Florida's courts may know as soon as today whether they have avoided another funding crisis not of their making. Gov. Rick Scott and the state budget chiefs, Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, are expected to decide whether a loan of $45.6 million will be made available so the courts can continue operating normally until the Legislature meets early next year. Inexcusably, this is the second consecutive fiscal year that overly optimistic projections on court filing fees have fallen short, throwing state courts into a fiscal emergency. The judiciary is a coequal branch of government and should not be neglected.
The court system isn't spending more money than the Legislature budgeted for it for fiscal year 2011-2012, which began July 1. The problem is entirely of the Legislature's making. When lawmakers shifted court funding from primarily general revenue to the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund in 2009, they destabilized the cash flow that keeps the system going.
This fiscal year, court revenue estimators said the trust fund would bring in $432 million. But that estimate has since been reduced to $272.9 million. The difference, which is largely due to a drop-off in projected mortgage foreclosure filing fees, has resulted in the courts facing an estimated deficit of $108 million.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady has appealed to the governor and legislative budget leaders to plug this shortfall. He is asking for an immediate loan to the trust fund of $45.6 million, which should be sufficient to support the court system through March 2012. Then the Legislature would have to address the remaining balance.
The situation is similar to one that arose in March when it became apparent that the trust fund would not meet revenue estimates for the fiscal year that ended June 30. Foreclosures had dipped substantially due to the robo-signing scandal, which caused some banks and loan servicers to freeze foreclosures.
In April, Scott grudgingly came through with a $19.5 million loan, but not before the courts were forced to map out contingency plans that included eliminating case managers, putting staff on unpaid furloughs, and keeping courtrooms dark for 14 workdays over two months.
Funding the courts adequately is a basic function of state government. This game where the chief justice has to go hat in hand to other state leaders on a regular basis is unacceptable and diminishes the court system's ability to provide access to the courts and timely decisions. An expert group is looking at how to stabilize court funding and is expected to make recommendations by Nov. 1.
In the meantime, Scott and legislative budget writers should approve the loan that Canady seeks and promise that the courts won't be put in this predicament again. Justice depends on a court system that has adequate, reliable revenues to function.