Florida budget panel restores court clerk funding

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A panel of lawmakers agreed Thursday to let Florida's court clerks spend an additional $29.5 million to avoid layoffs and service reductions due to state budget cuts.

The Legislative Budget Commission unanimously approved Gov. Rick Scott's request to let the 67 clerks, one for each county, tap additional fee and fine collections that have increased from the passage of a new law.

"This action will allow the clerks to return to normal business hours and allow us to serve our communities, our people, our businesses, the courts in the way they have a right to expect," Leon County Clerk of Courts Bob Inzer told the commission.

Without the additional money, the clerks were facing the prospect of laying off hundreds of employees, closing branch offices and cutting office hours.

Inzer said some clerks have gone through the layoff process and now will be recalling those workers or hiring replacements. He was unsure, though, how many employees may have been affected.

"Other clerks have been making other budget changes in hopes that there would be some budget relief that was forthcoming, so you'd probably find 67 different answers to that," Inzer said.

The commission also approved accepting nearly $2.3 million in federal funds for the Florida National Guard to help provide security for the Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The total includes $1.29 million that Tampa has offered the National Guard from federal funds allocated to the city for convention security. The remaining $1 million is a direct allocation to Florida from the Defense Department.

"We would support any major national event like that here in the state," said Sen. JD Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who chairs the commission. "To me it's a nonpartisan issue."

In addition, the panel authorized Attorney General Pam Bondi's office to use $6.6 million from a legal affairs trust fund to pay a court judgment to the Bradenton Group Inc., a Bingo game operator.

A state circuit judge in March entered the judgment for wrongful injunction damage. It stemmed from a case that originated under then-Attorney General Bob Butterworth in 1995.

Butterworth obtained a court injunction shutting down about 15 bingo halls and freezing the company's properties for possible subsequent seizure under the state's Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.

The Florida Supreme Court in 1998, though, ruled the RICO law cannot be used to sue illegal commercial bingo halls. State law permits bingo for charities and veterans groups but not strictly for commercial purposes. The justices said state law does not permit routine bingo offenses to be transformed into RICO or lottery violations.

A proposal from Scott for $3 million to kick-start a massive outsourcing of state functions to private businesses was withdrawn. The commission's staff was unable to validate potential cost savings from the privatization or the methodology used by Scott's Department of Management Services to calculate those savings.

The department estimates outsourcing $1.6 billion in current spending would save $100 million over 2.5 years.

"I don't think we felt like we thought it was ready to go at this point," Alexander said. "It needed to be thought through a little more, maybe some documentation on cost savings."

Alexander said the House insisted on cutting the court clerks' spending by $40 million in budget negotiations during the regular legislative session that ended in March. He said the Senate supported full funding but agreed to split the difference.

"At the time I knew there would be opportunities to reconsider the decision," Alexander said. He also questioned whether the clerks' austerity measures were entirely due to the state budget cut because some also may have had local funding reductions. The clerks receive county as well as state funding.

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