By Gary Blankenship
“We’re going to work diligently again to try to make sure we maintain the core missions of everything we are required to fund first, and then address other issues . . . Our core missions are to keep the doors of our jails and prisons shut, keep the doors of the courthouses open, and keep the stream moving.”
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, gave that succinct summary February 11 of how the committee will approach doling out money for the judicial branch and other governmental entities it oversees in the 2009-10 fiscal year.
Two days later, his counterpart in the House, Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo, asked the courts and the same agencies to say how they would deal with a 15 percent budget cut, if things wind up that bad.
It could be the toughest round of budget-cutting yet in the ongoing recession.
Crist said income for the state general revenue fund is expected to be down more than 9 percent. That will hit the operations overseen by his committee even more severely because general revenues make up a disproportionate part of their funding. If passed along on a straight line reduction, that could mean a 19.8 percent reduction in monies available for the committee’s areas of oversight.
Adams didn’t provide that type of detail, but noted that staff for her committee could find only 1 percent that could be cut from existing budgets and that state revenues are continuing to fall. When the courts and other agencies provided their answers on February 16, Adams said the year looks bleak.
“We have a projected deficit. It’s a moving target,” she said of the state budget. “We do know we may have to plug holes, and we may have to reduce expenditures within your entities.”
Asking for the 15 percent cuts was a way to get the courts and other agencies to prioritize how cuts should be made, Adams said, with an emphasis on maintaining core functions that preserve public safety. Those functions are central to the entity, constitutionally or statutorily required, and represent critical statewide funding. She acknowledged when the courts, state attorneys, public defenders and other court-related entities presented their lists, that they already meet those tests, but said the exercise was necessary to help guide the committee.
At the Senate committee meeting the previous week, Crist laid down guiding principles for how his panel will approach the budget. He has warned that much is out of the committee’s hands; legislative leaders will determine how much the committee gets to subdivide.
Among his goals:
• Have a greater use of trust funds for the courts, using fees and costs raised in the courts, to provide a more stable source of court funding. That’s a top goal of the courts.
• Increase the efficiency of courts, including through improving information technology.
• Make sure that court clerks remain self- funding.
• Make greater use of fees for services rendered for state attorneys and public defenders, and route that money into trust funds for those agencies. Take steps to ensure that prosecutors and public defenders assess and collect those fees.
• Seek local funding sources for crime prevention programs, which can reduce the workloads on courts and prisons.
• Look for new diversion programs and examine reducing some sentences as a way to reduce the demand for new prison beds. Crist called the Department of Corrections the “hungry lion” of the state’s criminal justice appropriations, since it takes two-thirds of the budget overseen by his committee. The rest is split between law enforcement, the courts, public defenders, state attorneys, conflict public defenders, the Justice Administrative Commission, guardians ad litem, and death penalty collateral appeal attorneys.
• Use more community-based incarceration, put inmates with debilitating illnesses into community-based programs, and divert parole violators to help reduce prison populations.
Unknowns about the budget process include whether the federal economic stimulus program, signed by President Obama, might ease some of the budget concerns. Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-Riviera Beach, said she understood some of the funds were earmarked for public safety programs. Adams replied that the details of the bill were still emerging.
Lawmakers were also talking about closing sales tax exemptions and possibly raising the state’s cigarette tax, although it was unclear how much support there was for either idea.
At its February 16 meeting, Adams said her committee would meet again during the first week of the legislative session, which starts March 3, and hopefully have more information and begin making tough decisions.
Crist said the Legislature hopes to have a state budget approved in the first three weeks of the nine-week session.
That’s when the courts, public defenders, and state attorneys may get some answers for their future budgets. Eighth Circuit Public Defender Rick Parker, speaking for the state’s public defenders and testifying before Adams’ committee, spoke for many of the entities in addressing the impact of a 15 percent cut.
For public defenders, it would mean the loss of 337 positions and $25 million for trial operations and $2 million for appellate operations.
“It would be refusing new appointments and withdrawing for current appointments,” he said.
Ironically, Parker added, it wouldn’t save the state any money in the end, “because if we don’t do it, the work doesn’t go away. It goes somewhere else.”