Negron: Return the justice system to a simpler model

first_imgNegron: Return the justice system to a simpler model February 1, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Negron: Return the justice system to a simpler model Senior EditorState court officials gathered before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judiciary got a grim fiscal message at the committee’s initial gathering: Don’t assume any funding is sacrosanct this year.With the state facing a budget shortfall estimated at between $1 and $4 billion, committee members heard calls for not raising taxes and for a simpler justice system.Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Ft. Myers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, stopped by the subcommittee’s January 10 initial meeting. He urged that two principles be followed as the subcommittee works to set a budget for state attorneys, public defenders, the courts, and the capital collateral regional counsels.Decisions, he said, should be “based on the priorities of Floridians and to live within our means without raising taxes.. . . ”“We’ve got a great opportunity before us to take the budget in a direction it’s never taken before, to live within our means to build the budget from the ground up with zero-based budgeting,” he added.Subcommittee Chair Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that the subcommittee would not be starting with last year’s budget and then considering increases. Rather, he said members should assume each agency’s budget is zero.“It’s important for us to ask questions based on the assumption that when they walk in the door, their budget is zero,” Negron said. “Is this activity producing tangible results, what would be lost if funding reduced.. . . If we fund a particular program, what other worthy option or program is not going to be able to be funded?”He also said that House Speaker Johnnie Byrd wants lawmakers to consider using excess monies in trust funds for other purposes, similar to general revenues.Negron said he hopes to return the justice system to a simpler model.“Courthouses were designed as places in the community to acquit innocent people, convict and punish guilty people, and resolve disputes. That’s the role of courthouses, that should be primarily done on the local level,” Negron said.He said, though, in the past decade or so a variety of programs have grown up around the courts and involve more than “a judge sitting in a courtroom calling balls and strikes in a particular case.“We need to ask what is the core mission of the court system and that is what we have to fund.”The committee followed its January 10 organization session with reviews or court agencies on January 13 and 14. Negron noted that Byrd wants a preliminary budget report in February. Aside from the tight budget, lawmakers are also struggling with a 1998 constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 7, that mandates that the state take over more funding for circuit and county courts from counties by July 1, 2004.Greg Davis, senior staff analyst for the subcommittee, gave a quick overview at the January 10 meeting of the state’s funding of the legal system. The state, in the current budget year, spent a total of about $792 million on prosecutors, public defenders, the courts, the CCRCs, and related operations. Almost two thirds went for the prosecutors and public defenders and about one third went for courts, he said.Notably, 90 percent of the state’s expenditures went directly for salaries, and paid for about 11,500 jobs, Davis said. Counties paid for much of the supporting services, such as expert witnesses, court reporters, offices, and the like. The state is scheduled to take over much of that expense no later than July 1, 2004.Article V agencies are also seeking on average about a 20 percent budget increase, Davis reported, including public defenders who want a 28 percent hike.Following its first three days of hearings, Negron said the committee was beginning to get an idea of what decisions it would have to make. He also said he had met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee AnsteadHe named three issues that are emerging, the first of which is identifying the essential court operations and eliminating “social programs and other activities that are outside the core functions of the court system.”“Number two, our committee is going to determine whether we principally want the clerks of court to be the support staff for the courts or whether we want to continue the proliferation of the court administration system,” Negron said. He added, “I’m concerned about the proliferation of court administration throughout the state. I think there is duplication between what court clerks can and should do and what court administrators had adopted.” He noted in many cases, administrators had been asked to take on the jobs they were performing.The balance between the two “is a policy decision the legislature will have to make and we’re compiling in formation on that so we can make an informed decision,” Negron said.The third item is that all court functions will subject to zero-based budgeting. “We’re starting from zero and asking how much will it cost to run a first-class court system,” he said.Negron said he expects to meet with Speaker Bryd in mid-February to give the panels preliminary findings. Those will also incorporate recommendations in Gov. Jeb Bush’s budget, which was scheduled to be released January 24, after this News went to press.Asked what social or other programs might not be considered core court functions, Negron said, “I think drug courts, truancy intervention programs, family support services.. . . “If counties believe those programs are valuable to the community, then counties will have to fund them, or they will have to be self supporting.”He added, “The state will not take over the existing court system in its entirety with a straight fiscal transfer. I look at Amendment 7 as a historic opportunity to look at how a judicial branch should operate in the future. There actually may be some programs that receive increased funding if we think that is necessary.”last_img