Monday, December 11, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Florida spends too much on private lawyers

Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow fiscal conservatives in Tallahassee are all too willing to make an exception to their spending discipline by paying private lawyers to defend their agendas at taxpayer expense. In the last six years, the state has spent more than $250 million on outside counsel to defend legislation, agency actions and lawsuits. The runaway spending has gone on with little oversight, leaving taxpayers in the dark about whether their money is wisely spent.

The Associated Press calculated the staggering cost by analyzing budgets and other documents obtained through public records requests. The total for outside lawyers' fees is not included in the normal state budgeting process, and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office was not keeping track. That's a recipe for blindly wasting public money.

What have all those millions in lawyer fees paid for? The biggest line item is the state's long-running battle with Georgia over water rights. Scott vastly increased spending in that fight when he took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Securing the state's water supply is undoubtedly an important issue, but Florida has hemorrhaged $98 million litigating (and so far losing) that case. Couldn't even a fraction of that money have been better used for river restoration and resource management rather than legal fees?

Nearly $16 million went toward paying opposing lawyers in cases the state lost. Those include battles waged to the detriment of millions of Floridians, such as the state's ban on gay marriage, tougher voting restrictions and an unconstitutional law requiring welfare recipients be drug-tested. The Republican-led Legislature also can be thanked for steering almost $20 million to lawyers to defend education budgets that starve public schools and legislative and congressional districts that violated the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution.

The response has been defensive and unapologetic. Bondi's office, which employs 450 lawyers, says its staff is busy handling criminal appeals and Medicaid fraud cases. The governor's spokeswoman says it should be "no surprise" that Florida defends its laws — no matter how backward or ill-fated. Taxpayers could wonder what expensive legal fights might come next. Last week, seven felons from Florida filed a federal lawsuit over the state's clemency process for pardoning inmates, commuting sentences, restoring civil rights, negating fines and allowing gun ownership. Under Scott, the process has become more opaque and unfair, leaving a backlog of requests that never get heard and a pile of denials with no reason ever cited. A House committee passed a bill, HB 83, that would enact harsher criminal penalties on undocumented immigrants, despite voluminous case law establishing that such proposals violate the due process and equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That didn't seem to matter to Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who practically dared the Florida Supreme Court to overturn it.

Florida's $253 million tab for outside legal counsel is ridiculously high. It's all the more galling that taxpayers were stuck with the bill for highly partisan battles that they often lost. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who is on a crusade to eliminate wasteful spending, has promised a legislative review. It should start with a crackdown on agenda-driven bills that aren't reasonably likely to pass legal muster and adding more oversight and accountability for hiring private lawyers at taxpayer expense.

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Editorial: U.S. House sides with NRA over stateís rights on concealed weapons permits

With the horror of the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music concert and a small Texas church still fresh, the U.S. House finally has taken action on guns. But the bill it passed last week wonít make Americans safer from gun violence. It is an ...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers ex...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

With a buildout of $3 billion encompassing entire city blocks, itís obvious that Jeff Vinikís plans will change the look and feel of downtown Tampa. But the Tampa Bay Lightning owner unveiled a broader vision last week that reflects how far the impac...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

It is dangerous and illegal to text while driving in Florida, and police should be able to pull over and ticket those lawbreakers without witnessing another violation first. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has lent his powerful voice to legislation th...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Editorial: Outsourcing common sense on St. Petersburg Pier naming rights

St. Petersburg officials predict that selling the naming rights to parts of the new Pier could generate $100,000 in annual revenue. But first the city wants to pay a consultant to tell it how and to whom to sell the rights. Why do city officials need...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Another voice: Trumpís risky move

President Donald Trumpís decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israelís capital has a certain amount of common sense on its side. As a practical matter, West Jerusalem has been the seat of Israeli government since 1949, and no conceivable formula for Pa...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

Editorial: Tampaís MOSI reinvents itself

A tactical retreat and regrouping seems to be paying off for Hillsborough Countyís Museum of Science and Industry. After paring back its operations, the museum posted a small profit over the past year, enabling the attraction to keep its doors open a...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Times recommends: McClure for Florida House District 58

Times recommends: McClure for Florida House District 58

Voters in Temple Terrace, Plant City and Thonotosassa have an easy choice in the Dec. 19 special election to replace state Rep. Dan Raulerson, who resigned for health reasons. Republican Lawrence McClure is the only credible candidate.McClure, 30, ow...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Editorial: Still waiting for flood insurance fix

Editorial: Still waiting for flood insurance fix

It has been 1,979 days since all heck broke loose in the flood insurance industry. Apparently, that just wasnít enough time for Washington to react. So with the National Flood Insurance Program set to expire on Friday, itís looking increasingly likel...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17

Editorial: St. Petersburg should raise rates for reclaimed water

Raising rates on reclaimed water in St. Petersburg is an equitable way to spread the pain of paying for millions in fixes to the cityís dilapidated sewer system. The city has no choice but to start charging utility customers more as the sewer bills c...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17