The obscene excess of a new $48 million courthouse in Tallahassee will be a permanent reminder of why voters distrust government to spend taxpayer dollars wisely. It represents everything wrong in a state capital where insider dealing and secrecy, rather than obligations to Floridians, dictate policy.
St. Petersburg Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan detailed last Sunday how 1st District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Paul Hawkes and Judge Brad Thomas lobbied legislative leaders in 2007 to secure a little-noticed deal for an ostentatious courthouse that even the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court did not support. As the Legislature in subsequent years slashed courts' operating budgets statewide, forcing layoffs and increasing backlogs, its leaders remained committed to the palatial new home for a few friends and colleagues at the court.
Hawkes and Thomas are longtime Republican insiders, former staffers for the Legislature and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Hawkes had served two House terms representing Crystal River. Clearly, this pair felt entitled to a setting worthy of their lofty status. They sought a courthouse that mimicked the Michigan Supreme Court building. It was to have 60-inch TVs, granite-trimmed bathrooms and private kitchens in each mahogany-trimmed judge's chamber. To help foot the bill in an economy already slowing in 2007, Hawkes and Thomas convinced legislative leaders to borrow $33.5 million for the building and charge the court rent — an unprecedented arrangement.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, enabled the deal by tucking an amendment into a transportation bill on the last day of the 2007 session. Crist claimed he was just doing then-Senate President Ken Pruitt's bidding. Now Pruitt and Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed the bill into law, seem to have amnesia. The governor doesn't recall then-Chief Justice Fred Lewis asking him to veto the deal. Then-House Speaker Marco Rubio said he didn't know the details of the courthouse, just that it was a Senate priority.
But such under-the-radar deals were common. In the same session in which the courthouse was approved, Rubio's budget chief, Rep. Ray Sansom, set aside $6 million in the budget for an airplane hangar sought by a political contributor and disguised as a classroom building for a local community college. Sansom now faces grand theft charges.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady and the Department of Management Services, the landlord for the still-under-construction courthouse, promise to review construction and furnishing plans. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, suggested lawmakers may ban judges from lobbying in the future. And voters in the 1st District in North Florida could boot Hawkes from the bench as he faces a retention vote on the November ballot.
But the damage has been done. Most of the money has been spent. And disenchanted voters have another symbol of a Legislature that puts rewarding its friends above fulfilling its commitments to all Floridians. The Republican-led Legislature consistently fails to follow through on its promises to pay for solar energy rebates, matching funds for universities and conservation land-buying programs. But two appellate judges can hide in a back room and persuade top lawmakers to borrow money for a $48 million courthouse.
No wonder Floridians are cynical about state government.