Legislature overreaches, public pays the bill

Published Mar. 7, 2012

The definition of insanity, the adage goes, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Yet Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature are at it again, embracing legislation that ignores constitutional limits on their authority, forcing costly taxpayer-financed litigation and resorting to name-calling and threats to the judiciary when the courts rule against them. Tuesday's ruling that cutting public employee salaries to help pay for pensions is unconstitutional is not the result of an activist judge as some Republicans complain. It reflects the failure of the executive and legislative branches to recognize their limits and the role of an independent judicial branch.

The issue before Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford was not whether state and local employees should have to contribute to the Florida Retirement System, a reasonable policy already common in the private sector. Fulford ruled that last year's legislation requiring contributions violated the employees' contract rights under the state pension law and amounted to an illegal taking of property.

It should not have been a surprise. Public employee advocates had warned this policy should be adopted through labor negotiations, not legislative fiat. The state is facing the same argument in another lawsuit over the Legislature's 2011 teacher merit pay law that rewrote how teachers across the state can be compensated.

The governor and leading lawmakers have overreached in other areas beyond labor issues. Because they were unlikely to get the votes to pass a general law, Scott and state lawmakers signed off last year on a provision in the state budget that privatized state prisons. Fulford found that maneuver unconstitutional, and the Senate voted against privatizing prisons this year.

A different judge has overturned another 2011 law that requires all welfare applicants to submit to a drug test, concluding that is an unreasonable search. The state is appealing, but the Legislature could pass as early as today another legally suspect plan (HB 1205/SB 1358) to require random drug testing of all state employees.

Meanwhile, Florida counties are trying to block a proposed legislative scheme to force them to pay disputed Medicaid bills, even when there is evidence of triple billing. The response to the counties' criticism from incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville: Let them sue.

Every time elected leaders make bad law, taxpayers pay the legal bills. The legal tab in the pension case already is $800,000 and rising. This isn't a question of judicial activism but of arrogance by Republicans who hold the Governor's Mansion and a super-majority in the Legislature — and have little regard for constitutional protections or the courts.