Week 1: Jan. 12-15, 2016
The first week of the 2016 legislative session showed a Legislature ready to work at a brisk pace, as it acted on the top priority of each chamber – legislation pertaining to children with unique abilities and legislation addressing Florida’s water policy. With these two major initiatives on their way to the governor, the Legislature will focus on the myriad policy issues still outstanding.
In his State of the State address to open the session, Gov. Rick Scott discussed his tax reduction proposals and his continued focus on economic development. The Legislature expressed interest in working with him on both issues, and the budget projections and allocations will be a key factor in the level of tax relief.
State leaders did receive some surprise news this week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Florida’s current death penalty process unconstitutional. Over the next few days, the governor, Attorney General Pam Bondi and legislative leaders are expected to quickly develop a legislative solution.
APPELLATE COURT TERM LIMITS
SJR 322 by Sen. Travis Hutson (R-Palm Coast) and HJR 197 by Rep. John Wood (R-Winter Haven) propose a constitutional amendment to create term limits for Supreme Court justices and District Courts of Appeal judges. If passed by the voters, the amendment would limit Florida appellate justices and judges to two full six-year terms on the bench. Currently, the state Constitution does not limit the number of terms that justices or appeals court judges may serve, but it does include a mandatory retirement age of 70. The House legislation was amended to provide that the term limits will apply only prospectively to a justice or judge appointed to office after the effective date of the amendment. On Nov. 3, 2015, HJR 197 passed the House Civil Justice Subcommittee by a vote of 8- 5. The bill next goes to the Appropriations Committee, the second of three committee references. The Senate companion measure has not been scheduled for a hearing. On Dec. 4, The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors adopted the following position statement: The Florida Bar opposes term limits for judges at any level of Florida’s state court system. The Bar’s legislative counsel is working with the various judicial conferences to meet with legislators to voice their opposition to this proposal.
STUDENT LOAN FORGIVENESS
SB 142 by Sen. Jeremy Ring (D-Margate) and HB 923 by Rep. Charles McBurney (R-Jacksonville) create the Greater Good Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program for attorneys employed by local, state or federal government agencies. The legislation limits the eligibility to attorneys employed for 10 years or less and earning a salary of less than $65,000 annually. The legislation also provides award amounts for attorneys based on specified eligibility criteria and provides loan payment requirements. Additionally, to be eligible for the program, an attorney must be a member in good standing of The Florida Bar without disciplinary action by the Bar. On Dec. 1, SB 142 cleared the Judiciary Committee by a vote of 8-0, and it passed the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on Jan. 11 by a vote of 3-0. Two final committee references remain.
HB 291 by Rep. Hazelle Rogers (D-Lauderhill) requires the Justice Administrative Commission and the Attorney General’s Office to implement a student loan assistance program for career assistant state attorneys, assistant public defenders, assistant attorneys general or assistant statewide prosecutors in the repayment of eligible student loans. HB 291 has been referred to committees but has not been heard.
HB 4059 by Rep. John Tobia (R-Melbourne Beach) removes the provisions authorizing the Florida Supreme Court to admit a bar applicant who is an unauthorized immigrant. At this point no Senate companion bill has been filed.
Gov. Scott on Nov. 23, 2015, unveiled his 2016-17 recommended state budget. The budget totaling $79.3 billion included $1 billion in tax cuts. The judicial branch is funded at $513.2 million. Included in the governor’s budget are several items impacting the District Court of Appeals including:
- $6.5 million to complete renovation of the Third District Court of Appeal Building.
- $4.8 million to complete construction of the Fourth District Court of Appeal Building.
- $100,000 for a facility space study for the Second District Court of Appeal.
The governor’s proposed budget does not include any increases in salaries for judicial employees or judges.
With the recommendation in hand, House and Senate budget subcommittees received numerous presentations on the “asks” from various state agencies and the court system. Each chamber is expected to release draft proposed budgets within the next two weeks.
Moreover, the Clerks of Court from throughout the state reached out to The Florida Bar to help them grapple with some of their financial challenges that affect the courts system. The state trust fund used to fund clerk operations grew during the recession as foreclosure filing fees increased. But the housing market stabilization, coupled with a steep decline in the revenue from speeding tickets, resulted in a $22.4 million deficit for the current fiscal year. The Florida Bar is working with the courts system and the Clerks of Court Association to address this issue with legislators.
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