Courts want to keep more fees to avoid cash crunchby John Kennedy | November 1st, 2011
Staggered by two major budget shortfalls in the past year, the state court system needs a more reliable cash source than the rollercoastering foreclosure fees lawmakers have steered its way, officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.
Polk County Circuit Court Judge John Laurent, who helped lead a workgroup of judges and court clerks, urged the Senate Budget Committee to allow courts to keep more of the fees and service charges they already collect, but which are skimmed off for use in other state budget areas.
Judges and clerks also recommended that certain basic costs — salaries for judges, interpreters and court reporters — should come from state dollars, rather than from fees, the workgroup said in its report to lawmakers.
Close to $300 million in revenue raised by the courts are plowed into general revenue and other areas of government, officials said. If courts had been authorized to keep a larger portion of that money, they would have avoided shortfalls that are projected to demand $153 million in emergency loans in just over a year.
Court clerks needed a $44.2 million bailout last year and are seeking another $36 million to get through March 2012.
Earlier this year, the shortfall forced chief judges in Palm Beach County and other counties to consider employee layoffs, furloughs and other emergency measures.
“This is not a question of us overspending our budget,” said Laurent, a former state senator. “The moneys have not been appropriated to our trust fund to support our budget.”
Central to the court’s woes: foreclosure fees.
The trust fund that powers the $1 billion court and clerk system draws the bulk of its financing through these feees. But the court system’s cash flow was disrupted late last year by a nationwide freeze on foreclosures by most major lenders.
“It’s not a good, stable situation,” conceded Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also questioned the Legislature’s approach in making the court system so reliant on fees.
Without providing specifics, Negron said some fees charged Floridians for court activities are too high — warning that it could lead to legal decisions that amounted to ”cash-register justice.”
“The court system has become too dependent on churning out revenue,” Negron said, adding that more state dollars should be directed to courts. ”This thing has gotten out of whack.”
The workgroup’s full report is here: http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/