The 1999 Legislature, through Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, directed the Comptroller of Public Accounts “to develop strategies for increasing the efficiency and reducing the complexity of fee collection and dispersal by county and municipal clerks.” The present report is offered in response to this charge.
The issue of court-cost simplification has formed the basis of several past studies in state government, including proposals in each biennial report of the Comptroller’s Texas Performance Review (TPR) released between 1993 and 1997. In response to TPR’s 1997 recommendations, the Legislature authorized the consolidation of ten state court costs and fees and directed the Comptroller’s office to allocate the consolidated revenue to various funds and programs supported by the old costs and fees.
During that same 1997 legislative session, however, the Legislature also created four new court fees, and added two more in 1999. Numerous city and county officials have told the Comptroller’s office that a further simplification of the state’s complex array of court costs and fees would lessen the administrative burden on their localities. The findings and recommendations contained in this report could help the state achievethis goal.
The first recommendation would consolidate all state courts costs and fees levied on criminal convictions into a single cost that would be reported to the state on a quarterly basis. Any new court costs or fees pertaining to criminal convictions created in the future should be included in the consolidated cost. This would eliminate multiple report forms cities and counties must file and ensure that the remaining reports are due on a uniform date.
The Comptroller’s office also recommends consolidation of all civil costs and fees in district courts into a single cost. All civil fees would be reported quarterly. Again, many individual reports presently due on varying dates would be made uniform.
A third recommendation would establish a uniform due date for reports concerning costs connected to the Sexual Assault Program Fund and the Substance Abuse Felony Program; these reports currently lack a statutory due date.
The report also proposes that the Legislature create a single, consistent definition for the term “conviction” in all pertinent statutes, and clarify one section of the Transportation Code to provide guidance to court clerks regarding which offenses should be subject to the fee for Failure to Appear.
Another proposal would make all future legislation creating or changing a court cost or fee effective on January 1 rather than September 1. This would give local officials and the Comptroller’s office much-needed time to prepare for those changes.
Finally, the Legislature is urged to direct the State Auditor’s Office to provide oversight for the funds that receive the state’s various court costs and fees. This would ensure that their stated purposes are being fulfilled and that the funding they receive remains appropriate.
These recommendations would entail a one-time loss of state revenue and a similar gain to local revenues in the first year of implementation, due to the shifting of certain deposits from one fiscal year to the next. Over time, they would streamline the present system of court costs and greatly enhance the ability of local governments to process and report them efficiently.