Floridians’ tax dollars at work — but not for them

Miami Herald Editorial Board

Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo questioned are request for millions more in state funds to legal fees.
Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo questioned are request for millions more in state funds to legal fees. Tampa Bay Times file

Pay attention, Floridians. The state that doesn’t have the funds to expand Medicaid and has sat on Amendment 1 funds meant to ensure its environmental health has money to burn after all. What residents are getting out of its questionable investments isn’t clear. The private companies that have reaped millions from the state’s blind largess have done what private companies do — make money. Their interests were covered. But state officials left Floridians out in the cold.

Environmental protection

Jon Steverson resigned on Friday — abruptly — as head of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. As reported by Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau, state House budget officials, with eyebrows and suspicions raised, criticized Steverson’s lack of stewardship over a legal contract that had soared by almost $54.5 million during the past two years.

Florida and Georgia have been duking it out since 2001 over water rights to the Apalachicola, Chattahoochee and Flint River Basin. Florida sued the Peach State in 2013, saying that Georgia’s excess water use from the basin has put Florida’s oyster industry in peril.

The state has been billed $97.8 million since 2001 in this water war. It’s spent almost $72 million so far. But almost $54.5 million of that has been spent in the past two years. Steverson, by the way, has been head of DEP for, ahem, two years.

Miami Rep. Carlos Trujillo’s interest was piqued when, two weeks ago, Steverson said he needed $17.1 million more for the litigation. He filed a budget amendment asking the House and Senate Joint Legislative Budget Commission to approve another $13 million but said the total cost for the year would be about $41 million.

Trujillo responsibly asked to see the numbers to justify Steverson’s outsized request. Turns out the Washington-based law firm Lathan Watkins would get almost $36 million between 2015 and 2017. Coming in a distant second was Florida firm Foley Lardner, due to get $2.6 million during that same period.

Georgia, meanwhile, just raised the money it spent on litigation in the last year to nearly $30 million. Why is Florida outspending its rival? Why, according, to an agency spokesman, did Gov. Scott’s office blithely approve the request? Shouldn’t the states be talking settlement at this point?

State taxpayers are getting hosed in this water fight. But not to worry: Steverson’s got a cushy new job — with Foley Lardner. Fancy that!

Department of Corrections

Another sharp-eyed legislator, David Richardson, maintains that state prison officials, using an under-the-radar pricing scheme, have been making inflated payments to Corrections Corporations of America, now CoreCivic of Tennessee, to run prisons in the state.

Richardson dug into seven years of payments made to the private firm and says that the state has paid at least $16 million in overcharges.

Richardson not only has taken on Florida’s deteriorating and abusive prisons, he is a retired forensic auditor. So he has huge credibility here. “The award of this contract under the terms and conditions provided was a colossal government failure,” Richardson wrote. He’s taken his findings to Florida’s Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel, asking her to investigate.

Fraud? Incompetence? Miguel owes Floridians an answer.