Second Week of 2012 Legislative Session Update
January 20, 2012
State economic forecasters projected a slight uptick in state revenue for the fiscal year ahead, but that will not be enough to avoid billion-dollar budget cuts. The House will be placing self-executing contingencies in their budget proposals in order to alleviate any deficits or increases which may occur due to the early budget process this session. Specifically, Speaker Dean Cannon released a statement this week outlining the House goals and positions regarding budget issues.
“Once again, the Legislature will be called upon to respond to the challenge of a budget shortfall exceeding $1 billion for FY 2012-13. Although this will not be easy, we have a proven track record of responsible budgeting, and our state’s fiscal situation is improved from recent years. Economic conditions are stabilizing; last week, the Revenue Estimating Conference issued an essentially unchanged General Revenue estimate from its fall forecast.”
Senate and House budget committees are scheduled to meet numerous times the week of January 23-27.
The full Senate Budget Committee presented a plan to help improve the efficiency of the trial court operations.
Under this plan, circuit court budgets would develop a weighted caseload unit cost for different types of cases. Unit costs would be developed based upon size of the circuit, and circuits of similar size would be categorized together. Once the unit costs are developed, the plan would be incorporated into the trial court budget similar to the method used for the clerks of court.
Another component of the plan is to improve the collection rate of mandatory assessments and court fines and fees. Senate staff reported nearly $80 million of fees, fines, and other costs were not assessed and/or not collected at the trial court level. The plan directs the clerks to provide the Legislature with suggestions for improving collections, and includes working with the Department of Revenue to recover these lost revenues. The plan would also help ensure that all assessments mandated by statute would be imposed by judges.
The Governor’s proposed budget has no cuts for the courts and includes the proposal that would help stabilize court funding by placing less reliance on the revenue generated from mortgage filing fees and more reliance on general revenue. The proposal would in effect shift approximately $280 million of filing fees to general revenue and redirect the same amount of general revenue back to the courts.
The Senate and House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriation committees are scheduled to meet several times the week of January 23-27.
Civil Legal Assistance Funding
We continue to educate key members of the Senate and House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committees about the Florida Civil Legal Assistance Act which provides state-funded legal assistance through existing local legal aid organizations serving all 67 Florida counties. The program provides legal assistance to low income families and individuals in the areas of domestic violence, entitlements to federal benefits, elder abuse and family law. In addition, the program has a positive economic impact for the State of Florida, specifically generating $13.86 of economic impact for every $1 spent by the state for civil legal assistance funding. Positive feedback is being received.
Mandatory Retirement Age for Judges
HB 345 by Representative Peter Nehr (R-Tarpon Springs) and SB 408 by Senator David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs) would increase the mandatory retirement age of justices and judges from 70 to 75. The current mandatory retirement age of 70 was placed in the Florida Constitution in 1972 when the average life expectancy was 70.8 years. The average life expectancy in 2012 is over 78 years and expected to increase to 83 years by the year 2050.
SB 408 was debated in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The testimony in committee referenced that many good judges are forced to retire earlier than necessary due to the current age restrictions in place. Sen. Simmons believes that increasing the age restriction by 5 years will help with continuity in the judiciary and also help reduce retirement costs for the State of Florida. This is possible because judges will be able to continue to work and contribute to the state pension fund. Sen. Simmons also pointed out that many U.S. Supreme Court justices have had their most productive periods after the age of 70. Sen. Simmons noted that many states have no age restrictions on judges. Many that do have age restrictions are beyond the age of 70. In his closing comments, Sen. Simmons reminded fellow senators there is no age restriction on the Legislature and stated that the current mandatory age requirement is antiquated.
Judicial Nominating Commissions
HB 971 by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Ft. Walton Beach) and SB 1570 by Sen. David Simmons (R-Orlando) maintain the current staggered terms for the nominees provided by the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar. The bills provide that the 5 members of the JNC appointed by the Governor, who are not Florida Bar nominees, serve “at the pleasure of the Governor.” HB 971 was amended last week to conform to SB 1570.
Nationally, Bar involvement and terms of service for JNC members varies. Some states have a JNC process similar to Florida’s while other states have shorter terms of service, no specified term, serve at the pleasure of the Governor, or are composed differently. The bills also provide that a retired judge may continue to receive retirement pay while on temporary duty as a senior judge.
The Legislature continues to review this issue to find an appropriate and effective balance. SB 1570 has been referred to Senate Judiciary and Budget. HB 971 passed the House Civil Justice Subcommittee on January 11 and next goes to the Government Operations and Judiciary committees.