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April 1, 2014
Initial court budgets released

By Megan E. Davis
Associate Editor

State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said budget proposals released by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice and the House Justice Appropriations Committee are good starting points in addressing the state court system’s funding needs.

“I’m very encouraged and feel good about the level of attention that both houses have given to our issues,” she said. “I think what they’ve done is gotten us on a good path to getting a good outcome.”

Pay and Retention
While funding for the courts’ top priority, $15.6 million for employee pay and retention, was not included in either budget, Goodner said she believes lawmakers will make good on promises to address the issue.

“Sen. [Rob] Bradley, [R-Orange Park] our appropriations subcommittee chair, said in committee that issue is still being addressed,” Goodner said. “It’s just not being addressed in this budget. They’ve not made a firm commitment as to how and when it will be addressed, but it is still very much on the table and part of their discussions about funding for the courts.”

Goodner noted the subcommittee’s budgets are “the first stop in three significant stops in the development of the Appropriations Act.”

As this News went to press, both chambers were expected to release their full budget proposals by the end of March, after which the entities will go into conference to work out the differences between the House and Senate proposals.

“I am not concerned that [employee pay] was not addressed at the first stop, especially given the assurances in the committee meetings that the Senate held [recently] that it is under active consideration,” Goodner said. “When they put the whole Appropriations Act together, the provisions for pay are often added in a separate section of the bill, in what they refer to as the back of the bill.

“There is clearly opportunity for them to address this issue at the next stop. That being said, quite often the House and Senate don’t put forth pay recommendations until they produce the final joint bill.”

The state courts have requested a minimum 3.5 percent salary increase for all non-judge employees.

The budget request recognizes that there has been a big lag between salaries and the rate of inflation, which has increased 15.9 percent cumulatively over the past seven years.

In a comprehensive study of employee pay across the three branches of state government, the courts system found the average salary of its employees is 12.59 percent lower than other government employees.

As a result, the system has lost key managers and other high performers in recent years who possessed a broad knowledge of critical judicial operations, according to a report issued by the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

The court system has been unable to offer salaries commensurate with experience and award merit among staff.

As an example, the report pointed to OSCA, which has lost 17 employees, or 10 percent of its workforce, since January 2011, to comparable executive and legislative branch positions paying an average of $5,321 more.

In another example, the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office has experienced a turnover rate of 30 percent and been forced to advertise open positions repeatedly to find anyone who appeared qualified and would accept the minimum salary.

In general, the Senate subcommittee’s budget proposal was more generous than the House’s because the Senate subcommittee was allotted more money from which to build its initial proposal, Goodner said.

Goodner said she was pleased the Senate proposal includes $136,000 to fund two of five positions requested for the Supreme Court, including one for death penalty case processing and one for general case management support.

“We hope the House will have the ability to consider those issues when we get into conference,” she said.

District Courts
The Senate subcommittee’s proposal provides nearly full funding of the system’s $11 million request to pay for maintenance and repairs for the district courts of appeal.

That includes $7 million to construct a new courthouse for the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

The House subcommittee proposal includes $3 million in funding for the DCAs’ needs.

“We’re very grateful the Senate picked up as substantially as they did the funding that we desperately need in the district courts,” Goodner said. “The House’s $3 million reflects an effort to put a number into play that would address a number of projects that need to be undertaken. Even though it’s not fully what we need, we hope that during the conference process they’ll be able to move a lot closer to the Senate position.”

Trial Courts
Similarly, the Senate proposal slightly exceeds the courts’ $21.7 million request for new trial courts funding, while the House proposal allocates $11.3 million more to the trial courts.

“What’s most significant in the Senate budget for the trial courts is they picked up the request for 27 new law clerks and 10 general counsel positions,” Goodner said.

Goodner said she was pleased to see both proposals include funding for the continuation of a post-adjudicatory drug court pilot program.

Concerning the system’s need for additional judges, the House proposed some funding, while the Senate proposal included none for new judgeships.

“We certified the need for three district court of appeal judges, seven circuit judges, and 39 county judges,” Goodner said. “The House picked up the governor’s recommendations for new judgeships, which includes three district court of appeal judges, seven circuit court judges, and 11 county judges. While judicial workload is important, the established priority for the branch is the employee pay issue.”

Goodner expressed concern about one budget item missing from both proposals.

“If I have a disappointment to express, it would be that the funding we requested for electronic transmission of judicial orders did not get picked up in either house, because I think that’s a critical issue for the courts and one that we’re going to have to continue to work on.”

The $4.7 million request is for software to allow judges to securely transmit orders to court clerks in the new electronic court system being implemented. Goodner noted the issue is a priority in light of two inmates erroneously released from a North Florida prison after falsified documents were slipped into the paperwork system.

[Revised: 07-24-2014]