For the Florida Legislature to function fairly, efficiently, and transparently, there are rules and procedures in place for lawmakers to follow when conducting the people’s business.
The Legislature is expected to make policy decisions through legislative bills that are introduced and debated through the committee process and voted on by both the full House and Senate. Likewise, funding decisions are to be included in the state budget — referred to as the Appropriations Act — and debated and voted on by both chambers.
Recently, some legislators have circumvented the proper process by employing innovative and questionable means to sneak in major policy and funding changes. I have previously explained how a $58 million budget amendment with major policy implications was improperly pushed through using the Legislative Budget Commission.
To briefly recap, the Legislative Budget Commission was formed to address small budget issues that arise when the part-time Legislature is not convened during its 60-day legislative session. The commission — seven members each from the House and Senate — can meet to deal with these small changes.
Several years ago, a few legislators hid a controversial prison privatization issue in proviso language in the state budget. The courts struck down the effort as an end run around the correct process and ruled such large policy changes must be made in stand-alone bills and not through budget language.
In the 2012 legislative session, the Senate defeated a different but related effort to completely privatize a large number of state prisons by a 19-21 vote. Lawmakers did, however, authorize funding to privatize prison health care services in South Florida with Wexford Health Care.
Rather than proposing a bill to authorize the health care privatization for the rest of the state for fear that it might meet the same fate as their effort to privatize 30 prisons, persistent and undeterred legislators tried another tactic — to have the Legislative Budget Commission authorize the change for the rest of the state for Corizon Health Care.
The Legislative Budget Commission convened in September with 10 of the 14 members participating and only three members present and seven teleconferencing. With a few dissensions, the commission passed the $58 million budget amendment.
With 1,900 state prison jobs at stake, interested parties took the issue to court. Last week a circuit court judge ruled that the Legislative Budget Commission did not have the authority to approve a plan to privatize prison health care services. The judge ruled that the Corizon contract was illegal and said the commission can only make “limited adjustments” to the budget, not change policy and procedures.
Circuit Court Judge John Cooper in Tallahassee said “the attempt of the Legislative Budget Commission to provide funding for this contract is void and ineffective as it violates Article III, Section 19(c)(3) of the Florida Constitution.”
The state of Florida plans to appeal this ruling, further eroding adherence to rules and procedures and at an additional cost to taxpayers. So it seems no lessons have been learned. The state should immediately drop any costly plans to appeal and should make the case for this policy change directly to lawmakers through the legislative process.
The legislators — incumbents and newly elected freshmen — just organized to begin committee hearings in advance of the 2013 legislative session. This is the proper venue, rather than the courts, and will not only restore sanity and legitimacy to the process but also show concern and accountability for how taxpayer dollars are spent.
If legislative leaders properly utilize the Legislative Budget Commission for limited adjustments to the budget, it can serve a useful purpose. However, if they continue to disregard its limited function, they endanger our system of equal representation. The commission should be disbanded if members cannot resist the urge to enter into multimillion-dollar contracts and circumvent the will of the Legislature.
Paula Dockery was term-limited as a Republican state senator from Lakeland after 16 years in the Florida Legislature.