State Budget; What 15% Less Means to You Doomsday Courts Could Close for Weeks, Judges Say or Not Crist Might Have Been Trying to Shock Legislature

By Larrabee, Brandon; Pinkham, Paul | The Florida Times Union, March 21, 2009 | Go to article overview

State Budget; What 15% Less Means to You Doomsday Courts Could Close for Weeks, Judges Say or Not Crist Might Have Been Trying to Shock Legislature


Larrabee, Brandon, Pinkham, Paul, The Florida Times Union


Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE and PAUL PINKHAM

Lawmakers and state employees dazed by Gov. Charlie Crist's temporary 15 percent cut to fourth-quarter state spending scrambled Friday to handle the fallout, making preparations to shut down the state's judicial system and for ever-tougher budget decisions with time winding down.

Judges painted a Doomsday scenario of locked courthouses and canceled trials, adoptions, divorces and foreclosures. Public defenders and prosecutors discussed shuttering offices. One lawmaker openly wondered whether school districts would be able to pay their employees.

Some legislators, even among those intimately involved in crafting spending blueprints, said they were caught off-guard by the governor's announcement Thursday that the funding would be held back.

"I was stunned," said Sen. Steve Wise, the Jacksonville Republican who heads his chamber's public education funding committee. Wise openly worried that some school systems might fall short of payroll by June.

"We'll just do what we've got to do," he said, "to keep everyone from being insolvent."

Others, like Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said they saw something like Crist's move coming.

"I'm not surprised by it at all," he said. "It may be the prudent action to take at this time. Obviously, it's a short-term action by the governor until the Legislature is able to formulate a budget."

Crist made the decision Thursday because tax revenues have fallen short and the state needed to find a way to fix a $700 billion budget hole. Some legislators saw it as an effort to pressure them into moving quickly on spending reductions for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

"I think that he wanted to get everyone's attention, and he did that," said Rep. Mike Weinstein, R-Jacksonville. "I don't think that it ultimately ends this way. ... But he did get his point across that some decisions need to be made quickly."

Adding emphasis to Crist's point were the decisions being made to prepare for the cuts.

The judiciary isn't directly affected by the cut because it only applies to the executive branch, said Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry of Orlando, chairman of the Trial Court Budget Commission. He said judges are waiting to learn what the Legislature requires of them.

Even if the judiciary were somehow spared, shutting down the state attorney and public defender offices "would bring the courts to a screeching halt," Perry said.

In Jacksonville, Chief Circuit Judge Donald Moran described the situation as "impossible." He said the law requires a first appearance court to operate every day because people arrested in Florida have to appear before a judge within 24 hours. The courts also would be required to staff domestic violence cases.

But divorces, adoptions, child support, foreclosures and other court functions would all be shut down, he said. With no trials, the jails would fill up quickly.

The potential for that sort of trauma drew criticism from some lawmakers. Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, said Crist "jumped the gun" with an across-the-board reduction.

"That's not the way you budget," she said. "It is something that we have to do strategically."

brandon.larrabee@jacksonville.com, (678) 977-3709

paul.pinkham@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4107

AGENCIES FACING SHORTAGES

Although Gov. Charlie Crist only held back and didn't eliminate 15 percent from fourth-quarter general revenue spending, some state agencies are fearing the worst. Others, who anticipated further budget cuts, say they're prepared to handle it. Among the higher-profile state agencies:

COURTS

Public Defender Matthew Shirk said he is preparing to lock his offices in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties and furlough all employees the second half of June.

"If we don't get any of the money back, the best-case scenario is a 12-day furlough," Shirk said after participating in a conference call with the state's 20 other elected public defenders. …

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