Posted on Sunday, March 20, 2011
A Senate proposal to fill a shortfall in the budgets of the state courts and clerks would fill most of the gap but still leave the judicial system $32.9 million short of what it needs to finish the fiscal year.
A draft budget released by the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee provides $90.4 million to deal with the shortfall in the current budgets for Florida courts and clerks, but they need more than $123 million to plug the hole in this year's budget.
Miami-Dade Chief Circuit Judge Joel Brown has said courts could be forced to shut down and furlough staff next month if the Legislature failed to appropriate new money to make up for the drop in foreclosure fees collected by the courts.
Committee chairman, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said the fresh money will come from general revenue as a one-time nonrecurring expense. He expressed the hope that the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund would be at least partially replenished.
Revenue fell below projections when lenders imposed moratoriums on foreclosure filings to address the use of questionable documents and so-called "robo-signing" by lenders and their law firms.
By February, the Revenue Estimating Conference projected shortfalls of $72.3 million for courts and $51 million for the clerks of court.
"I believe this is the only amount we could give them at this time," Fasano said Wednesday. "We believe the courts will pick up (revenue) from the trust fund as the foreclosures come back."
Fasano said it was sad that the state had to depend on another spike in foreclosures to meet its budget, but he expects lenders will resume filings in substantial numbers later this year.
"We're not at the end of the fiscal year yet," he said. "Let's see where the courts are when they've used all those dollars up. They don't need all of the money in the immediate future."
Without a fresh financial commitment, the court trust fund was expected to run out of money by the end of this month for the fiscal year ending June 30.
Trust Fund Security
Barney Bishop, chief executive of the Associated Industries of Florida, said Wednesday that his organization opposes leaving the judicial system underfunded and diverting court fees to general revenue purposes because of the need to keep civil courts operating.
"If we're not careful in this willingness to sweep away trust funds, we're going to lose the connection for citizens between the fact that we're paying a tax for a certain service and the connection back to that service," Bishop told the Daily Business Review.
Discussion of the $467 million court budget was briefly touched on during a Tuesday hearing that primarily focused on ways to cut expenses in the state Department of Corrections.
In the meeting, Fasano also advocated moving the staff of the Office of State Courts Administrator into the newly built 1st District Court of Appeal, which has been dubbed a Taj Mahal courthouse, to save $300,000 a year in leasing costs.
However, Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said there is a competing bill that would split the Supreme Court in two and put the high court justices and their staff in the 1st DCA building, complicating the distribution of space.
"I'm sure that would be something that would have to be explored," Waters said. "OSCA has a very large staff."
By Adolfo Pesquera, DAILY BUSINESS REVIEW