Gov. Rick Scott agreed Wednesday to lend money to the state's court system to overcome a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall that threatened to close courtrooms.
In a letter to Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, Scott's policy and budget director, Jerry McDaniel, said the courts would receive $19.5 million to carry them through May.
That's short of the $28.5 million sought, but apparently enough to cover the next two months and avoid the slashes in services, court closures and layoffs that judges had warned of.
"We've been assured that we're not going to have to cut," said Gay Inskeep, court administrator for the Sixth Circuit covering Pinellas and Pasco counties.
Statewide, court officials were looking at eliminating case managers and senior judges who handle backlogged foreclosure cases, letting go of traffic court hearing officers and farming their work to other judges, axing capital expenditures and cutting services such as language interpreting and case transcribing. In addition, if no money came through, courtrooms would have been dark for 14 work days in April and May.
McDaniel wrote that new information from Canady, along with cost-containment measures already in place, showed the $19.5 million appropriation would cover the projected deficit. The money is being spent from the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund.
Another appropriation, which was not part of Canady's request to Scott, will cover the courts through June and repay the $19.5 million.
A new budget for the state's courts will take effect July 1.
On Tuesday, as he was considering the funding request, Scott received a joint letter from Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation urging the governor to release the money.
"Our businesses rely on the consistency and certainty of the judicial system to thrive and grow. For that reason, each of our associations has supported adequate funding for Florida's courts even during these times of economic downturn," the heads of the two lobbying groups wrote to Scott, who has declared jump-starting employment and creating a business friendly climate cornerstones of his administration.
"We would not want to see disruption in court operations as a result of the unanticipated decline in mortgage foreclosure filings. Such disruption would not be good for the businesses we represent or helpful to our efforts to attract new businesses to our state," the letter continued.
The court system slid into this budget hole because of a dropoff in new mortgage foreclosure filings in the last few months. The fees for those filings make up the lion's share of court operating budgets.
The 2011-12 budget is expected to rely on more stable funding sources.
Thomas McGrady, the Sixth Circuit's chief judge who called a press conference Tuesday to publicize the funding crisis, said he was relieved and thankful the money was approved.
"I know it was a lot of anxiety for our people," he said. "It wasn't fun to tell them what could happen but I felt it was important for them to know the possibilities, and thank goodness it didn't come about."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.