Court Clerks: Fees Won't Fill $42 Million Shortfall

Jan 21, 2016

Hundreds of thousands of Floridians are losing their licenses because they can’t afford their traffic fines. And courthouses across the state are cutting back hours and furloughing employees because of a massive budget deficit. Legislators are promising to solve both problems, but it won’t be easy.

Florida's court clerks are warning a $42 million deficit will continue to threaten shorter hours and employee furloughs at court facilities throughout the state unless lawmakers act. It also poses a problem for reformers who want to help the 1 million drivers who lose their licenses every year, mostly for failing to pay fines.

Lawmakers in Florida want to help hundreds of thousands of Floridians who are losing their driving privileges because they can’t afford to pay their traffic fines.

But the people who depend on those fines to keep the wheels of justice turning are beginning to weigh in. They warn giving drivers a break will be expensive.

Here’s Sarasota County Court Clerk Karen Rushing testifying to the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee.

“I think we’re all at the verge of going over the cliff if we cannot convince the Legislature that the funds we have now are not adequate to support our needs.”

Lawmakers made court clerk budgets completely dependent on traffic fines and other fees in 2013. The result, Rushing told committee members, is a $42 million deficit.

Rushing warned that employee furloughs and shorter office hours are likely to continue for the next five years if lawmakers don’t act.

Rushing didn’t mention driver license suspensions to the committee, but her message was clear. After the hearing, Rushing said the reforms could cost court clerks an additional $50 million to $90 million dollars.

Rushing admits it’s hard to say exactly how much money could be lost. But she says the threat of losing a license is a good motivator.

“We know from parking violations that often, when you don’t have towing and booting of vehicles, parking tickets stack up, unpaid. So there’s a little bit of history to suggest that consequences have meaning to some.”

Rushing and her colleagues are asking lawmakers to plug their budget deficit with general revenue dollars.

And it’s not clear how lawmakers would make up for lost revenue from the reforms. But Republican Senator Rob Bradley of Fleming Island has an idea. Drivers will like it.

“There might actually be a solution where by the amount per ticket is less, because the number is too high right now. And I think that is something that would be welcome to Floridians who have received one of these tickets. And that might make for more consistent enforcement.”

Bradley says police would write more tickets if they were cheaper, and that would please reformers, too.

He’s referring to Republican Senator Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg. Brandes is appalled that more than 1 million motorists get their licenses suspended every year. Most of the suspensions are for failure to pay traffic fines.

“What we’ve found is we’re really penalizing those who can least afford to pay their fines or fees. So 80 percent of all drivers’ licenses being suspended are suspended for inability to pay a fine or a fee.”

Brandes and others argue taking away the ability to drive also means taking away the ability to go to work. They say it’s not a smart way to make sure fines get paid.

Republican Representative Jeff Steube of Sarasota says the logic extends to taking away the driving privileges of a young person caught with a small amount of marijuana.

“I think we’ve seen that being that way, especially with juveniles, doesn’t have the best outcomes in our state. And once juveniles get involved in the juvenile justice system, they tend to have a pretty high recidivism rate.”

But that doesn’t mean conservatives are going soft on crime, Bradley insists.

“We will continue in Florida to be the toughest in the nation. When you’re dealing with non-violent drug offenders, when you’re dealing with traffic enforcement, I think the public expects us to make sure we’re getting a return on their investment.”

The reforms are gaining momentum in both chambers.