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House and Senate begin crafting court spending plans

House and Senate begin crafting court spending plans

House and Senate begin crafting court spending plans

House and Senate begin crafting court spending plans

More senior judges will be needed in coming year to help eliminate what remains of a backlog related to the COVID-19 pandemic

LegislatureCourt administrators are optimistic after Gov. Ron DeSantis released a $114.4 billion budget proposal for FY 2024-25 that includes several branch spending priorities.

In a December 6 presentation to the Senate Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, Interim State Court Administrator Eric Maclure noted that DeSantis and the Legislature approved most court spending priorities for the past several years.

“I appreciate the due and through consideration that you are able to give to court needs in light of all of the other challenging issues that this committee has had to deal with,” Maclure said.

The House and Senate are just beginning to craft competing spending plans that won’t be reconciled until the end of the 60-day regular session that convenes January 9.

But given that the governor has line-item veto authority, veteran legislative advocates say the “Focus on Florida’s Future” budget proposal is an encouraging sign.

Stormie Knight, the governor’s Office of Policy & Budget policy coordinator, told the Senate panel that the governor’s proposal calls for 20 FTEs, or full-time-equivalent positions, and $5.1 million for “due process resources” for workload needs in the trial courts.

“Specifically, the funding will address growing need for court interpreter services to account for increasing expert witness fees, as well as to fund senior judge days,” she said.

In a legislative presentation last month, Maclure said the $5.1 million and 20 FTEs the courts were requesting includes $3.2 million to pay for additional court interpreters, contracted interpreter services, and interpreter support staff. Another $1.2 million of the total would cover an increase in expert witness costs, he said.

Approximately $698,000 of the total would be dedicated to additional senior judge days, Maclure said.

Maclure told the Senate panel that hiring senior judges on a part-time basis is the most efficient way for the courts to deal with temporary spikes in caseloads. More senior judges will be needed in coming year to help eliminate what remains of a backlog related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers last session appropriated $28.1 million for “critical due process resources” that the courts requested to pay for technology positions and salary enhancements for court reporters, court interpreters, trial court staff attorneys, and case managers. Some chief judges and trial court administrators say the additional money, which only became available July 1, is already making a difference in the branch’s ability to recruit and retain key support staff.

The governor’s latest budget proposal calls for slashing thousands of state positions from various state agencies, most of them vacant. But documents Knight submitted to the Senate subcommittee show his proposal would boost the state court system’s workforce by 1 FTE, from 4,526 to 4,527.

Knight highlighted another $5.8 million the governor would dedicate in FY 2024-25 to “contracted services” for court reporting.

Some $1.7 million of the total would be non-recurring money that would be earmarked in budget proviso language, Knight said.

The money would be used “to evaluate and procure innovative technological solutions to augment and expand these digital court reporting services,” Knight said.

The governor is also recommending another 10 FTEs and $1.8 million for additional child support hearing officers, Knight said. The proposal would fully fund the court spending request.

Maclure told the Senate panel that the court system is requesting $8 million to launch construction of a Sixth District Court of Appeal courthouse.

The money would pay for “Phase 1” construction, which includes site acquisition and architectural and engineering services.

The Sixth DCA has been using rented space in Lakeland and Maitland since it began hearing cases January 1.

The $8 million would allow administrators to come back to the Legislature later with a more accurate assessment of the project, Maclure said.

DeSantis vetoed $50 million that lawmakers initially appropriated for a Sixth DCA courthouse when they approved Florida’s first new state appellate court since 1979.

The governor’s proposed budget for FY 2024-25 does not include the $8 million request for the Sixth DCA facility.

However, the governor’s budget proposal would fully fund $1.8 million that the court system is requesting for repairs to a parking garage and air handling system for the Fifth District Court of Appeal facility in Daytona Beach.

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