Bush offers tight courts’ budget
Bush offers tight courts’ budget February 1, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Bush offers tight courts’ budget Senior EditorFlorida legislators have been warning about a tough budget year. On January 21, as this News went to press, Gov. Jeb Bush put some hard numbers to paper, recommending cuts in some court-related functions.The Bush proposed budget would wipe out the three regional offices that represent death row inmates on their collateral appeals and cut staffing for the district courts of appeal judges. The guardian ad litem program would be removed from the courts and reside in the Justice Administrative Commission, which oversees disbursements for state attorneys and public defenders. The court system would lose almost 400 positions, but 344 of those would be attributed to the guardian ad litem transfer.There also apparently are no new judgeships in the proposed budget. There’s also no money to continue the Civil Legal Assistance Act, but a Bush spokesperson said that program will be addressed in later legislation. The act is a grant program for legal aid agencies to help poor families with legal problems.Public defenders would stay about the same, while state attorneys would see a slight budget and staff cut.Complete details were not immediately available, but the governor’s 2003-04 fiscal plan provided some sobering numbers.For example, Bush proposed cutting the $292.8 million in this year’s budget for court operations to $265.1 million for next year. Most of that, about $18 million, could come from the guardian ad litem transfer.The reductions include 13 positions of the 214 at the Supreme Court and reducing employees at the district courts of appeal from 434 to 400.Aside from the guardian ad litem transfer, circuit court personnel would remain constant with 1,383 positions. There were no cuts proposed for county judges or their staffs.At the Supreme Court, the governor’s budget would transfer 10 persons with the guardian ad litem shift, according to Lisa Goodner, deputy state courts administrator. The problem with that proposal, she said, is the state courts don’t have 10 positions that support GAL operations. The other three reductions were in the court’s personnel office.Goodner said the governor’s office wants the court system to join the privatized personnel operations being implemented for the executive branch agencies. She said the court system is reluctant to do that because of the impending expansion of state funding for the trial courts and the likelihood that will add hundreds of county-paid personnel to the court payrolls.At the DCA, the 34 positions cut are for judicial assistants for the judges. Goodner said the governor’s office is proposing that two judges share one assistant, rather than each judge having one assistant.Overall Supreme Court operations would be cut from $24.5 million to $21.3 million, while DCAs would see a reduction of $36.3 million to $33.3 million. County courts would see about a $200,000 increase to $34.3 million, while circuit courts overall would be reduced from $170.1 to $155.2 million, after the guardian at litem transfer.But the most drastic action would hit the capital collateral regional counsels. Bush’s budget would close all three regional offices and let go all 98 personnel, saving the state $9.4 million.“He’s recommending closing the offices,” said Mike Reiter, the northern capital collateral representative. “We don’t know if that’s going to happen when the House and Senate take it up. We’ll have to see.”Elizabeth Hirst, spokesperson for Bush, said the governor wants representation taken over by attorneys on the state’s private registry, who handle cases when the CCRCs have a conflict or are overloaded. She said that Bush believes private counsel can handle those cases at lower cost with fewer delays The net savings is expected to be $3.8 million.The funds for the Civil Legal Assistance Act were included as part of the Department of Community Affairs 2002-03 budget, but a department spokesman said that money was not included in the department’s 2003-04 budget.Hirst said the governor did not include any money for the act, but the program will be addressed by related legislation. Specifically, Bush is proposing that the Department of Community Affairs become part of the Department of State. The bill to do that will also split off the Civil Legal Assistance Act, she said, and place it under the Attorney General, which Bush feels is a better home for the program.Hirst said, however, no amount has been set for the program.Kent Spuhler, with Florida Legal Services and who worked on getting the funding last year, said supporters will be making a pitch to legislators. “We’re building a game plan,” Spuhler said. “There will clearly be adjustments to the governor’s budget.”Public defenders, who had asked for about a 28-percent increase, would see a $600,000 increase to $140.9 million and would stay constant at 2,464 positions. Appellate operations would rise about $50,000 to $12.7 million and retain 181 positions.State attorneys would see their appropriations cut from $305.6 million to $302 million, and positions reduced from 5,556 to 5,525. A couple of circuits would gain some employees, and three would lose employees, with the biggest reduction coming in the Eighth Circuit, where the prosecutor’s office would lose 29 of its 160 positions.In another cut of interest to the legal profession, the budget would reduce the Office of the Statewide Prosecutor from 73 to 35 positions.The Florida Bar has adopted supporting adequate funding for the courts as one of its legislative positions, and court funding was expected to be discussed at the board’s January 31 meeting in Tallahassee.