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March 1, 2012
No-cuts court budget moves forward in House, Senate

Proposed 2012-13 fiscal year spending plans from both the Florida House and Senate would spare the courts from budget cuts, but both budgets make reductions in drug court spending.

Both versions increase funding for the courts from state general revenues, partially replacing volatile funding from court filing fees, particularly foreclosure filings. The proposed budgets also call for stable funding for court-related functions of county clerks of court. There is one major difference between the two chambers: The House removes the clerks from the direct budget oversight of the Legislature, while the Senate retains legislative oversight.

State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said the budgets are different only in a few details. Overall, the House calls for spending $442.2 million and the Senate $437.8 million. This year’s budget is around $437 million.

The Senate has proposed reducing drug court spending — which has been financed by federal stimulus monies — by $4.2 million, while the House has a $1.5 million reduction. Goodner noted the Senate plan would leave the drug courts without enough money to operate beyond the first quarter of the 2012-13 fiscal year, adding court officials are discussing with lawmakers whether they want to continue the program with state funds.

The House budget has $5.8 million to address the backlog of foreclosure cases, while the Senate has around $1 million. But the Senate has budget money for capital improvements to the district courts of appeal and the Supreme Court. The latter would get about $4.1 million of improvements, including $1.85 million to repair the roof and $800,000 for waterproofing.

Sarasota County Clerk Karen Rushing said the Senate generally kept the same level of funding for the clerks, but “in the House they continue to pursue their idea of last year, and that is to take us out of the budget.”

That would end direct legislative review of the clerks’ court-related budgets but leave them under the purview of the Legislative Budget Commission, as it was until 2009 when the Legislature took a more direct role. Rushing said the clerks don’t like that idea of returning to indirect oversight because funding mechanisms have changed, and unless the funding is changed back to the former system — with the clerks directly taking their funds for the collection of fees and fines — the financing won’t work.

“In the old days when we were fee based, the distribution of the fines and fees were different, and that’s how we could support our expenses,” Rushing said. “Bringing us back to the old days and leaving the distribution the same causes us a problem.

“Clerks know that the House and Senate have different viewpoints. We’re supporting the position that gives us a continuation budget [the Senate version]. We wouldn’t be supportive of a budget that didn’t meet our expense needs.”

The Senate also makes $56 million of state general revenues available for clerks. Rushing said that would address the problem that clerks — like the court system — have had in the past couple years where revenues from fees and fines haven’t been sufficient to meet the expenditures authorized by the Legislature. Like the courts, the clerks have been forced to seek loans from the state.

Rushing said that Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has been supportive, adding, “I think he appreciated the situation and [the clerks] having actual revenues to support the actual authorizations. . . .

“If things keep marching along, it looks like we’ll be able to keep the doors open.”

As this News went to press, the House had passed its budget, and the Senate was working on its version in the Appropriations Committee.

[Revised: 06-29-2014]