Costs of a conservative agenda
BILL COTTERELL, Florida Voices"If you do conservative things in Florida," Gov. Rick Scott said, "you get sued."
Published: August 9, 2012
Published: August 9, 2012
He ought to know. Scott has probably been sued more often than any other Florida governor, and he's not halfway through his term.
That's partly because he and the Republican-controlled Legislature have attempted more controversial things than any past administration. And the perception worsened because they keep losing – not that the critics would get off his back if Scott won a few.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a tab last week and came up with $888,317 that taxpayers had spent defending various laws, executive orders and tactical decisions that the American Civil Liberties Union, government-employee unions and other Scott critics don't like.
A bit of it – $69,827 – was the state's share of a losing lawsuit against President Obama's national health care act. Other suits have involved drug-testing of welfare recipients, ending teacher tenure and tying pay to student performance, forbidding doctors to ask patients if they have guns in their homes, changes in election laws and adding a 3 percent salary tax on members of the Florida Retirement System.
Toss in whatever it cost to defend his rejection of federal high-speed rail money and the Legislature's redistricting maps, and the current governor and lawmakers have incurred nearly a million bucks in legal costs.
In response to Scott's comment about getting sued for advancing a conservative agenda, State Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, posted a Facebook comment, "No, governor, if you do unconstitutional things, you get sued. Democrats not only warned him of this, we cited cases."
True, but before 1954, case law supported segregation, too. Gov. LeRoy Collins, elected that year, is remembered for challenging the legal status quo.
Besides, Republicans cited case law in support of their flights of constitutional whimsy. Kriseman and Scott, both attorneys, could surely find a court ruling or attorney general's opinion on either side of any legislation or executive order.
Incidentally, the state will surely incur more legal fees after the elections. There are constitutional amendments on the ballot aimed at letting Floridians opt out of "Obamacare" and permitting tax-funded tuition vouchers for parochial schools. If either amendment passes, it's likely that civil complaints are ready for a signature and date.
But what is the state supposed to do – not enact laws that might upset the American Civil Liberties Union or the labor organizations representing public employees? Would you want your legislator to say, "Well, this is good public policy and the state really needs to do it. But we'll get sued, so I'd better not vote for this bill."
Kriseman and other critics of "conservative things" presume that the GOP leadership doesn't really believe in drug testing, or the pension surcharge, the election law changes or the "Docs and Glocks" thing. The Democrats believe, with good reason, that the Tea Partiers are pushing their fears and prejudices, at the expense of us all.
Drawing upon my own legal education – derived from watching every episode of "Law and Order" and reading all John Grisham novels – I think a lot of Scott's "conservative things" are unconstitutional. But I wasn't elected to make those decisions, legislators were.
If Kriseman and the ACLU are worried about the state incurring big legal fees defending Scott's agenda, there's a simple solution. Stop suing him.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Capitol reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat. He can be contacated at email@example.com.