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Deal lets courts avoid shutdown

TALLAHASSEE — Hoping to avoid the spectacle of closed courtrooms, state lawmakers announced a last-minute deal Friday to plug a hole in Florida's judicial budget.

The agreement will prevent thousands of court workers from being sent home without pay in the final quarter of the fiscal year that ends June 30.

But it is a one-time deal and the court system still faces deep cuts in 2008-09.

"We're giving them a one-time bailout with a strong warning that they need to start preparing for future cuts because they are coming," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who oversees the Senate's criminal and civil justice budget.

Full details of the budget accord were not released, but House and Senate leaders agreed on the general terms.

The courts' budget would be cut $4.5-million through the remainder of 2007-08, instead of the original $17-million proposed earlier this week.

The cuts were part of an overall plan announced Monday to reduce state spending by $542-million this fiscal year to balance the budget in the wake of lagging tax collections.

Additionally, public defenders and state attorneys will get a slight reprieve from deeper cuts. Public defenders will see $5.4-million in cuts, down from $7-million proposed earlier this week; state attorneys will see $10.5-million in cuts, down from $13.4-million.

Court officials spread alarm recently over the budget cuts, arguing that they would have to shutter courthouses for weeks this spring as thousands of court employees were sent home without pay.

The expenses of the judicial branch are almost entirely salaries. So in the face of budget cuts, there is nowhere else to turn. In Pinellas and Pasco the deficit would have affected 244 employees; in Hillsborough that number would be 240.

That would have forced a virtual halt to civil proceedings, like divorce and foreclosure.

"Unprecedented would be the word. It's certainly something that in my 28 years as a lawyer that I've never heard had occurred in Florida," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris Jr.

But Crist and other lawmakers said the courts were warned far in advance to hold back some money, 1 percent per quarter, as a cushion for the cuts. "If the money's not there, we can't spend it," Crist told the St. Petersburg Times earlier this week.

Nonetheless, politicians figured a fight with another branch of government and the images of empty courtrooms were not worth the hassle.

"It's like the saying, 'Justice delayed is justice denied,' " said Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the House Safety and Security Council. "I just can't see cases being delayed and court workers sent home without pay."

"I commend House leadership. I'm now just anxious to see the details," said Rep. Jack Seiler, D-Fort Lauderdale, who also worked to prevent the shutdown.

Morris said he expects next year to be lean as well, but at least court officials now have time to prepare.

"We'll have a full year to figure it out as opposed to only part of a fourth quarter," he said.

Times staff writer Chris Tisch contributed to this report.

Deal lets courts avoid shutdown 02/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:21am]
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