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Budget woes may affect court funding: projections show significant revenue shortfalls for the next two years.

It wasn't being talked about much during the recent gubernatorial and legislative campaigns, but state government is facing a continuing fiscal crisis that will likely affect court funding in coming years.

Legislation Committee Chair Jesse Diner reported to the Board of Governors last month that the committee is planning a special workshop, which may be expanded to include the entire board, on court funding. Chief Legislative Counsel Steve Metz said state projections are showing significant revenue shortfalls for the next two years, when the state is scheduled under a 1998 constitutional amendment to assume more funding of the trial courts.

The two also reported on several other issues, but spent much of their time warning about the budget-related issues.

Diner said the Legislation Committee spent considerable time discussing what position the board should take on court funding, but "the more we discussed it the more we realized we need to learn more. At the January [30 committee] meeting, we're going to have a workshop on the Article V funding issues. We may expand it to the entire board, if possible. It's going to affect the courts and the board in the coming year."

One concern, Diner said, is the legislature, faced with funding and other issues, may put off dealing with court finances until the 2004 session. The constitutional amendment requires the state to assume many of the expenses now paid by counties by July 1, 2004.

Metz said the state already is expecting a deficit, which would be worsened by the proposed constitutional amendment to limit classroom size in public schools. (This News went to press before election results were known.) Even assuming most optimistic projections which would bring $1 billion in new revenues, the state would still face a budget shortfall of $2.2 billion for 2003 if the amendment passed, and that would be $2.4 billion for 2004, he said. Those figures do not include any money for the high speed rail system that was mandated by voters in 2000.

"That's going to be the controlling factor in the coming session," Metz said, adding it could lead to consideration of a tax on legal services.

On other matters:

* Diner said the Legislation Committee considered a request by the Government Lawyer Section to support legislation that would remove barriers to publicly employed lawyers doing pro bono work. The committee decided to take no action on that for the moment because of pending litigation.

* The committee recommended and the board approved allowing a committee to lobby for adequate funding for programs that protect the legal rights of children.

* Diner, Metz, and Bar President Tod Aronovitz urged board members to participate in the Bar's Key Contact program that tries to establish personal contact with lawmakers. "Personal contacts with a legislator is the most important way to get something done," Aronovitz said.

* The board authorized the Criminal Law Section to lobby for sufficient funding for the criminal justice system to ensure the rights of parties are not abridged; technological advances can be afforded; and there is adequate money for conflict counsel.

* The board authorized the Public Interest Law Section to lobby on legislation to open up state records from agencies that affect children so the effectiveness of those programs can be evaluated, to provide procedures for giving psychotropic medication to children in state custody, and to create a Statewide Office of Children's Advocate.

* The board authorized the Tax Section to provide technical assistance to the legislature on the Uniform Limited Partnership Act.
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Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Nov 15, 2002
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