By Megan E. Davis
Lawmakers addressed nearly all of the most urgent funding needs identified by the state courts system when the Florida Legislature approved the final version of its 2013-14 fiscal year budget.
“We feel good about the courts’ budget,” said Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator. “Our number one priority was a pay raise for state courts employees and there’s a pay raise in the budget.”
Throughout the state budgeting process, Goodner lobbied for a 3.5 percent raise for court workers who haven’t seen pay increases in six years.
The budget includes a $1,400 raise for all employees earning $40,000 annually or less. State workers earning more than $40,000 annually are set to receive a $1,000 raise.
For those employees earning $40,000 or less annually, the raise included in the budget is equivalent to a pay boost of 3.5 percent or more.
Fifty-three percent of courts system employees make $40,000 or less annually, Goodner said.
“We would like to see all our workforce get that amount, but at least we got halfway there,” she said. “The Legislature also provided funding for bonuses and authority to give merit raises, so we’ll be taking full advantage of those opportunities to continue the work on improving salaries.”
The budget also restores the 2 percent pay cut the state judges absorbed in 2009-10.
Goodner lauded legislators for allocating money for the courts to use for maintenance and repair projects, many of which were pushed to the back burner in recent years due to the bleak economic climate.
At the top of the list of projects to be completed is replacing the Supreme Court’s 1948 roof. The roof leaks so badly that court employees must place containers throughout the building to collect water whenever it rains.
Additionally, the courts are set to receive $16 million over a period of two years to tackle Florida’s foreclosure backlog.
The money will be used to pay for more judges, magistrates, case managers, and trial courts staff to sift through the tremendous amount of pending cases.
“We feel very good about the resources we have to address a large number of those cases,” Goodner said.
The budget also includes funding for technology upgrades and continuing eight drug court pilot programs — in Broward, Escambia, Hillsborough, Marion, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, and Volusia counties — targeted to a specific population at risk of ending up in prison.
Federal funding for the pilot programs is set to expire on June 30.
Studies are set to take place in the summer and fall to determine the success rate of drug courts and to consider whether to expand the program next year, Goodner said.
A total of $1 million is included for assistance to poor families for an assortment of legal issues, as prescribed by the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act passed in 2002. The governor, however, has vetoed Civil Legal Assistance Act funding included in the past two state budgets.
Overall, Goodner said the budget leaves the courts system in a significantly better position than in recent years.
“It’s a rebuilding step,” she said. “We certainly didn’t get everything we need in terms of funding, but we’re happy with the progress that’s been made.”