The courts received much of what they wanted from the Legislature for the 2017-18 budget, but its biggest ticket items went unfunded.
Judges will see a 10 percent pay raise — also a priority of The Florida Bar — but a broader pay package for court branch employees, intended to bring to parity with similar positions in the public and private sectors, failed. Employees instead will get an across-the-board raise approved for other state workers.
The Legislature also ignored a long list of requests for the trial courts, from technology enhancements to more case managers, law clerks, and interpreting services. Instead, following a $2.5 million reduction last year, the Legislature eliminated 39 positions in the trial courts, and, despite pay raises, cut the appropriation for salaries by $2 million.
Court administrators are expected to make up the shortfall by delays in filling vacant positions.
State agencies are authorized to pay the annual Bar membership fees and CLE costs for their employees who must be a Bar members to hold their jobs — a Bar legislative priority.
As this News went to press, the budget is awaiting submission to Gov. Rick Scott, who is unhappy the fiscal plan ignored or differed on his priorities for promoting economic development, tourism, and education. There has been speculation Scott could veto the entire budget or major parts, which would require the Legislature to have a special session. Scott might also extensively exercise his line-item veto power, which might prevent a special session.
The governor has 15 days to act once the budget reaches his desk.
None of the 12 new judgeships requested by the Supreme Court were approved, nor did lawmakers decertify six county judgeships the court said were no longer needed. The Legislature did approve the $3.4 million necessary to complete repairs and upgrades to the Third District Court of Appeal Courthouse.
Judicial pay raises had been a priority for both the Supreme Court and the Bar. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga had noted that while Florida is the third largest state, its judicial salaries rank 27th in the nation.
The pay raises included judges, state attorneys, public defenders, and criminal conflict and civil regional counsels.
Here’s how their pay is affected:
• Supreme Court justices — from $162,200 to $178,420.
• District court of appeal judges — from $154,140 to $169,554.
• Circuit court judges — from $146,080 to $160,688.
• County court judges — from $138,020 to $151,822.
• State Attorneys — from $154,140 to $169,554.
• Public Defenders — from $154,140 to $169,554.
• Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels – from $105,000 to $115,000.
The Senate, in its preliminary budget, had included an extra pay raise for assistant public defenders, but that was not in the final budget. However, there are special raises for attorneys working for the Attorney General’s Office, including a boost in starting pay for assistant attorneys general.
Other lawyers working for the state, as well as court staff, will participate in the raise given to all employees. Those making $40,000 or less will get a $1,400 raise and those earning more than $40,000 will get a $1,000 raise. (Anyone earning between $40,000 and $40,400 will get a raise to $41,400.)
Other than pay raises and the Third DCA Courthouse, much of the additional requests in the court budget were not addressed. Those items not funded include:
• $22 million for court technology improvements, including upgrading capabilities and tying together the courts throughout the state.
• $6.3 million for more interpreting services, particularly using technology to allow better use of interpreters and to obtain interpreters in areas of the state where it has been difficult to find them.
• $3.1 million for 39.5 additional staff attorney positions to help trial court judges with research and case management.
• $3.3 million for 50 court case manager positions.
If the Legislature did not grant many of the judicial branches priorities, it did add several items that were not requested by the Supreme Court as part of the court’s budget. Those include $304,000 for senior judges and administrative support in Flagler and Citrus counties; $250,000 for a driver’s license reinstatement pilot project; $124,421 for drug court funding in Seminole County; $175,000 for juvenile drug court funding in the 18th Circuit; $420,000 for courthouse improvements in Nassau and Liberty counties; $550,000 for Children’s Advocacy Center initiatives; and $2.5 million for the drugs that treat opioid overdoses. That last item is a pass-through appropriation that goes to rehabilitation centers that work with drug courts.
Overall, the court budget for next year will be $514.7 million. The court had requested $508.2 million as a base budget with additional requests of $48.7 million. Last year, the total base budget and additional requests totaled $521.7 million.