambers’ budget proposals include raises for all state employees, addressing the court system’s chief priority heading into this year’s budget season — boosting the pay for court employees who have not had a raise in six years.
While the Senate’s proposal gives more funding to the individual line items that would address the court system’s most critical needs, the House proposal includes $7 million to be used for general operations of the courts system.
“That money in the House budget could be spread out and used for issues not picked up individually,” Goodner said. “I feel like we’re in a good position moving into conference to really be able to address most of the critical needs.”
Judge Mark Mahon, vice chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, also lauded lawmakers for the funding plan.
“We deeply appreciate the recognition of the needs of the branch addressed by this piece of legislation,” Judge Mahon told the House Appropriations Committee.
One of those critical needs is for courthouse repairs and maintenance, for which the House proposal includes $3 million and the Senate proposes $4.9 million.
The proposed allocations allow for a new roof for the Supreme Court, which would mean no more moving containers around to catch rain falling through the original 1948 roof.
Both budgets also include significant funding proposals to tackle the courts’ foreclosure backlog.
A House proposal would earmark $5 million in national mortgage settlement funds for legal assistance to low-income families facing foreclosure, while the Senate proposal includes $10 million for such families.
The Bar testified in the House Appropriations Committee that $10 million can assist over 12,000 families at a rate of only $800 per case.
Additionally, the budget proposals include funding for technology upgrades and continuing eight drug court pilot programs — in Broward, Escambia, Hillsborough, Marion, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, and Volusia counties — targeted to a specific population at risk of ending up in prison.
Federal funding for the pilot programs is set to expire on June 30.
A measure in the House proposal provides about $400,000 in funding to reopen the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel North.
As a cost-saving experiment, the northern office was closed a decade ago (while the CCRCs in the southern and middle districts remained) and private registry attorneys took over the work of the counsel. Through the pilot program, the state found that the CCRC North was better equipped to handle death penalty cases than private registry attorneys.
The Senate proposal includes $5.4 million for the Florida Guardian Ad Litem Program.
While Florida law dictates that courts appoint a guardian ad litem to every abused, abandoned, or neglected child, only 68 percent currently receive such an advocate.
The $5.4 million would fund the program’s three-year plan to increase children served to 100 percent.
“Anyone who comes into contact with the program realizes how valuable it is,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, as he presented his budget proposal to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The House proposes $1.8 million in funding for the Guardian Ad Litem.
The Senate proposal also includes $2 million in recurring funding to increase flat fee rates to court appointed counsel to represent indigent clients charged with crimes, when both the Office of the Public Defender and Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel have conflicts.
The rates haven’t been increased for about three decades, Bradley said.
“We reviewed the issue and found the rates to be embarrassingly low,” he said. “We believe it’s a reasonable use of state taxpayer dollars to bring that flat fee schedule up to a reasonable level for people providing due process protections for those who have been accused of crimes.”
The funding would improve compensation in eight critical case types, including capital murder and capital sexual battery, Bradley said.
In its proposal, the Senate includes $2 million for assistance to poor families for an assortment of legal issues, as prescribed by the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act passed in 2002.
The House proposal includes no such funding. However, Rep. Perry Thurston, the Democratic minority leader from Ft. Lauderdale, said he hopes more money from the national mortgage settlement will be set aside for civil legal assistance and pledged to work to make that happen.
Still, Goodner said the overall budget proposals leave the courts system in “far better shape” than years past.
“We and other government entities can feel really good about this budget after a number of years with cuts and flat budgets,” she said. “The economy is picking up and has really helped the Legislature be able to address needs it put off for a while.”