Message from Pat Frank

Here’s a question I have pondered for months: What will it take to get legislators to adequately fund Florida court clerks?

When the Florida Legislature wrapped up its regular session in early May, court clerks found themselves in a sad but familiar position.

More budget cuts.

Despite generating enough money to fund our operations through fines, fees and costs, and despite the recommendations of a state agency the Legislature created to examine our needs, the Legislature once again reduced funding for all 67 Florida court clerks. While we are equal partners with the courts, prosecutors and public defenders, we were not treated equally by lawmakers in funding pay raises and health care costs.

As I have written before in this space, our budget has been cut every year for the past 10 years.  When the fiscal year begins Oct. 1, my office will be operating with 10 fewer positions than we had a year ago. We will be able to do so through attrition, not layoffs, thanks to our conservative approach to spending.

When I first took office 12 years ago, I inherited a staff of 850. We are now down to 689.

Lawmakers return to Tallahassee this month for committee meetings as they prepare for the 2018 regular session, which starts in January (it’s an election-year early session).

So here we go again.

I believe the money my office collects locally should be spent locally. The Legislature, however, diverts millions of dollars every year for things that have nothing to do with the court system. Last year, Florida Court Clerks collected $777 million but kept only $409 million. About $120 million went to prosecutors, public defenders and the courts. But here’s what most people don’t realize: $145 million went straight into the General Fund to pay for things that have nothing to do with justice.

Which brings me back to my original question. What do we need to do to demonstrate to lawmakers that clerk’s offices deserve adequate funding?

I and my judicial partners from the courts, state attorney and public defender spoke to the Hillsborough Legislative Delegation before the session to urge them to do all they could to help. I followed that with briefings for individual lawmakers and tours of our offices. I wrote emails, placed phone calls and traveled to Tallahassee to meet with lawmakers in person.

While I appreciate the time and the interest every legislator showed, their hands were tied.  The Legislature these days takes a top-down approach to leadership. Our budget was finalized behind closed doors in the waning of the session. There was little an individual lawmaker could do to influence the outcome.

One Florida clerk already has filed a lawsuit against the Legislature for failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide court clerks with “adequate and appropriate” funding. There may be more lawsuits to come.

The ultimate answer to our dilemma is to change the state Constitution. When the Constitution Revision Commission met in Tampa in May, I urged its members to propose an amendment to Section 14(b) of Article V so that clerks and their judicial partners are placed in a first priority to receive the local fines, fees and costs which we collect, based upon our documented needs.

You depend on my office to serve your needs. I ask that each of you support this effort.