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first_imgGuardian ad Litem Program comes up big Court Funding Boosted Court Funding Boosted The $1.2 billion total represents a 6.5% increase for the courtscenter_img June 1, 2006 Regular News Gary Blankenship Senior Editor There was more money for new employees (especially for the Florida Guardian ad Litem Program), for some pay raises, and quite a bit for capital improvements, but Florida’s courts and related agencies didn’t get the funding they wanted to eliminate wage discrepancies with other public employers and the private sector.All told, funding for the courts, public defenders, state attorneys, the state’s Guardian ad Litem Program, and other offices totaled around $1.2 billion in the state’s 2006-07 fiscal plan.One big ticket item is that lawmakers approved 55 of the 66 new judgeships certified by the Supreme Court. (See story in the May 15 Bar News. )Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, chair of the House Justice Appropriations Committee, explained some of the other details when the final budget was presented on the House floor. The $1.2 billion total represents about a 6.5 percent increase for the judicial branch, he said.There was $14 million for more prosecutors and public defenders and $8 million in new funds for the Guardian ad Litem Program, which saw the existing $26.6 million budget grow to $33.6 million. (Because $1 million of non-recurring funding was lost, the net increase is $7 million.)“This is by far record money for the Guardian ad Litem Program,” Kottkamp said.The new funding will allow the program to hire 165 new employees: attorneys and case coordinators, said GAL Executive Director Angela Orkin, adding the “large majority of these new positions will provide direct advocacy for children.”At the beginning of the legislative session, Orkin said of 43,859 children under Department of Children and Families supervision, 17,587, or 40 percent, have no one advocating for the child’s best interest in dependency court.“We are so thankful for this increase,” Orkin said. “It is a testament to the hard work of guardians ad litem throughout Florida. Through this funding, we have the potential to significantly impact the lives of thousands of children involved in dependency court in Florida. We will be able to focus on permanency for children in a way that has never been possible before. The legislature has created a tremendous opportunity to help abused and neglected children.”Orkin praised Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, and Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, for taking the lead to obtain additional funding for the program.Courthouses Another $7 million was appropriated for special projects at courthouses in 24 smaller counties. Kottkamp said Fiscal Council Chair Negron met his goal that all members’ requests for small courthouse repairs and improvements would be met.For the courts, there’s more than $14 million for repairs and security upgrades at the Supreme Court building in Tallahassee, and $7 million for new staff, including more trial court clerks.Court officials filled in some of the details.State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said legislators responded to a plea from Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Pariente for major maintenance needs at the court, with $14.4 million as noted by Kottkamp. That will address almost all of the improvements and renovations needed at the court, she said.Law Clerks The court system requested 42 law clerks for circuit court judges, and the legislature authorized 36, which represents a major victory.“That’s an issue we had pressed on for the last several years” with little luck, Goodner said. “We finally got a good nod from the legislature that that’s a necessary resource.”Several other new positions were also funded at the Supreme Court and the Office of the State Courts Administrator to deal with workload increases.On the down side, the court system had conducted a major pay and benefits survey for court system employees, which showed they made less than comparable jobs in other public agencies. That led to a request for major pay scale adjustments from Pariente, at a cost of $15.6 million.But while court employees got the 3 percent pay raise given to all state employees, none of the extra pay and benefit requests from the chief justice to address the inequities was funded, she said.Interpreters The legislature also funded the requested $1.3 million for court interpreters and $1.9 million of $6.8 million sought for additional court reporters, Goodner said. The legislature also approved a program to certify court interpreters and funded that operation through Goodner’s office.