Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Capitol magicians make $750,000 vanish

What a mystical place Tallahassee can become at this time of year when Christmas meets a sort of Brigadoon of legalized baksheesh.

While many at-risk children go wanting for lack of funding to protect them; while in-state university tuition to help the children of undocumented immigrants founders in the Florida Legislature; while Tallahassee refuses to lift a finger to expand Medicaid services to nearly 800,000 needy citizens –– $750,000 in taxpayer money suddenly, magically plops from the sky to contribute to a legal fight between two deep-pocketed special interests.

Perhaps this incredible turn of fate goes to prove that one man's turkey is merely another's billable-hour stocking stuffer.

At issue is an ongoing dispute over a 2008 Florida law that allows car dealers to charge higher retail fees for auto repairs covered by warranties and recall notices. In a state that already permits utility companies to gouge residents with onerous recovery fees for nuclear power plants that will never be built, you expected Tallahassee to discover its inner consumer protectionist?

The issue has pitted the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which opposes the higher fees as a source of unfair profits, against the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, which nobly argues that the higher rates merely help them negotiate more reasonable prices from the big carmakers. Stop laughing!

In the midst of the tiff between the dealers and the manufacturers, the Senate Appropriations Committee experienced a kind of deus ex machina moment when an amendment proposed by state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Abracadabra, wondrously appeared.

The $750,000 was designated as "litigation expenses" by Gardiner, R-Legerdemain. It unanimously passed the Senate committee without so much as a peep of curiosity over what the money was for or who would benefit from it.

It certainly wasn't the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which is named in the lawsuit, since the agency never asked for any additional legal fees.

It wasn't Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office is representing the state in the suit. She, too, didn't ask for the money.

And since the Alliance for Automobile Manufactures criticized the expenditure, chances are they aren't in line for any "litigation expenses."

Who's left?

When Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Michael Van Sickler tried to talk to various parties associated with the $750,000 budget windfall, everyone vanished faster than David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear.

Gardiner, R-Bueller? Bueller?, was nowhere to be found.

Next, Van Sickler tried Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Houdini, to ask if he knew who requested the $750,000 air kiss or if it was sought by attorneys for the car dealers; Gray Robinson, a politically juiced Tallahassee presence; and/or Bressler Amery & Ross, a New Jersey law firm.

But Gaetz, R-Pick a Card, who has promoted himself as a pillar of ethics reform, remained in seclusion in his Senate bunker protected by moat, razor wire, electrified fences, poison dart triggers and retired South African mercenaries.

Perhaps Bob Lee, the chairman of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association, who has been a very generous political contributor to Gaetz and his son, state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-You're Getting Very Sleepy, might be helpful. But as it turned out, Lee was less accessible to respond to a reporter's inquiry than the Florida skunk ape.

Van Sickler thought he had hit pay dirt when he reached Florida Automobile Dealers Association president Ted Smith. But Smith had to beg off because he was in an elevator. Then Smith had to hang up when he claimed he was having hip surgery.

It's just an idle thought, but perhaps the Florida Automobile Dealers Association might want to rethink a health insurance plan that requires employees to undergo major surgery in elevator shafts.

So it is that a cone of silence has descended over Gardiner's $750,000 "litigation expenditures" amendment no one can seem to explain, or vouch for, or point to who benefits from the money — except that it passed a Senate committee without so much of a squeak of inquisitiveness.

Once you get beyond all the naive chatter about good governance, accountability, transparency, maybe that is as it should be. After all, in the sleight-of-hand racket, it is a code of honor among illusionists — and certainly pols — to never explain how they pull off their tricks.

If everybody knew how to get $750,000 to quietly fall from a Capitol budget tree, then everybody would want their own $750,000 bag of cash. And that would take the magic out of Tallahassee. Where's the fun in that?

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