Art. V funding campaign takes center stage: House leaders support new judge

first_img February 15, 2004 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Art. V funding campaign takes center stage House leaders support new judges Senior Editor For court officials who have been through two years of budget cuts and limited finances, the January 23 meeting of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judiciary was an unusual experience.Committee members were praising Gov. Jeb Bush for calling for 40 new judges — and saying they wanted even more judges. They also said they’ve heard concerns about a lack of funding for local law libraries and promised to study that issue.And committee members and a representative of the governor’s office were pledging to work closely and amiably to ensure there’s enough money for court operations when the state takes over more trial court funding on July 1. Pursuant to Revision 7 to Art. V approved by voters in 1998, the state must assume a much greater portion of trial court funding no later than the 2004-05 budget year.The question, as Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, put it, is, “When we take the champagne bottle and hit the Art. V boat on July 1, is it going to float?”Subcommittee Chair Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, listed several areas during the meeting where he wants improved funding.“I’m going to make it a strong priority that we fund the new judges that are needed and the Supreme Court has certified,” he said. “The governor’s budget has 40. The House budget will have more than 40.” The Supreme Court certified 88 new judges, 51 circuit, 33 county, and four district court of appeal judges.Negron also said the House should address the judicial assistant pay issue raised by the court. “I want to make sure that judicial assistants are treated fairly and are not paid less just because they are in one part of the state.”When Brad Thomas, representing Bush’s office, presented a summary of the governor’s budget, Negron used the opportunity to discuss funding of law libraries, which has raised concerns around the state. Previously, counties imposed a filing fee surcharge to support the libraries, but will lose that authority when the state assumes a greater share of the responsibility for funding the trial courts as of July 1.“I think libraries are an essential element of the court system,” Negron said. “I would hate for one of our legacies to be that people who have been convicted and are serving time have better access to law libraries than our citizens.”He added, though, he’s not sure who should pay for the libraries, and perhaps local bar associations could help.Thomas replied, “If that issue is important to you, it is important to us. We’ll work with you and we’ll work with the bar associations. That is not a state requirement [to fund the libraries] but that doesn’t mean the state can’t fund it.. . . I think the governor would agree that access to the law is important.”He suggested state officials also begin discussions with the Florida Association of Counties about law libraries.Thomas’ presentation also gave more details about Gov. Bush’s budget, which had been released three days before the committee met.“We believe that this [budget] will ensure due process and ensure the timely resolution of cases and ensure the timely payments of due process expenses to state attorneys and public defenders,” Thomas said. “We appreciate the needs of the court system and I think we’re pretty close.”The governor proposed around $230 million for Revision 7 costs, Thomas noted, of which about $102 million is for extra court costs. Overall, the Bush budget proposed $377 million for the court system, which had requested $454 million.The remainder of the $230 million is for state attorneys, public defenders, and other Revision 7 due process costs, he said.Among the details Thomas gave were:• The governor is proposing about $41 million total for court administration and case management costs, which allows for continuation of the present number of hearing officers and special masters, funding for court interpreter programs, and other administrative and court support programs. In response to a question, Thomas said those figures have no increase in the number of hearing officers or clerks for judges.• The budget allots $41.5 million for conflict of interest attorneys, and $19.7 million to appoint attorneys in dependency cases. The money for conflict attorneys is “the number one dollar issue for Article V,” Thomas said.• $3.6 million has been proposed to improve state attorney pay in four circuits by ensuring their funding is at least at $14 per resident of that circuit. The affected circuits, Thomas said, are the Fifth, Ninth, 15th, and 20th. Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Pompano Beach, asked if there was a similar program for public defenders. Thomas said no, and Seiler wondered if that was discriminatory. “I do think there are some public defenders who are not funded at $7 per capita,” Thomas said, “but the governor thought it was more pressing for state attorneys to receive this funding at this time.”• The governor’s budget gives the Supreme Court chief justice flexibility to reassign positions as necessary to accommodate changes brought about by Revision 7.Thomas noted that the state’s chief financial officer had studied Art. V costs related to Revision 7 for the counties’ 2001-02 budget year, which ended September 30, 2002. The conclusion was those costs were $199 million. Allowing for historical judicial budget hikes of around eight percent, Thomas said that means the governor’s proposed $230 million for Revision 7 is very close.Gelber agreed, although he expressed concern there were inadequate funds to accommodate both inflation and the growth in case filings. He, like others, said changes are likely in succeeding budgets as needs become clearer.“This is a decent first volley at a pretty difficult job,” he said. “Everyone in this room is trying to divine what a state budget will look like for something that’s never been in the state budget.” Art. V funding campaign takes center stage: House leaders support new judgelast_img

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