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Status quo ante

Fully funding the state court system becomes the state's responsibility when Florida's new fiscal year begins in July. Stakeholders in the court system have been worried that the state would fail to provide the money needed to meet that responsibility. Well, the numbers are in, and everyone can breathe a little easier. Gov. Jeb Bush has suggested a reasonable level of court funding, essentially maintaining the status quo. His budgetary recommendations are a good first step that will keep many of the specialized courts throughout the state and much of the judicial support personnel in place.

Through a 1998 constitutional amendment, Florida voters told the state to start picking up the tab for operating the state court system, taking the burden off the counties. Known as Revision 7, the change was intended to stabilize the funding stream, put the responsibility for funding the courts on the state, where it belongs, and provide some parity of judicial services across Florida. Voters gave the Legislature six years to phase in the transfer, but there was little will in Tallahassee to provide any of the costs during those years. Now the Legislature is facing the deadline.

There have been serious and well-founded concerns that the Legislature and governor would fund only a bare bones system in which vital components of Florida's working courts such as case managers, intake personnel and mediators, would not be retained. But the recommendations of Gov. Bush suggest that he understands that nonjudicial professionals and support personnel are integral to the court system.

The governor's budget recommendations aren't perfect. The governor didn't do enough to make up for the service shortfalls in the smaller judicial circuits, but, according to Susan Schaeffer, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission and Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge, "The governor's budget is a good starting budget."

The numbers are deceptively far apart. The Trial Court Budget Commission recommended the state spend an additional $170- million to fund its Revision 7 responsibilities, while the governor allocated only about $103-million. Schaeffer and others on the commission say much of that difference reflects the governor's reluctance to pick up any expenditures beyond what the counties currently absorb. Bush did not allot the requested additional personnel to judicial circuits where counties have been underserved.

If the purpose of Revision 7 was to equalize judicial services around the state, Bush's recommendations fall far short. For example, some counties have no specially designated staff for court administration _ the people who do the budgeting, human resources and other key functions. Instead, county employees pick up those duties. The commission requested funding for those positions in the smaller circuits, because the counties may no longer be willing to share employees. But the governor's budget didn't include that request, an exclusion that could put those judicial circuits in a serious bind.

Schaeffer also cites an $11-million difference between the commission's request for expenses _ the money allocated for supplies such as paper, postage and office furniture _ and what the governor recommended. Schaeffer says as little as an additional $20-million would address most of the commission's most pressing concerns for the upcoming year. That doesn't seem like much to ask.

Florida has some of the most innovative and responsive judicial programs in the country, from the unified family court system in Pinellas County to the drug courts around the state. It is the obligation of our leaders in Tallahassee to see that these successful experiments are retained and, where appropriate, exported to the smaller judicial circuits. Gov. Bush has taken a step in that direction with a reasonable initial budget for Revision 7 costs. It is up to the Legislature to take it the rest of the way.