Thursday, June 2, 2011

Local legislator's political grandstanding just cost us $781,000 - and climbing

The Florida House and Senate will spend more than $50 million for "legislative support services" in the coming fiscal year. Perhaps our lawmakers should consider actually listening to the people they're paying to do this work.

There were 64 bills that made it through the House and Senate this past session. The tab for getting this legislation to the governor's desk works out to about $781,000 per bill. And that’s in support services alone.

This price tag includes a legion of analysts hired to write and translate legislation into language our elected lawmakers can understand. Among other things, they figure out what each bill will cost the taxpayers, how each bill will affect you and me, and the potential impact the legislation will have on state agencies.

They also point out problems. Sometimes big problems. Like constitutionality. If you're going to spend nearly $800,000 of the taxpayers' money to create new law, it's a pretty good idea to make sure that your new law is, in fact, legal.

When House Bill 353 was introduced on January 24, the talented people in legislative services knew there was a problem. A big problem. They sent up the first red flag on March 25. It was ignored. Another was raised on April 4. Again, ignored. The analysts put out a final warning on April 22. Same result.

The message the analysts were trying to send the House and Senate was crystal clear. House Bill 353 was, beyond question, unconstitutional.

"The bill raises important constitutional questions related to the permissibility of suspicion-less drug testing as a condition of public assistance," they wrote.

For the benefit of those legislators who might be slow learners, the analysts went on to point out that a nearly-identical program in Michigan was struck down by a U.S. district court of appeals in 2004.

The court, the analysts tried to explain, "found that the law was an unconstitutional violation of an individual’s right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. The court specifically ruled that drug testing was unconstitutional when applied universally or randomly without reasonable suspicion of drug use."

"Struck down" is an understatement. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit didn't bother attempting to hide its outrage or mince words. The policy, the court held, was not only blatantly unconstitutional, it was "absurd" and "defied common sense."

Cashing a welfare check, the court concluded, didn't come anywhere close to creating "reasonable suspicion" somebody was on drugs.

Michigan didn't bother appealing. And in the wake of the decision, 21 other states that were flirting with the notion of drug testing welfare recipients gave up on the idea.

The analysts were, in their own way, desperately trying to send a message that this train-wreck piece of legislation should never see the light of day.

On April 26, four days after legislative services made one last attempt to warn them off the bill, HB 353 was passed by a party-line vote of 78-38 by the Florida House and sent to the governor's desk. It was signed into law last week.

Preventing welfare recipients from spending the taxpayer's money on drugs is, obviously, a popular notion. And a good one. It plays well in conservative enclaves like Charlotte County. Lawmakers like Rep. Kenneth Roberson, R-Port Charlotte, aren't eager to see themselves branded as being soft on drugs. Especially drugs you and I are paying for in the form of welfare checks.

Roberson was among the 78 House members who ignored the warnings and lined up behind their party leadership to vote for the measure. By my reckoning, Roberson now owes us $10,016 - his share of the $781,000 of our money he just wasted. A check will be fine.

Six-figure political grandstanding isn't fiscal conservatism. It's reckless squandering of money we simply don't have. Money you don't have.

Money that could have been used to put teachers back into our classrooms. Money for cops on the streets. Money for economic development, highway improvements, parks, libraries, public health and ... just about everything our local governments are cutting back or cutting out.

But Roberson and 77 of his pals in the House apparently decided that scoring political brownie points with the voters back home was a far better use of that $781,000.

Roberson was warned three times - and in language that left no room for debate - that HB 353 was a waste of time and money. He was warned three times that the law was constitutionally DOA. He knew, or should have known, that not a single Florida welfare mother was going to piddle into a little plastic cup as a result of his vote.

On second thought, let's have that $10,016 in cash.

Lawmakers like Roberson are paid $30,000 per year and $113 for every day they're in Tallahassee. Plus tips, of course. You don't get rich - not legally, that is - but it's not a hobby. It's a job.

And we expect those we elect to do that job. This sometimes means putting common sense ahead of politics when doing the people's business. And doing your homework on the issues.

It took fewer than 30 seconds to track down the staff analysis for HB 353. Another two or three minutes to read the thing. A few more to research the Michigan case. That would have left even the most dyslexic lawmaker plenty of time for lunch with lobbyists and an afternoon nap.

Roberson apparently didn't bother. With the homework, that is. Or he did the research, read the warnings, but decided he didn't care. Not sure which is worse.

Why pick on Roberson? Simple. He's my state representative, the guy who is supposed to be looking out for my interests in Tallahassee. And piddling away nearly $800,000 on garbage legislation simply to pad your resume and score points with leadership isn't in my interest - or anybody's interest.

I want a representative who's paying attention. One who earns that $30,000 - plus per diems. One with the guts to stand up in caucus or on the floor of the House and speak truth to ideology regardless of the political consequences. And keep speaking until the message is heard.

In the case of HB 353 that message was simple. This is bad law. And it’s about to get worse. That $781,000 is just a down payment. Civil liberties attorneys are already jostling for a place in line at the courthouse door. Gov. Rick Scott is pledging to fight a similar drug testing provision all the way to the United States Supreme Court, if necessary. .

This one won‘t be far behind.

By the time the legal bills and damages are totaled, the $781,000 spent to get  HB 353 through the legislature will look like pocket change. Further, the legislature’s own lawyers and analysts have admitted - three times, all on the public record - that the bill was a constitutional loser coming out of the gate. They’ve already made the other side’s case.

On second thought, maybe Roberson should take that $10,016 he owes us and put it someplace where it will earn a little interest down the road. It’s a good bet we’re going to need it.

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