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February 15, 2012
Canady ‘encouraged’ by proposed court funding plans

The budget for Florida’s courts is looking very promising in this year’s Legislature, according to the Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice and the Bar’s chief legislative counsel.

Chief Justice Canady Chief Justice Charles Canady and legislative counsel Steve Metz appeared separately at the Bar Board of Governors’ recent Tallahassee meeting.

Canady, in brief remarks, recalled that the courts had significant revenue shortfalls in each of the past two budget years because of declining foreclosure filings, which make up more than half of all court funding.

This year, he said both Gov. Rick Scott and the House have proposed budgets that replace the foreclosure fee funding with general revenues. The Senate had not released a preliminary budget when he spoke.

“I really am quite encouraged by where we are,” Canady told the board. “We are very encouraged that there seems to be an emerging consensus that the arrangement we have for funding the branch is not reliable with the overreliance on foreclosure filing fees. I think we have an understanding of that in both [legislative] houses.”

There also seems to be an agreement among the budget players “that we are not going to face any significant [budget] cuts.”

Among signs that the state’s revenue crunch of the past several years is easing, Canady said the courts need to start planning to restore some of the funding cuts from recent years.

“We’ve got to be able to get back to the point where we can restore some of the lost resources,” the chief justice said. “That has affected our ability to do the work. We lost support services and that affected our ability to dispose of cases.”

In this report, Metz noted that budget news is good, and there are no wide-ranging attempts to change the court system.

“This year is an awful lot better than a year ago,” Metz said. “We are in really good shape when it comes to court funding. You have a governor who has recommended no cuts [for the courts], you have a House [budget] bill released two days ago with no cuts and actually an extra $5.8 million infusion . . . to get a handle on the backlog we have in foreclosure cases.”

He added, “There’s talk the Senate may not come out with an allocation [budget] for another two or three weeks.”

Metz provided some context for the current budget concerns of the court. Until 2009, about 90 percent of the court system’s funding came from general revenues, while the remaining 10 percent came from filing fees and other court costs. That year, the Legislature, with support from the court system, nearly reversed that ratio. The catch was most of the fee funding came from higher filing fees on foreclosure cases, which plummeted in the wake of the robo-signing scandal in late 2010.

The proposed House and gubernatorial budgets, Metz said, set the court funding at about 70 percent from general state revenues and 30 percent from filing fees, court costs, and other court-generated sources.

A Supreme Court workgroup, created at the behest of the Legislature, looked at the funding structure and recommended that courts and clerks get top priority at the fees, fines, court costs, and other revenues raised by the system. Currently, much of that revenue is siphoned off into hundreds of other programs and funds.

House officials, when they released their budget, acknowledged that recommendation, but said it was too complex to accomplish this year.

Metz expressed optimism about funding for The Florida Bar Foundation under the state Civil Legal Assistance Act. Last year, the Legislature approved $1 million for the program, which provides assistance for low- income citizens with family and domestic civil legal problems, but it was vetoed by Gov. Scott.

Hit hard by declining IOTA revenues, the Foundation is hoping for $2 million this year. Metz said the House budget has a $100,000 “placeholder” appropriation for the program, and there is some hope that state revenues will be slightly above earlier projections and could provide funding for the act.

Unlike last year, when proposals ranging from having the Legislature take over writing court procedural rules to increasing the percentage of “yes” votes required in merit retention elections were proposed, this year is fairly quiet on nonbudget issues, Metz said. The only notable bill is to make the governor’s direct appointees to judicial nominating commissions serve at the pleasure of the governor. (See story here.)

It would not affect the four members on each JNC appointed from slates nominated by the Bar, he said, and hence does not contravene the Bar’s legislative position that calls for preserving “The Florida Bar’s continued and meaningful institutional role in the judicial selection process.”

That bill also corrects a glitch in the state’s retirement laws and would allow retiring judges to begin immediately serving as senior judges instead of having to wait six months.

“We don’t see any other major court reform proposals,” Metz told the board. “I think we’re going have a decent session, and court funding is going to be really good.”

[Revised: 02-07-2013]