There is a foul odor in Tallahassee, and it is coming directly from the office of new House Speaker Ray Sansom. The Destin Republican who preaches fiscal responsibility turns out to be a hypocrite. There is no defense for sneaking $200,000 into the state budget this spring for a "leadership institute" at his local college and then — ta da ! — getting a $110,000 job at the college. This stinks, and it seriously stains Sansom's speakership before it really begins.
Apparently, no one told Sansom that the speaker of the Florida House receives more public scrutiny than those who wield power out of the spotlight. The speaker does not just set legislative priorities; he leads by example, sets ethical standards by his own actions and reinforces the public's perception of the entire Legislature. Already, Sansom has failed miserably on all counts.
First, he delivered a sanctimonious speech at last week's organizational session that did not reflect today's economic realities. Then he reinforced his disregard for appearances by whisking House Republicans off to a posh Panhandle resort for an expensive retreat largely paid for by lobbyists. Then came the topper: On the same day Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater announced there will be no state money next year for local projects such as museums and community events, his new college job was quietly announced.
For Northwest Florida State College, this is a pretty good payoff. Sansom apparently slid the $200,000 into the state budget this spring without the knowledge of then-Speaker Marco Rubio. He also supported legislation that enabled the former community college to offer bachelor's degrees. In return, the college hired him to a nebulous administrative job with a six-figure salary that started the same day he became speaker last week. How convenient.
The indignant responses were predictable. The college president insisted there is no quid pro quo. Sansom protested, "Remember, we are a citizens' Legislature. . . . We have jobs, we have careers.'' That is offensive to lawmakers balancing public service with legitimate private sector jobs. It is offensive to Floridians at a time when the unemployment rate has risen to 7 percent. Sansom apparently thinks his job in Tallahassee is to ensure a soft landing for himself.
To be sure, the speaker is not the first legislator to see higher education as his or her own comfortable perch. Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, took a $75,000 job as a part-time lecturer at the University of Florida and was previously paid $38,000 a year for four years by a community college for an unpublished book of questionable value. Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, accepted a $2,300-a-week job at Florida State University for a reading research project she helped create. At least Lynn had the decency to give up the pay after it came to light.
Now Sansom has a choice. He can give up his cushy job at his local college and try to restore some measure of credibility. Or he can keep the money and be a House speaker known for saying one thing to Floridians and doing another when it benefits himself.