“That program should help eliminate issues resulting from having unqualified interpreters in courtrooms,” she said.The legislature also boosted funding for mediation services in the trial courts, approving an extra $1 million and 12 new positions.Salaries Lawmakers also gave final approval and funding for a benchmarking program for judicial salaries. That sets pay for district court of appeal judges at 95 percent of that for a Supreme Court justice, at 90 percent for circuit judges, and 85 percent for county judges.At the district court of appeal level, First DCA Judge Charles Kahn, chair of the District Court of Appeal Budget Commission, said the legislature met most of the capital needs. But there was disappointment that two new judgeships, one in the Second and one in the Fourth DCA which were certified by the Supreme Court, were not authorized by lawmakers.Likewise for the trial courts, DCA employees did not receive pay and benefit adjustments sought by the courts. Particularly disappointing, Kahn said, is that health insurance benefits were not provided for the judges’ law clerks, as they are for other state-employed lawyers.Capital Repairs On the capital issues, the Third DCA will see more than $900,000 to address needed repairs, much of it hurricane-related, the judge said. Money was also provided for roof repairs for the Fourth DCA and for security and obsolescence issues at the First DCA.Public Defenders Eighth Circuit Public Defender Rick Parker, president-elect of the Florida Public Defender Association, said public defenders saw the largest increase ever in absolute dollars for their budget, although not the largest percentage increase. Public defenders are pleased, but it was less than the $15 million requested.The $6.2 million in new general revenue — or a 3.3 percent hike — was due to the efforts of Negron, Kottkamp, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the Senate Justice Appropriations Committee, Parker said.“Last year, our percentage increase was 2 percent, when they increased the size of the criminal courts by 7 percent,” he noted. “We did have some catching up to do, not just from last year, but from several years.”The new funding will be split three different ways, which means some circuits will do better than others. The legislature created a $500,000 fund to be split among nine circuits that have had faster growth than others, Parker saidThen $1.4 million will be split among circuits getting new judges that will result in more criminal divisions and thus require more workload from the public defenders. The remaining $4 million-plus will be split among the 20 circuits.Aside from the money for new positions, the legislature also addressed an $8 million deficit in the administered funds for due process expenses, primarily for conflict attorneys.Parker said lawmakers increased that budget by $8 million for next year and funded the current year’s deficit of $8 million by tapping monies in various administered funds. That includes $4.4 million from a trust fund that pays for replacement equipment and temporary employees for public defender attorney offices. Public defenders will be getting together shortly to figure out how that will be spread among the circuits.State Attorneys Nineteenth Circuit State Attorney Bruce Colton, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, likewise was pleased with new funding, but noted it wasn’t everything prosecutors had requested.“We did OK,” he said. “We’re not really complaining. We, of course, did not get everything we wanted.”Overall, prosecutors had asked for around $19.5 million in new funding. They got, Colton said, around $8.5 million for workload increase, and another $1 million divided among some circuits that had been underfunded before.The main shortfall was the state attorneys’ push to get money for their assistants with a few years’ experience. Lawmakers agreed a couple years ago to boost the starting salaries for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders. But that created a gap with assistants with a few years experience who found themselves making little more than newly hired attorneys.So state attorneys (as well as public defenders) have been seeking what they call “phase two” funding to improve the salaries for their lawyers who have been on the job for three years or so. The legislature declined again this year. (Another bill, to help repay the law school loans of public defenders and state attorneys who have been on the job for more than three years died in committee.)Improving the pay would reduce a high turnover rate, public defenders and state attorneys say.“This is something we talked about with the legislators at the beginning of the session. Everyone was optimistic,” Colton said. “Another disappointing part about that [its failure] is that it’s not like it was a lean year; there was a lot of money there.”He said legislators seem to think that the posts are temporary jobs before the lawyers move into more lucrative private practice, while prosecutors see the problem as ever more complex cases and enforcing an increasing number of laws.“We’re trying to build a base of experience and trying to get people to stay here for longer or even make a career of it,” Colton said. (See story, page 21)CCRCs The legislators also provided additional funds for attorneys who defend death row inmates on collateral appeals.Last year, the legislature provided nearly $7.5 million for the Central and Southern Capital Collateral Regional Counsel offices, with a total of 69 employees. This year, lawmakers approved an additional four positions at $250,000.The legislature also hiked the money for registry counsel, private lawyers who handle all collateral appeals in the northern area and overflow and conflict cases from the two CCRC offices. (The state is in the middle of a pilot project to evaluate how registry counsel perform compared to CCRC offices.) The private attorneys will get an additional $900,000 this year, or a total of $2.3 million.According to the Commission on Capital Cases, which oversees the CCRCs and the registry attorneys, the CCRCS are handling a total of 157 cases, while the registry attorneys have 130 cases. For costs, that means the state is spending $49,000 per CCRC case and $18,000 per registry case.last_img read more