House Speaker Ray Sansom's job at Northwest Florida State College has shed more unflattering light on the longtime practice of state universities and community colleges hiring legislators for lucrative jobs. The practice has always smacked of favoritism and self-interest. But now as Florida faces its worst financial crisis in decades, there is even less patience for these insider hires, and some ground rules ought to be established.
At least 15 current legislators and four recently retired ones earn money from the state's higher education system. Ten of the 19 held a higher ed job before joining the Legislature. That's an important distinction. Officially, the Legislature is a part-time job, and members are paid accordingly, $30,336. Most need other income. It's appropriate that a lawmaker such as Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, a longtime educator, kept teaching at the University of South Florida after he was elected in 2006.
But nine of those lawmakers started earning money from the system after they were elected — and in most cases, after they had heavy influence over higher education policy and budgets.
The most prominent example is Sansom, R-Destin, who received a $110,000 administrative college job on the same day he assumed the role of Florida House speaker. The college job, which was never advertised, came after Sansom spent two years as House budget chief steering millions of dollars to the small college's construction budget. E-mails from that period, disclosed in a Sunday story from the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau, show Sansom, who had one of the most powerful jobs in the Legislature, nonetheless took his cues from college president Bob Richburg, who is now his boss.
But that's just one example. Less than a year ago, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, who hopes to be Senate president in 2010, scored an unadvertised $75,000 teaching job with the University of Florida without any standard review by fellow faculty. The sweetheart deal was the second for Haridopolos. Earlier, employer Brevard Community College gave Haridopolos a one-of-a-kind $150,000 advance to write a book no one expects will be published.
Then there was Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, a retired public school educator who faced no competition for a $120,000 part-time job running a Florida State University literacy program that she had tucked into the state budget. Once the deal came to light in March, she gave up the balance of her salary and donated her time to the center. She eventually quit.
Defenders of such arrangements say banning lawmakers from seeking work with a state university or college would be unreasonable since few other workplaces can accommodate the flexibility lawmakers need to devote to the Legislature. That was the case for Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, a physician who said his private practice began falling apart in 2003 after a series of special sessions. He negotiated a $200,000 contract with USF's medical school where he had taught years before.
And there is a credible argument to be made that Florida lawmakers are underpaid for the time it takes to represent their constituents.
But that is no excuse for what happened in the cases cited above. Sansom, Haridopolos, Lynn and Homan all won government jobs through back-door channels at a time of severe financial crisis. They didn't have to compete for their plum state jobs that come with generous benefits and health care few in the private sector enjoy. That is wrong. Florida's universities and community colleges, like all of state government, need to hire the best people. Only open and transparent job searches assure that's happening.