Gov. Rick Scott is offering a reasonable way forward to resolve the cash shortages that have beset Florida's court system. Rather than rely on the erratic flow of money coming into a state trust fund from foreclosure filings, the governor is proposing that over the next fiscal year the court system be largely funded with general revenues. This would essentially eliminate the danger that the court system would run short of cash to pay its operational expenses, as has happened repeatedly. But a task force of judges and clerks of court is recommending additional structural reforms that would provide a more permanent fix.
Florida courts are currently funded out of the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund established in 2009 as a repository for filing fees, mostly from mortgage foreclosures and some fines. The idea, to establish a dependable and independent funding stream for the third branch of government, was a good one. The fund was used to support nearly 83 percent of the state court system. But because of the volatility in foreclosure filings — particularly the decline after the robo-signing scandal — income has not been meeting estimates.
That shortfall has created funding emergencies for the court system, even though the courts have not exceeded their legislative appropriations. In fiscal year 2010-11, the courts were preparing to furlough staff and reduce operations until the governor finally approved the loan transfer needed to avert those actions.
Scott clearly understands the need to move away from this system. He proposes to put the risks of a dip in foreclosure filing fees on the state's general revenue fund instead of on the court system. The plan would redirect foreclosure filing fees that had gone into the trust fund into general revenues, replacing that money with a set appropriation — $280 million for the coming fiscal year, about what is estimated to come in from foreclosure filing fees.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady, who is the one who has had to ask (even beg) the governor and Legislature for loan transfers to keep the court system running, is applauding the governor's plan. But a slightly different approach by a study group of judges and clerks of court is a sturdier reform that could help the court system retain some of the funding independence.
The revenue stabilization working group would require that judges' salaries and other constitutional duties of the state, such as court interpreters and reporters, be paid for entirely from general revenues. This obligation wouldn't change based on legislative whim. The rest of the budget for the courts and clerks of courts would come out of the state's designated trust funds. But the courts and clerks would get priority on the money flowing into the justice system.
Currently, about a third of the $1 billion collected annually by the court system and clerks offices is diverted to state general revenues and other "buckets" of money. For instance, a $397.50 filing fee for a dissolution of marriage is distributed into 10 "buckets" of money, including $12.50 into the Displaced Homemaker Trust Fund. If that money had gone first to funding core court functions, there would have been no cash crisis.
Establishing a more dependable funding mechanism for Florida's court system should be a priority for lawmakers in 2012. Scott's proposal is reasonable, but the suggestions of the revenue stabilization group are better.