Florida clerks of court are often considered the foundation of the state’s judicial system, but they say they no longer have enough money to do their jobs.
Over the past several years, the states clerks of court have faced significant budget cuts. It’s a move Boyton Beach Democratic Representative Joseph Abruzzo says has brought court proceedings in his district to a crawl.
“When they do not have the resources or in this case when we are changing the way that they would conduct their job—the attorneys suffer. Our judicial branch altogether suffers. This is the ground floor of what makes our judicial branch work properly and I do not believe we should be going down this road,” Abruzzo says.
Abruzzo says the clerks need at least a 30 percent increase in funding in order to function properly. But Karen Rushing with the Florida clerks of court says a bill moving through the House would cut their budget even more.
“Based upon the most current revenue projects this would reduce the clerks of court by $14-million in spending authority and that is in addition to the $50-million we have experienced as a cut in the past four years,” Rushing says.
Rushing is talking about a measure filed by Jacksonville Beach Republican Representative Cord Byrd. It changes how the clerks’ budgets would be created and approved and takes away their responsibility for paying costs associated with jurors. Byrd says he’s also concerned about the clerks’ funding, but argues his measure doesn’t decide their budget. That’s an issue he says will come up through appropriations. Clerks are cautiously optimistic Byrd’s bill could be used as a vehicle to increase discussions around their financial need. And it seems members of the Senate may have taken notice. Jacksonville Republican Senator Aaron Bean oversees his chamber’s criminal justice budget.
“We heard from the clerk of court that due to funding shifts they’re struggling to keep the lights on because of just the way that their revenues come in. So this budget has a $25-million dollar non-recurring payment to the clerks of court to stabilize them,” Bean says.
The Senate wants to redirect revenue from certain fines, filing fees, and penalties from
the General Revenue Fund to the clerks of the court. St. Petersburg Republican Senator Jeff Brandes says the move makes sense since the clerks are facing the shortfall through no fault of their own.
“We fund the clerks based on transactions. Therefore is we want to reduce drivers license suspensions, that reduces transactions for the clerks. And so we find ourselves in a perverse situation where we want to do the right thing, we want to reduce certain suspended drivers licenses and things like that, but it creates a huge fiscal for the clerks,” Brandes says.
Brandes says the bill will help clerks to fill that gap. It also makes changes to the process for creating and approving the clerks spending plan and provides a provision to ensure clerks are reimbursed for expenses associated with jurors.
The Senate measure is heading for a floor debate. Meanwhile, the House measure is scheduled for its final committee hearing Thursday.