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Filing fees, fines alone cannot cover court system costs, judges tell lawmakers

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers on Tuesday mulled suggestions from the judicial branch for stabilizing the oft-depleted budgets of courts and county clerks.

Since July 1, the state court system has needed nearly $100 million in loans to pay for operations because court filing fees and fines aren't covering court operations. County clerks say they need $36 million to get through March.

But in a report, a work group of a dozen judges and clerks said fees and fines alone were never intended to cover the entire system and asked lawmakers to direct general revenue dollars — money largely generated through state sales tax collections — to help pay for parts of the judicial system.

Members of the Senate Budget Committee praised the work group for offering suggestions but did not commit to honoring the recommendations, which included establishing a reserve fund.

Court revenues have fallen sharply below projections as a result of declines in mortgage foreclosure fees.

"The last thing we want is any serious concerns about having to furlough judges or not have the court system functioning properly," said Budget Committee Chairman Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Polk County Circuit Court Judge John Laurent, a former Republican state senator and the work group's co-chairman, suggested funding what he called "due process" services, such as salaries for judges and court interpreters and reporters, with general revenue funds. Other operations could be paid for by fees, he said.

The judicial panel did not propose to raise fees or fines as a solution for the shortfalls. Florida's initial civil filing fee already is the second-highest in the nation, the panel said.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, and a lawyer, said fees have "gotten out of whack" for constituents and that the court system likely would require some additional funding from the state.

"We don't see the legislative branch having bake sales to pay for what we need. We don't see the executive branch borrowing money," Negron said. "We need to restore the courts system to its proper place in our system of government."

Katie Sanders can be reached at ksanders@sptimes.com.

Filing fees, fines alone cannot cover court system costs, judges tell lawmakers 11/01/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 11:39pm]
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