SCOTT: INSULATE COURT FUNDING FROM FEE UNCERTAINTY
By DAVID ROYSE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE - The budget proposed by Gov. Rick Scott last week would have the state pay for the court system with money from its general fund, rather than relying on foreclosure filing fees, which have proved volatile and unreliable.
Lawmakers in 2009 created a system whereby the courts were funded heavily by filing fees from foreclosures – which at the time were taking up much of the courts' resources, and so it was reasoned should pay for them.
But when allegations of irregularities in foreclosure documents led to a moratorium, the money for the courts dropped off too, causing the state to have to provide emergency cash to keep them open. While foreclosures are making their way through the courts the process has been slow, and the fees far less than initially projected.
The budget proposed by the governor would provide $280 million in general revenue – ordinary tax dollars – for the court system, which officials hope could make for a more steady year.
That was good news to Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. The Supreme Court oversees the state's court system.
"Gov. Scott’s proposed budget for the state courts includes a thoughtful means of addressing revenue problems that have made the funding for Florida’s state courts chaotic for well over a year now," Canady said in a statement. "Most significantly, it largely eliminates our current overdependence on volatile mortgage foreclosure filing fees."
The governor also is seeking to keep the courts at their current spending level.
“Of equal importance, the governor’s budget proposal proposes no additional cuts in the courts, recognizing the reductions we have previously sustained and the need to protect the quality of justice in Florida," Canady said.
As recently as September, Canady had to ask Scott for an emergency transfer of more than $45 million to keep the courts running, and had already asked lawmakers to take a new look at the court funding scheme. The courts had already gotten another loan from the state general fund back in the spring.
The Florida Bar has also suggested changing the funding mechanism, and lawmakers had asked judges and clerks to come up with some recommendations. A workgroup suggested returning to using the general revenue fund, at least for judicial salaries.
"Legislators must redo the boundaries of Florida’s budget to ensure court funding is stable and secure," Florida Bar President Scott G. Hawkins wrote in a recent edition of The Florida Bar Journal. "The current situation has become unworkable."
Scott's budget proposal is just that, and lawmakers often disregard major portions of the governor's spending plan. The Legislature starts its regular session next month.
Hawkins, writing in the Bar Journal piece, noted that the courts get less than one percent of state revenue and actually only get two-thirds of the $1 billion in fines and fee money that comes in, with the rest going into the state's general fund. "By comparison with other large states, Florida's courts are underfunded," Hawkins wrote.