Simplify State Court Fees

The Legislature should simplify the state court fee system by adopting uniform court fees by offense type.


Background
Texas state court fee system grows increasingly complex with each legislative session. In 1985, there were only five state court fees. At least two additional fees have been added in each legislative session since, bringing the current total to 12 separa te state court fees, each applicable in specific instances. The resulting system is inefficient and difficult to administer. The Texas Court Clerks Association has stated that the current fee system s complexity may result in taxes not being collected, and contributes more to the hardship of court administrators...than any other item. 1

Revenue from state court fees is deposited to special funds and special accounts within the General Revenue Fund, some of which are dedicated to a number of judicial a nd law enforcement agencies and programs, such as the Crime Stoppers Assistance program, the Department of Public Safety, the Supreme Court and the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission. Under the current fee structure, a bewildering variety of fees are asse ssed on individuals convicted of an offense.

An individual cited for speeding, for example, is liable for state court fees supporting the following dedicated funds: Judicial and Court Personnel Training, Law Enforcement Officers Standards and Education, Law Enforcement Management Institute, Compensation to Victims of Crime, Criminal Justice Planning and Comprehensive Rehabilitation, as well as yet another fee channeled into general revenue without any specific dedication. Another individual cited for fail ure to maintain auto liability insurance must pay fees allocated to all these funds except Comprehensive Rehabilitation and the Operator s and Chauffeur s License Fund.

This array of state fees has created difficulties for the courts. In an August 1991 s pecial session, the Legislature passed two additional court fees with an effective date of September 1, 1991. Local governments did not learn the specifics of these new fees until the last week in August, and many courts simply could not change their syste ms and train employees in the few days allowed; as a result, they failed to collect the fees as required by law.

To ensure compliance with state law the Comptroller s office periodically audits local governments that collect the state court fees. In many instances, internal auditors of cities and counties also audit their collection of state court fees, in an attempt to stay in compliance with constantly changing state requirements. The audits are both duplicative and problematic because of the variety of court fees that apply in different circumstances. Each year, representatives from the Comptroller s Local Assistance and Revenue Accounting divisions answer hundreds of telephone calls and make at least 50 presentations to local government officials and employees concerning court fees. 2

The complex system results in burdensome bookkeeping, reporting and auditing requirements at the state and local levels. Local officials must have an elaborate tracking and collection system and audits are much more difficult than would be the case with a simpler system.


Recommendations
A. The Legislature should simplify the state court fee system by adopting uniform court fees by type of offense.

The following individual court fees should be repealed: Law Enforcement O fficers Standards and Education, Compensation to Victims of Crime, Criminal Justice Planning, Judicial and Court Personnel Training, Law Enforcement Management Institute, Operator s and Chauffeur s License, Juvenile Probation Diversion, Crime Stoppers Assistance, Abused Children s Counseling, Comprehensive Rehabilitation, General Revenue and Breath Alcohol Testing.

B. The Legislature should enact the following fees in lieu of existing court fees: a Class C Misdemeanor Court Fee of $20, a Class A/B Misdemeanor Court Fee of $35 and a Felony Court Fee of $50.

This recommended fee structure is based on the number of violations and total court fee revenue received by the state in fiscal 1992; it is calculated to remain revenue neutral (compliance is taken into account). Some violations will have a lower overall fee under the new system, while others will have a higher one.

C. The Legislature should repeal the statutory dedication of the repealed court fees and deposit revenue from the new fees directly into the General Revenue Fund.

In 1991, the Legislature authorized the Comptroller to consolidate numerous state funds. Given this impetus, efforts to eliminate unnecessary fee dedications seem appropriate. Appropriations to support programs and agencies that had received dedicated fun ds from the court fees would still be made at the Legislature s discretion.

D. If the Legislature chooses to increase state court fee revenue, they should raise the three new fees rather than establish additional ones.

This will ensure that the new fee system maintains its simplicity in the future.


Implications
A modified state court fee system would simplify bookkeeping, reporting and auditing duties for state and local governments and promote greater efficiency. Though the distribution of the fees would differ somewhat, there would be no net change in revenue t o the state.

At the local level, court fee administration would be greatly simplified. Furthermore, if the Legislature raises fee revenues under this new structur e, local governments would only have to raise the established fee amounts within their current bookkeeping systems rather than set up an entirely new structure for each additional fee, as is currently required. This would eliminate the need for costly syst em alterations and the retraining of personnel in new court fees each time changes are made to increase revenue.

Since it is recommended that the fee revenue be deposited into general revenue, programs currently funded from dedicated funds would be funded at the discretion of the Legislature. Some agencies and programs receive a substantial portion of their funding from these dedicated funds and may oppose their loss; however, since the state s overall amount of revenue will not decrease, the Legislature s hould have sufficient money to fund these programs at their current levels. By depositing court fee revenue directly into general revenue rather than the dedicated funds, the Legislature will have greater flexibility to make discretionary decisions.


Fiscal Impact
This recommendation assumes that the Legislature will continue to fund the affected programs at current levels, and so it is estimated as revenue neutral. However, savings should be realized due to simplified administration and auditing requirements.



Endnotes
1 Letter from Ralph Ferguson, President, Texas Court Clerks Association, February 21,1992.
2 Interview with Rene Henry, Local Assistance division, Comptroller of Public Accounts, Austin, Texas, October-November 1992.