Editorial: Florida spends too much on private lawyers

Published March 20 2017

Gov. Rick Scott and his fellow fiscal conservatives in Tallahassee are all too willing to make an exception to their spending discipline by paying private lawyers to defend their agendas at taxpayer expense. In the last six years, the state has spent more than $250 million on outside counsel to defend legislation, agency actions and lawsuits. The runaway spending has gone on with little oversight, leaving taxpayers in the dark about whether their money is wisely spent.

The Associated Press calculated the staggering cost by analyzing budgets and other documents obtained through public records requests. The total for outside lawyers' fees is not included in the normal state budgeting process, and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office was not keeping track. That's a recipe for blindly wasting public money.

What have all those millions in lawyer fees paid for? The biggest line item is the state's long-running battle with Georgia over water rights. Scott vastly increased spending in that fight when he took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Securing the state's water supply is undoubtedly an important issue, but Florida has hemorrhaged $98 million litigating (and so far losing) that case. Couldn't even a fraction of that money have been better used for river restoration and resource management rather than legal fees?

Nearly $16 million went toward paying opposing lawyers in cases the state lost. Those include battles waged to the detriment of millions of Floridians, such as the state's ban on gay marriage, tougher voting restrictions and an unconstitutional law requiring welfare recipients be drug-tested. The Republican-led Legislature also can be thanked for steering almost $20 million to lawyers to defend education budgets that starve public schools and legislative and congressional districts that violated the Fair Districts amendments to the Florida Constitution.

The response has been defensive and unapologetic. Bondi's office, which employs 450 lawyers, says its staff is busy handling criminal appeals and Medicaid fraud cases. The governor's spokeswoman says it should be "no surprise" that Florida defends its laws — no matter how backward or ill-fated. Taxpayers could wonder what expensive legal fights might come next. Last week, seven felons from Florida filed a federal lawsuit over the state's clemency process for pardoning inmates, commuting sentences, restoring civil rights, negating fines and allowing gun ownership. Under Scott, the process has become more opaque and unfair, leaving a backlog of requests that never get heard and a pile of denials with no reason ever cited. A House committee passed a bill, HB 83, that would enact harsher criminal penalties on undocumented immigrants, despite voluminous case law establishing that such proposals violate the due process and equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution. That didn't seem to matter to Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, who practically dared the Florida Supreme Court to overturn it.

Florida's $253 million tab for outside legal counsel is ridiculously high. It's all the more galling that taxpayers were stuck with the bill for highly partisan battles that they often lost. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who is on a crusade to eliminate wasteful spending, has promised a legislative review. It should start with a crackdown on agenda-driven bills that aren't reasonably likely to pass legal muster and adding more oversight and accountability for hiring private lawyers at taxpayer expense.