By Mark D. Killian
Instead of relying on fickle foreclosure filing fees, most funding for the courts would shift to general revenue sources in Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget that asks lawmakers to appropriate the same amount of dollars to the third branch of government as they did a year ago.
The governor’s proposed budget, released December 7, also calls for maintaining the same level of funding for the state attorneys, public defenders, capital collateral representatives, regional conflict counsel, and the statewide guardian ad litem program.
While the proposal calls for a 4 percent reduction in the clerks of the court budgets, it also would exempt the clerks from an 8 percent general revenue service charge they’re now required to pay the state for services they don’t use.
“Gov. Scott’s proposed budget for the state courts includes a thoughtful means of addressing revenue problems that have made the funding for Florida’s state courts chaotic for well over a year now,” Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady said. “Most significantly, it largely eliminates our current overdependence on volatile mortgage foreclosure filing fees.”
Of equal importance, Canady said, the governor’s budget recognizes the reductions the courts have previously sustained and proposes no additional cuts in funding or personnel.
Chief Justice Canady said: “We are very grateful to Gov. Scott for his efforts in support of funding for Florida’s courts.”
In 2009, the Legislature shifted the lion’s share of court funding from general revenue sources to the State Court Revenue Trust Fund, which receives the bulk of its money from foreclosure filing fees. But when major foreclosure players imposed a moratorium on filings due to the faulty paperwork scandal, foreclosure filings dramatically dropped off, triggering a cash-flow budget crisis for the courts and the clerks.
Both have needed loans from the executive branch to get through their 2010-11 budgets and again in the current budget year. The courts needed loans of almost $100 million this year to function through next March.
“I think we all agree we have to stabilize the courts’ funding,” Bonnie Rogers, coordinator of public safety for the governor, told the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations December 8.
She said the governor’s plan “very simply” takes the foreclosure filing fees, which generate about 70 percent of the State Court Revenue Trust Fund, and redirects that money to the general revenue fund. The GR fund, she said, is large enough to absorb any instability in foreclosure filings, so the money allocated for the courts will be there when they need it.
“The governor had asked the chief justice and the courts to review their expenditures, tighten where they could, and we feel very confident that they have done that, and the dollars the governor proposes to shift back to general revenue are necessary and appropriate for the courts,” Rogers said.
Committee Chair Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the governor’s plan is very similar to the recommendations put forth by the court’s Revenue Stabilization Workgroup.
In all, the governor’s plan would provide $434 million for the state court system and 4,322.5 positions, almost identical to this year’s budget. Fasano said the plan is also structured in a way that the court’s current loans would be paid off and the branch would start the new fiscal year “not owing any money.”
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said every entity that receives money from the Legislature should be accountable for how they spend those dollars, including the courts.
“Do we do anything to look at the efficiency of the courts and what they can do to help themselves?” asked Bennett, adding, “When we are giving out these huge piles of money, or loans, do we do anything to find out how they are spending it and hold them accountable for that and make them look at their costs of doing business?”
Rogers said the governor’s office does review the court’s expenditures and meets frequently with the Office of the State Courts Administrator, “especially since we are involved in approving loans.”
“They actually have very little discretion in their budget because most of that is tied to salaries or fixed costs,” Rogers said.
“They have certainly, I think, done everything they can — within their means — to spend appropriately.”
Clerks of the Court
Rogers said the governor’s proposed budget would reduce the clerks of the court spending by 4 percent, or $17.8 million. But traveling with that proposal would be a conforming bill exempting the clerks from paying an 8 percent general revenue service charge.
“The clerks don’t receive any services from the state, and that is the purpose of that 8 percent service charge,” said Rogers, noting that costs the clerks about $33 million annually.
Rogers said the clerks, just like the courts, are projecting a deficit due to shortages in the State Court Revenue Trust Fund and have requested a $38 million loan to make it through the year — a portion of which will be used to pay the service charge.
“So we are actually loaning them to pay a service charge that we are charging them,” Fasano remarked. “Only in government.”
That’s one reason the governor is proposing to exempt the clerks from the 8 percent service charge, said Rogers, noting that “if revenues come in at their projected spending levels, it would be a benefit for the clerks.”
Rogers said the governor’s recommendations for the clerks will impact their operations, but the governor’s office has not yet had any conversations with the clerks to determine exactly what that impact would be.
Fasano said he, too, is in favor of doing away with the 8 percent service charge the clerks now pay.
“We will see what happens,” Fasano said.
Rogers said the governor’s spending plan funds the public defenders, state attorneys, capital collateral regional counsels, regional conflict counsel, and guardian ad litem program at their current levels:
• Public defenders, $183,542,983 and 2,792 positions.
• Public defender appellate division, $12,976,928 and 178 positions.
• State attorneys, $381,162,273 and 6,055.25 positions.
• Statewide Guardian Ad Litem Office, $30,244,515 and 539 positions.
• Capital collateral regional counsels, $6,734,506 and 71 positions.
• Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels, $36,922,933 and 382 positions
Rogers said the state will have to pick up $3.3 million that is tied to the office leases for the five Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the Legislature ran afoul of the Florida Constitution by requiring counties to house the CCCRCs.
The five regional law offices were created by the 2007 Legislature supposedly as a cheaper way to handle multi-defendant criminal cases when the public defender has a conflict — rather than farming them out to a registry of private lawyers in each circuit.
“So, basically, the counties were covering the cost of the rent, but that has been determined by the Supreme Court to be the state’s responsibility — so we need to step in and pick that rent up.” Rogers said.
Sen. Rhonda Storms, R-Tampa, also would like to find an additional $3 million for the GAL program so it can serve more children involved in the court system.
“We are supposed to fully fund them,” Storms said. “These children have nobody else to advocate for them.”
“I don’t think it is the Senate you have to convince,” Fasano responded.