Proposed court fee hikes would raise an estimated $24 million in new money for the state’s court system next fiscal year, potentially giving the S.C. Judicial Department its biggest total budget in recent years, according to records reviewed by The Nerve.
If the fee increases are approved, South Carolina’s third branch of government for the first time could wind up relying more on income from fees and fines than from general fund revenues, which have been slashed by more than $20 million since 2000.
One state senator questions whether the proposed fee hikes, which are labeled "other" funds in the department’s budget, are excessive. Court users would see fee increases ranging from 33 to 200 percent.
"This is not an effort to smooth out a bump in the road," Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter, told The Nerve on Thursday before Senate floor debate on a House bill (H. 3161) to increase the fees. "This is an effort to build a bridge."
After a debate that at times was heated, the Senate voted 19-8 to give final approval to the bill and send it back to the House to address changes the Senate made to it. Leventis voted against the bill.
Leventis, who noted his daughter is a public defender in Virginia, told The Nerve that he is concerned about the department’s increasing reliance on fees and fines.
"There’s something like 20 to 25 code provisions and (budget) provisos for delegating various fees," he said. "When you’ve got a system that is so complex to fund a branch of government, there’s something wrong with that."
"They (fees) really are taxes that are targeted to individuals," he continued. "Calling them ‘user fees’ is a euphemism. … The thing we need to do is to construct a general-fund budget that can adequately meet the needs of the state."
Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, an attorney, said during Thursday's floor debate that the state's court system should be funded primarily with general fund revenues, not with court fees. He offered an amendment, which he later withdrew, that would have allowed the Judicial Department to receive up to $2.5 million in tobacco settlement money over the next two fiscal years.
"We’re transferring to a user-fee type of government," Massey said, adding later, "We have been irresponsible in our funding of a branch of government."
Massey warned that with continual cuts in the general fund, "The danger here is that … the courts will shut down."
Massey voted against final passage of the bill. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, were among the 19 senators who voted for it.
S.C Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who heads the Judicial Department, has said that unless her budget situation improves, she might have to lay off circuit court law clerks and make other personnel cuts.
Neither Toal nor Rosalyn Frierson, the state court administration director, responded last week to The Nerve’s written questions about the bill. Rep. James Harrison, R-Richland, the bill’s author, also did not reply to The Nerve’s inquiries.
Most of the proposed fee hikes were contained in another bill (H. 4595) pushed by Toal and sponsored by Harrison, an attorney who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. But that bill, which was introduced on Feb. 18, never got out of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Instead, that bill later was folded into H. 3161, which passed the House last year and initially dealt only with certain changes to the Office of Motor Vehicle Hearings in the S.C. Administrative Law Court, including increasing filing fees there. The Administrative Law Court is not part of the Judicial Department.
Under the Senate’s version of H. 3161, the proposed fee increases for the Judicial Department are:
- Civil court case filings: $300 from $150, a 100-percent increase.
- Family court case filings, except for child support enforcement or modification: $200 from $150, a 33-percent increase.
- Civil and family court motions: $75 from $25, a 200-percent increase.
- Attorney court depositions: $50 (new)
- Magistrate court case filings: $50 from $25, a 100-percent increase.
- Other magistrate court civil actions, except restraining orders: $20 from $10, a 100-percent increase.
Attorney deposition fees would be in effect until June 30, 2011; the other fees would sunset after June 30, 2012.
According to an S.C. Board of Economic Advisors fiscal impact statement dated April 20, the fee hikes would raise the following projected amounts for next fiscal year, which starts July 1:
- Civil court case filings: $15 million (based on 100,000 annual filings).
- Family court case filings: $1.3 million (based on 25,900 annual filings).
- Civil and family court motions: $2.9 million
- Attorney court depositions: $2.5 million(based on 50,690 depositions annually)
- Magistrate court fees: $2.6 million(filings and other actions)
Minus mandated transfers to the state Commission on Prosecution Coordination and the Access to Justice Commission, the net projected increase to the Judicial Department is just under $24 million, according to the BEA report.
The estimated $24 million increase in fees would be about $6 million more than what the House, in its budget passed last month, appropriated in general funds to the Judicial Department for next fiscal year; and nearly double the general-fund appropriations in the just-released Senate Finance Committee's 2010-11 proposed budget.
The projected fee hikes also would more than double this year's estimated total collections of fees and fines, bringing next year's estimated total to as much as $42 million, assuming this year's collections remain constant, The Nerve's review found.
Since Toal became chief justice in 2000, fees and fines have jumped dramatically, while general funds have been slashed. In fiscal year 2001, for example, fees made up $66,575, or less than 1 percent, of the department’s total revenues; this fiscal year, fees are projected at more than $18 million, or nearly 36 percent, of total revenues, according to department records.
Meanwhile, as a percentage of the department’s total budget, general funds have dropped from 99 percent in fiscal year 2001 to 44 percent this fiscal year with mandated cuts, records show.
Toal also has brought in more federal dollars over the years; this fiscal year’s federal allocation is $6.2 million, not including $4 million in one-time federal stimulus dollars. In her proposed 2010-11 budget, Toal projected federal revenue at $7.3 million.
Hiring freezes, travel and other cuts, and transfers from reserve funds have been used to make up for a $6.6 million shortfall last fiscal year and another projected $7.6 million deficit this fiscal year, according to department records.
The House budget for 2010-11 slashes the department’s total budget to $47.7 million from $59.3 million (as amended this fiscal year), including a decrease of about $8 million in general funds, for an overall decrease of about 20 percent. The Senate Finance Committee's version sets the department's total budget next fiscal year at $58 million, though it appropriates $12.7 million, or about $5.3 million less than the House version, in general fund revenue.
Still, with the projected $24 million increase in court fees and assuming the House budget stands as written, the department’s total budget for next fiscal year could jump to as much as $67 million, a 13-percent increase over this fiscal year’s amended budget projection, The Nerve's review found. Based on the Senate Finance Committee's proposed appropriations, the Judicial Department's total budget next year could be as much as $62 million.
Either way, that would give Toal her biggest budget since she has been chief justice. About $60.3 million was spent last fiscal year – her largest budget so far under her tenure, despite large general-fund cuts, department records show.
The House’s 2010-11 budget for all state agencies projects nearly $7.8 billion in "other" fund revenue, or nearly 37 percent of the $21.1 billion total budget.General funds are estimated at about $5.1 billion, or 24 percent of the budget; $8.2 billion in federal funds make up the remaining approximate 39 percent of the budget.
The Senate Finance Committee's proposed 2010-11 total budget is about $60 million more than the House version, appropriating approximately $40 million and $18 million more to "other" and general funds, respectively.
The Senate is expected to begin debating its budget version this week.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106, or email@example.com.