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Work on the budget looms large for the Legislature

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Florida CapitolAfter its organizational session in November, the Florida Legislature will turn its attention to the state budget and the economic fallout wrought by the pandemic.

Jim Daughton, the Bar’s legislative consultant, told the Board of Governors October 23 that House and Senate leaders are expected to announce committee chairs in December, convene interim committee meetings in January, and begin crafting a plan for dealing with a revenue shortfall that could top $3.4 billion.

But for now, safety is “priority one” as lawmakers work to figure out how they can get in the Capitol and conduct state business. The Senate, he said, has contracted with infectious disease and infection prevention experts at Tampa General Hospital to work with the Senate’s staff on developing a plan — including an evaluation of all senator and staff offices, public areas, committee rooms, and the Senate Chamber — to give legislators, staff, and visitors the confidence that safety measures are fully considered and implemented prior to the start of the session. The leadership of the House is also considering how it intends to proceed.

“The constitution mandates the Legislature meets in-person and that they meet in Tallahassee, so they have a lot of logistics to work out,” Daughton said. “I think there will be severe limitations on who will be able to get into the Capitol.” Daughton doesn’t expect any of the traditional “Capital Days” will be held next session and in-person meetings with legislators or staff may be extremely limited, as well.

On the policy front, it’s all about the budget, Daughton said.

If the state economy does not improve, every agency and the state court system could see an 8.5% to 10% budget cut, he said.

“That’s a $48 million cut for the court system and as you know the court system is people,” Daughton said. “So, if you have to find $48 million out of the court’s budget, it is going to be court staff, it is going to be a slowdown of operations, and that is something we are going to work closely with the courts on to educate the Legislature about the uniqueness of the court system.”

The Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research’s revised yearly revenue projections are forecasting that tax collections will be short by $3.4 billion in FY 2021-22 and $2 billion the following year.

The Florida court system recently asked for $16 million this year to handle increased workloads associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, most of that to begin dealing with a 990,000-case backlog.

“Of course, we’re facing incredible pressures on state resources and I don’t envy the position that the legislators are going to be in,” 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, recently told the News. “But we have to tell them what we need to keep the courts running.”

The case backlog is estimated to be 990,074 when the fiscal year begins July 1. Over the next three years, the courts estimate they will require $37 million and some 300 judicial or quasi-judicial positions to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

President Dori Foster-Morales told the board the presumptive incoming House and Senate leaders have signaled their willingness to continue working cooperatively with the Supreme Court and Bar leaders to help the third branch recover from the pandemic.

“They really have us out in front, and I think that’s terrific,” she said.

The 2021 Regular Legislative Session is scheduled to commence on March 2.

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