TALLAHASSEE — Days after Florida Republicans assaulted President Barack Obama's health care reforms, the state's Democrats launched a political counterattack Thursday aimed squarely at the GOP's front-runner for governor: Attorney General Bill McCollum.
First, Senate Democrats tried legislative tactics to slow down McCollum's federal lawsuit filed Tuesday against the national health care law. Then, House and Senate Democrats publicly called on Republican legislative leaders to audit McCollum's office to examine its use of staff time.
And capping it all: A Washington Democratic leader accused McCollum of skirting state law by failing to go through the proper channels before filing his lawsuit, a charge McCollum denied.
Though the efforts to audit McCollum and stop the suit failed Thursday, the Democrats' onslaught signaled the heightened sense of partisanship in an election-year legislative session.
Leading the anti-McCollum charge: Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat running for attorney general who said the incumbent's "frivolous" lawsuit is an "ideological escapade" that won't survive in the courts.
"This is nothing other than a political frolic," Gelber said. "We have incredible challenges in our state. … We want our chief law enforcement officer spending his time protecting our citizens."
But McCollum's campaign said it was Gelber and the Democrats who were wasting time when they tried to scuttle the lawsuit by amending a McCollum-backed bill.
"Silly political antics by attorney general candidates on the chamber floor aside, a vote for Dan Gelber's amendment was a vote to support Washington's unconstitutional health care plan that will raise taxes, kill jobs and cut Medicare," McCollum's campaign said in a written statement.
McCollum's lawsuit, joined by 13 other attorneys general, argues that President Obama's health plan is unconstitutional, chiefly because it dramatically expands Medicaid — a state-federal insurance program — and it institutes an "individual mandate" requiring citizens to buy health insurance or pay a fine.
The fine operates as an improperly levied tax that is unconstitutionally apportioned, the lawsuit says. The suit says the federal Commerce Clause doesn't empower Congress to impose such a fine, either.
Also, the new law's expansion of Medicaid could require the state to cover 1.7 million new poor and lower-income Floridians at a cost of up to $1.6 billion in 2019. Such a mandate "infringes on Florida's constitutional status as a sovereign," the suit says.
McCollum's suit was filed the day after a health committee in the state House approved a proposed amendment to the state Constitution aimed at blocking the federal government from forcing Florida citizens to participate in a new health program. Another House committee passed a different bill urging McCollum to sue as soon as Obama signed the health legislation.
Long before Obama signed the law Tuesday, McCollum threatened to sue the federal government over the issue. He also repeatedly said the suit would be handled by lawyers in his state office. But now, McCollum has acknowledged he hired an outside law firm, Washington-based Baker & Hostetler, for whom McCollum lobbied as recently as 2006. McCollum's office said the firm was working for a discounted rate that, after it was pro-rated among the states, would cost Florida taxpayers less than $30 an hour and no more than $50,000 total.
Gelber tried to end the law firm's contract Thursday when he tried to amend McCollum's bill, which seeks to limit the fees of outside attorneys doing state work. Gelber's amendment explicitly said that the attorney general's office couldn't spend taxpayer money to fight health reform. The amendment failed on a party-line vote.
"What we've gotten into unfortunately here is a political debate over legislation that was passed in Washington, D.C.," said Republican John Thrasher of St. Augustine.
Less than an hour later, House and Senate Democratic leaders penned a letter asking Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul to call on the state's auditor general to examine how McCollum's staff is spending its time and picking its cases.
Atwater and Cretul — both Republicans — refused.
McCollum's office said it has not tracked its staff time spent researching and preparing the lawsuit.
In a press conference call from Washington, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic vote counter, questioned whether McCollum was allowed to file the suit in the first place. She suggested McCollum broke a 1943 state law requiring attorneys general to study federal laws and consult the Florida delegation before suing.
McCollum's office countered with a 1999 memo from former Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who wrote that the office could mount constitutional challenges based on common law powers to initiate lawsuits "to protect the public interest."
Wasserman Schultz spent more of her time personally attacking McCollum and his suit.
"It's a stunt to boost his campaign," she said, "and a waste of taxpayer money."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.