By Gary Blankenship
Funding for Florida’s courts coming mostly from state general revenues instead of filing fees. The court-related budgets of the clerks of court not being under the direct oversight of the state Legislature.
Those features were last in the state budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year and would be again in the “Back to the Future” 2012-13 fiscal plan being proposed in the House of Representatives. The budget also would maintain funding for Florida’s courts, clerks, and related agencies.
Rep. Richard Glorioso, R-Plant City, presented the preliminary House budget for the courts, clerks, and related agencies at a January 24 meeting of the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, which he chairs.
(The Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee met the same day, but then Chair Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said tentative appropriations were still being worked out in the upper chamber.)
The main features of the House budget, as presented by Glorioso, included:
• No cuts in funding for the Florida court system, plus an extra $5.8 million to address the backlog of foreclosure cases. The total courts’ budget was proposed at $442 million.
• No funding cuts for state attorneys, public defenders, the Guardian ad Litem program, the Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices, and the Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels, who among other duties handle cases when public defenders have conflicts.
• A switch in funding for the courts, with most of the funding coming from the state’s general revenue fund and monies raised by foreclosure filing fees being redirected from the courts’ operating trust fund to state general revenues. A decrease in foreclosure filings has left the courts begging for loans over the past year to plug almost $100 million in budget holes.
• Having the Legislature give up direct oversight of the clerks’ court-related budgets, something it first assumed in the 2009-10 budget. Glorioso said the Legislative Budget Commission, which supervised the clerks’ budgets before that year, would reassume that task with some enhanced authority.
The change in funding for the courts required a separate bill to switch the receipt of filing fees for foreclosure cases from the courts to the state general revenue fund.
Rep. Daryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, inquired about the shift, noting that the trust fund and the higher fees were implemented in 2009 to give the courts an independent source of funding.
Glorioso agreed, but said the plan hasn’t worked out because of the volatility of foreclosure filings and the courts’ having to borrow to meet their approved appropriations.
“The public perception is they’ve overspent their budget, and that’s not true,” he said.
In response to another Rouson question, Glorioso said the Supreme Court’s Revenue Stabilization Workgroup recommended using a larger percentage of court fines, fees, and forfeitures to fund the courts’ and clerks’ operations, but that Gov. Rick Scott in his budget proposed using general revenues.
“That [the court proposal] created some adverse issues with other people who were getting money out of the trust fund,” Glorioso said. “This seems the cleanest way until a future legislature finds another funding source.” (The workgroup found hundreds of programs and funds that receive parts of various fines, fees, and costs.)
Rouson agreed, but added, “We need to find that dedicated funding source now and not keep kicking that ball down the field.”
Other committee members voiced support for court funding.
“This will go a long way to not having the courts coming back every couple months to beg for money when they are a co-equal branch of government,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando.
“This is a critical problem that our courts have been dealing with over the last year,” said Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando. “It was simply an instability in the funds that were already budgeted. This solves that problem. I think we owe it to the courts to make sure their budget is stable.”
The bill passed unanimously.
After the meeting, 10th Circuit Judge John Laurent, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, praised the commitment to court funding, but he said more work needs to be done on the source of the funding.
“We are appreciative of the governor’s and the House’s efforts to stabilize court funding but remain committed to gaining support for the recommendations made jointly by the courts and the clerks of court for revenue stabilization, as provided at the direction of the Legislature by the Revenue Stabilization Workgroup,” he said. “We also have a commitment from the leadership of the clerks’ association that they will continue to support the principle of a core court system and the other recommendations of the workgroup.”
The committee had a short discussion about giving up oversight of the clerks’ budget before approving that bill by a 9-3 vote.
“The money [to fund the clerks] is raised locally [from court fees and fines],” Glorioso said. “We should have oversight, but we really don’t need to be having it in our budget. To me, it clouds our budget.”
Laurent said the courts have reservations about that legislation.
“That bill is not consistent with the recommendations of the Revenue Stabilization Workgroup. The workgroup reported to the Legislature that the court-related functions of the state courts and the clerks of court are inter-related and recommended that the two entities be considered together as the core court system for funding purposes,” Laurent said.
“It also recommended a means by which the budgets of the courts and clerks, through the legislative appropriations process, would be supported by adequate revenues.”