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Senate panel gets to work on Art. V funding issues

first_img February 1, 2004 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Senate panel gets to work on Art. V funding issuesSenior Editor “We’re getting down to some big, tall decisions in a short period of time.”That’s how Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, summed up challenges facing the Senate Subcommittee on Article V Implementation and Judiciary, at the end of the three-hour meeting January 8.The committee will oversee the judicial systems budget for 2004-05, when the state takes over more trial court funding. It is also working on a glitch bill to correct problems with the law passed last year spelling out how that funding transfer will take place.The meeting gave an idea of the size of the task facing lawmakers. Topics ranged from numerous perceived problems with the transfer law, the number of new judges certified by the Supreme Court and funding for local legal aid programs (see story, page 8), overall court funding, technology and communications problems that have yet to be hammered out between the state and counties, and prosecution of municipal and county ordinances.Many of those issues surfaced as the committee heard from representatives of the courts, state attorneys, the counties, and public defenders on glitches in the transfer bill, HB 113A, passed by the legislature last year.Second Circuit State Attorney Willie Meggs, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, presented a list of glitches that began with a prohibition in HB 113A for prosecutors handling municipal and county ordinance enforcement.Meggs said that would lead to counties and cities creating their own prosecutorial offices and a maze of state and local prosecutorial operations, something the 1972 Article V amendment was intended to end.Smith agreed that there should be only one prosecuting entity, but he said he wanted to go further than Meggs’ suggestion of allowing state attorneys to negotiate agreements with counties for local ordinance enforcement.“I’m willing to make you the prosecutors, but I do not accept the fact the counties may or may not pay,” he said. “I want you to come up with a way for the counties to pay for this service.”Smith said there might not need to be a charge if prosecutors handled only a handful of such cases a year, but in some areas it can be thousands of cases a year. He and Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, said one solution might be redirecting part of the fines city and counties get from ordinance violations to the state.Meggs also said prosecutors need clarification about whether the state or counties will be responsible for computer and communications services. While the law appears to make the counties responsible for computers, he said some don’t have computer networks or have systems that are inadequate for state attorneys’ needs. He also said some counties are defining the requirement to provide communications as ending with the provision of a telephone wall jack.“We’re looking for a global information computer solution that the counties and the state can live with,” Smith said.Another problem is a section of HB 113A that allows state attorneys to pay for experts in criminal cases, but is silent on civil cases, such as the Jimmy Ryce Act committals or Baker Act cases, Meggs said. He asked that the matter be addressed.Second Circuit Public Defender Nancy Daniels, representing the Florida Public Defenders Association, had similar concerns, including the prohibition in HB 113A on public defenders representing clients charged with municipal and county ordinance violations.Smith noted that public defenders are not required if a judge up front says jail time will not be part of the penalty, including for violating any resulting probation. But Daniels said judges are reluctant to make that concession because it limits their ability to impose sanctions on recalcitrant defendants, especially for probation violations.Another glitch, according to Daniels, is the law makes it harder for public defenders to hire expert witnesses than for state attorneys. The defenders should have the same requirements as the prosecutors, she said.The law also prohibits counties from giving extra funds to public defenders for overload or other extra work. “We don’t think the statute should prohibit it if we’re able to convince them to give us some money for something,” Daniels said.Other concerns, she said, are:• Clerks are given authority after three years to dispose of evidence, including DNA evidence, if no appeal seems likely. Daniels said judges should make that call.• The law requires assessments of costs and fees when indigent defendants are convicted. Daniels suggested setting a schedule of costs and fees for each kind of case, rather than tie up court time trying to figure out an accurate assessment for each individual case.• Language in the law could be read as giving public defenders oversight of prosecutor witness coordination and victim services programs, something defenders don’t want, Daniels said.• Clarifying whether counties are responsible for such communications equipment as fax machines and office utilities.• Clarifying the effective date for the funding switch. Daniels said there are questions about who pays an expert witness who is hired before July 1, but submits his or her report after July 1, when the state takes over more of the funding.Eighth Circuit Judge Stan Morris, vice chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, said the courts had several suggestions, mostly involving policies. Those include:• Allowing counties to pass laws imposing extra fees and costs on some cases, with the money then earmarked for enhanced court programs.• Continuing to work out due process costs that currently are handled differently in the various circuits and counties. As an example, Morris noted some counties use publicly employed court reporters, while others contract out that work, and others use a combination. He said counties should be given the flexibility to use the system they want.• Clarifying how some court fines and costs will be reported. Morris noted that for many criminal offenses, judges are given discretion on imposing fines and costs. Yet clerks plan to report anything less than the maximum imposed as waived or uncollected revenues, which the judge said presents an unfair picture.• Increasing the portion of filing fees set aside for judicial education from $2.50 to $4 to keep judges well trained and up to date.• Give chief judges oversight on the quality of materials clerks provide to pro se and indigent litigants.• Consider, as Sen. Smith proposed last year, some form of surcharge on complex cases that result in a large award. Morris said judges would support a levy of 0.1 percent, or $1,000 on a $1 million award. Smith said he intends to pursue some form of that idea in the coming session.John Ricco, representing the Florida Association of Counties, also presented several suggestions. He said counties should not be responsible for the day-to-day computer operations of the court system. He also said the filing fees charged to counties and cities when they file cases to enforce their ordinances should be kept low, preferably less than $50.The meeting ended before the committee had a chance to take testimony from cities and court clerks. Smith said they would appear at a future meeting, and that also he hoped to have a glitch bill ready for review by early February.Then the committee will work to sort out the communications and technology issues remaining with the counties, and will tackle, as Smith put it, that “little funding issue” of how the state will pay for its increased share of the trial courts.Why’d we do that again? Senate panel gets to work on Art. V funding issuescenter_img Call it the legislative equivalent of a bender.There may not have been alcohol involved during committee meetings and intense negotiations, but keeping all the details of court funding issues sorted out in the fast-and-furious frenzy of the Florida Legislature can be mind-boggling.Consider HB 133A. The 100-plus page blueprint was passed last year in the legislature’s first special session, the product of hundreds of hours of testimony from lobbyists representing every player in the court system, from judges to court clerks. The House and Senate officials had to work out many difficult compromises.Inevitably, there were problems, and now legislators are scurrying to fix them with glitch bills.“Working in the legislature is like waking up from a bad drunk. I can’t remember why we did what we did, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time,” said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Article V Implementation and Judiciary.As chuckles rippled around the committee room, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, smiled at Smith and replied, “There are some people here who don’t know what you’re talking about.”“That’s because you haven’t sobered up yet,” Smith flung back.Of course, the legislative hangover can affect more than senators.Second Circuit State Attorney Willie Meggs, the Baptist teetotaler president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, was next to testify. Before he presented his list of suggested glitch fixes, Meggs told Smith and the committee: “I feel like I was on that bad drunk with you!”last_img

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