TALLAHASSEE — State leaders say speeding up Florida's lethargic mortgage foreclosure process, third-longest in the country, will jump-start the state's economic recovery.
The problem? Florida's courts are facing a projected budget shortfall of $108 million.
Judges insist they can't begin to put a dent in a backlog of roughly 300,000 pending foreclosure cases until they get a reliable source of money from the state to support daily operations.
"Given adequate resources, we're going to work and do whatever we can do to expedite the cases coming through the system," courts administrator Lisa Goodner told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
In the 2010 session, lawmakers granted courts and county clerks a one-time appropriation of about $9 million to set up special dockets for pending foreclosure cases. The circuits cleared 44 percent of the backlog that year after hiring temporary judges and case managers to handle those cases, Goodner said.
But that money wasn't available this year. If legislators want to free up unsold inventory in the housing market, they should find a way to fund that initiative, Goodner said.
Elected officials, including Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, are warming up to the idea of introducing a foreclosure option that would bypass the courts and resolve cases about twice as fast.
Nonjudicial foreclosures may lead to speedier foreclosure periods as early as next summer, but that would do nothing to relieve the number of cases now burdening the courts.
"While we may be able to alleviate things in the future … we've got a present problem that needs a present solution," Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said during the meeting.
Since 2009, the state courts system has been funded mostly by a special trust fund, which is supported by fees from mortgage foreclosure filings. Those filings were steady in 2009, nearing 400,000, but dropped to 243,000 in 2010 as reports of improperly "robo-signed" documents led to a voluntary moratorium on foreclosure cases by major lenders.
The 2011 forecast is for about 144,067 filings, according to Amy Baker, director of the Legislature's Office of Economic and Demographic Research. She expects the filings to pick up in coming years, but they won't be near the highs of 2008 and 2009.
All this is reason for concern.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady asked Scott and state budget writers Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, to approve a loan of $45.6 million to get the courts through March without reducing staff or services.
The Legislature appropriated $437 million for the courts based on fee projections. But September estimates lowered that value to $272 million, creating the $108 million shortfall.
Scott on Wednesday said he was reviewing Canady's letter.
"My goal is just to make sure we're not wasting money," he said. "But I know Chief Justice Canady wants to do the right thing."
Simmons pressed Goodner to present the committee solutions for the budget and backlog crises. The courts plan to issue a report Nov. 1 to the Legislature with suggestions for alternative, less volatile revenue sources, she said.
Simmons acknowledged the court system is not solely to blame for the volume of pending cases. He said lenders sometimes don't pursue their cases.
"We need to make sure that we identify the real source of the problem rather than just simply pointing at the judiciary and saying, 'You're the problem,' " Simmons said.
The courts' money woes are not a result of spending outside their means, said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, who said she favors keeping Florida a judicial foreclosure state because it "protects the people."
"Long term, we've got to find a way to fund this co-equal, independent branch of government outside of some temporary fix," Joyner said.
Times/Herald staff writer Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Katie Sanders can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.