By Gary Blankenship
After four years of direct legislative oversight and more than $160 million of emergency funding to cover shortfalls, Florida’s county clerks of court want to change the way their court-related operations are funded.
The lawmakers may be ready to agree, even though it would mean they would return to a less hands-on review of clerks’ operations.
The House and Senate appropriations committees on April 3 approved bills that would have clerks’ finances reviewed by the Legislative Budget Commission instead of directly by lawmakers.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, and Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, shepherded the bills through the respective appropriations committees.
The Florida Bar and the state’s court system are opposed to the change, saying the courts and the clerks should have the same funding system and budget reviews.
Fred Baggett, general counsel for the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, noted that the Legislature put the clerks’ court operations in the state’s annual general appropriations act for the first time in 2009. Every year since then, he said, the Legislature has had to provide emergency funding because revenues did not match the clerks’ authorized expenditures.
Prior to 2009, clerks’ court-related budgets were reviewed by the legislatively created Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation.
“Our goal was to establish an adequately funded, predictable budget that would eliminate the annual fiscal crisis that has occurred every year since 2009 when the clerks were put in the general appropriations act. This bill does that,” Baggett said when the bill was heard in the House Justice Appropriations Committee. “No [clerk] budget can be operative [under the bill] unless it goes before your Legislative Budget Commission and that commission approves, disapproves, or decides to take no action, in which case it would be a continuation budget from the previous year.
“We feel it is a good, solid approach. It proves the approach that the clerks used for more than 100 years. . . . It is not a normal state agency to be budgeted in the general appropriations act, and the last four years have shown that.”
Clerks used to get the first $80 from each filing fee to fund their operations. But in 2009, Baggett said, that was taken away and given to the courts and the clerks were given other sources, including state funds, which proved to be inadequate. Last year, the courts were switched to mostly state general revenue financing when filing fees proved too volatile, and that $80 was sent to the state’s general revenue fund. Returning that fee to the clerks, he said, would stabilize their funding.
In 2009, lawmakers were concerned because clerks appeared to have generous surplus funding, but Baggett said that was only a temporary condition caused by the spike in foreclosure filings.
Twentieth Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Supreme Court’s Trial Court Budget Commission, said the judiciary opposes the change.
“The clerks collect over $1 billion through the court system, and that is state money generated by the state court system, and that should be part of the appropriations process,” she said.
She said the intent of Revision 7, a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998, was to have clerk and other court-related operations under the Legislature’s budget review.
“Clerks should be held accountable . . . to a cost standard that is independently established by the Legislature,” she said.
Like Judge Steinbeck, Steve Metz, the Bar’s chief legislative counsel, said the Bar supports full funding for the clerks but believes their budget should remain under direct legislative review, as are all other aspects of the court system.
“Courts and clerks are interrelated . . . and need the same budget process so everyone is looking at what the needs are; we’re looking at them at the same time, and they’re in sync,” Metz said.
“We believe there are ways you can overcome some of the cash flow problems that the clerks have had without resorting to this rather dramatic shift of taking them out of the normal legislative budget process.”
Metz also said the bill could raise constitutional questions because the Legislative Budget Commission is authorized to only make minor budget adjustments when lawmakers are not in session.
But Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, chair of the subcommittee, said the constitution allows the Legislature to statutorily grant such authority to the LBC.
He said the bill cuts bureaucracy and administrative costs by allowing the clerks to keep part of the filing fees rather than have them sent to the state, which then returns it to the clerks to fund their operations.
“This proposal brings more oversight and accountability,” McBurney said. “This is a step forward by going back to what had worked for many, many years.”