By Mark D. Killian
The Senate bill that would redirect million of dollars in filing fees collected by the clerks to the courts’ trust fund and give the Legislature oversight of the clerks’ court-related functions for budget purposes hit a brief snag in the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee.
The following day, the bill was back on track after Senate leadership pulled it from the appropriations panel and sent it on to its next stop — the Policy & Steering Committee on Ways and Means.
SB 2108 was temporarily postponed April 1 when its sponsor, Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, objected to two amendments offered by Committee Chair Victor Crist, R-Tampa, that would substantially reduce the legislative oversight and budget controls contained in Pruitt’s original bill.
Pruitt implored Crist to allow the panel to vote “up or down” on his bill, which cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee March 18.
“Justice appropriation issues begin here and for the most part are workshopped here and when a bill leaves this committee, it has to be 99 percent completed,” Crist said. “It is the job of this committee to work out problems in justice-related bills that come here.”
When Pruitt persisted, Crist said he serves at the pleasure of the Senate President Jeff Atwater, and if it is the “president’s will to move the bill on to another stop,” then that is what will happen.
“But at this juncture I have not been given that directive and until I am, I guess we will temporarily postpone the bill,” Crist said.
Pruitt, a former Senate president himself, said while he respects the committee process and Crist’s role as chair, “there comes a point in time when you agree to disagree.”
Pruitt said he did not think he could find common ground with either of Crist’s amendments and noted the clerks’ funding issue had already been workshopped by both the Judiciary and the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations committees. Pruitt said he was “willing to take my shot here,” and asked for an up or down vote
“If it is your desire for the bill to move to the next stop, my suggestion is you temporarily postpone the bill,” Crist said.
“You’re the chairman,” Pruitt responded.
With that, the bill was temporarily postponed and Pruitt left the room.
Later, Crist said the bill did not have the votes to pass his committee in its current form.
The day the bill was withdrawn from Crist’s committee, President Atwater said the move was not unusual.
“We’ve had a chance in that committee to hear and debate the bill. The fact that it is now going to be debated by a full complement of all the members of the Ways and Means Committee I don’t think is short-changing it at all,” said Atwater, noting members of Crist’s committee also sit on Ways and Means.
Pruitt’s bill redirects $102 million in filing fees collected by the clerks of the court to a special courts’ trust fund and contains language calling for legislative oversight of clerks’ court-related functions for budget purposes.
At its Senate Judiciary Committee stop, provisions that would have transferred various clerk functions to the courts were removed, as was a call for a study of the clerk functions.
The money the bill would send to the trust fund represents fees now collected by clerks and remitted to the state Department of Revenue for general state expenditures. It did not affect fees and costs collected by clerks and retained by them to pay their expenses. The bill also removed from the courts’ trust fund fines that had been assigned to it during the January special session. Judges had been concerned that sending fines to the trust fund would create the appearance of cash register justice.
At the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, Trial Court Budget Commission Chair Judge Belvin Perry said the courts favored Pruitt’s version of the bill while Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing said the clerks favored one of Crist’s proposed amendments that would have maintained the existing funding structure for the clerks but also addressed issues the courts have identified as concerns.
The Policy & Steering Committee on Ways and Means was scheduled to meet April 7, after this News went to press.