By Mark D. Killian
House and Senate leaders have reached an agreement that subjects the clerk of the courts’ budgets to the state appropriations process.
The compromise legislation, put forth by Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Ft. Lauderdale, gives the Legislature oversight of the clerks’ budgets -- for their court-related functions only -- which is consistent with how the Legislature oversees budgets for the courts and all other state entities with localized offices.
“It is about budgetary oversight and the clerks are going to be treated no differently than the state attorneys and public defenders,” said Bogdanoff, noting the clerks are the only entity within the judicial system that currently controls its own budgets.
“We are taking that back as a Legislature,” Bogdanoff said.
Throughout the process, Pruitt has maintained the measure was not a "money grab by the courts," but represented a "philosophical argument." Pruitt said it is the Legislature's responsibility to oversee how all state funds are spent.
"If you believe that every dollar should be scrubbed and scrutinized by this Legislature — that that is our legislative prerogative — then obviously you’ll support this bill,” Pruitt said.
Early in the process, Pruitt stripped out the most controversial provisions of the original bills, which would have transferred some of the clerks’ court-related functions to the courts. The final product, however, authorizes two studies. The first directs the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the Chief Financial Officer Office, and the Auditor General’s Office to study the efficiency and the budgets of both the clerks and the state courts and the other directs the Legislature’s Technology Review Workgroup to develop a plan for implementing more efficient use of technology – for both clerks and the courts.
The Clerk of Court Operations Corporation would become a budget entity for the clerks’ court-related functions and be administratively housed in the Justice Administrative Commission. The bill also provides that the chief justice, the Senate president, and House speaker would designate one member each to serve on the CCOC Executive Council.
“They won’t have voting rights, they are ex-officio members, but are there to provide their vantage point as the clerks determine their budgets,” Bogdanoff said.
The 67 clerks would submit budget requests to the CCOC for court-related services based on unit cost for such services. The CCOC would approve the unit costs and submit a comprehensive clerks’ budget request to the Legislature. The CCOC’s budget would be appropriated by the Legislature. The Legislature would appropriate the total amount for the budgets of the clerks in the General Appropriations Act, and could reject or modify any or all of the unit costs. The corporation would release appropriations to each clerk quarterly.
The legislation also gives the clerks a 10 percent commission on every dollar they bring on fines as an incentive to help collect what is currently more than $391 million in outstanding fines.
Alex Sink, Florida’s chief financial officer, endorsed the compromise.
“I support this reform [subjecting the funding of court-related services to the legislature’s appropriations process], which will enhance transparency and fiscal accountability of the clerks’ budgets,” Sink said.
As for the studies, Bogdanoff said, “nobody should fear” a comprehensive examination of court-related functions.
“The study specifically states that we are gong to be doing an assessment of all clerks’ duties and of all courts’ duties and determine where the efficiencies are, where they should be, and how we are going to pay for them,” said Bogdanoff, adding it’s conceivable the report may recommend transferring some of the courts’ duties to the clerks or clerks’ duties to the courts, or that there be no transfer of duties at all.
“There is no predisposing that we are transferring anything,” she said. "It is simply a study.”
The other study, Bogdanoff said, looks into the possibility of developing a statewide integrated computer system for the courts.
Bogdanoff said both the courts and the clerks agree that a statewide integrated computer system would increase efficiencies and a Florida TaxWatch study estimates the state could save $34 to $140 million through standardization of court system’s technology.
“The goal, untimely, is that whatever circuit you are in, you should be able to punch in a case number and get everything you need to get -- and that is not happening right now,” Bogdanoff said. “This bill is doing nothing more than doing an assessment of how, and if, we can get to an integrated computer system for the courts.”
Responding to questions from Rep. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, Bogdanoff said the legislation does not touch any funds the clerks handle for the counties, and that the money generated from court-related clerk functions should “logically” be spent to support the justice system.
“We are not in a position to bind future Legislatures on how they are going to spend that money, but it is clear that we are doing this to support the entire justice system,” Bogdanoff said. “Right now we have a situation…where some of our clerks have provided bonuses in 2008 at the same time our state attorneys, our court system, and our public defenders are asking people to furlough days at the end of the year. That injustice has to stop.”