THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 28, 2011 --
Once again the week saved the biggest news for the end, as prosecutors unexpectedly announced Friday afternoon that they were dropping the theft charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom and developer Jay Odom.
Sansom and Odom were charged in an alleged scheme to use a $6 million 2007 state budget appropriation for what is now Northwest Florida State College to build a hangar at the Destin airport for Odom, a friend of and contributor to Sansom, who at the time was the chief House architect of the budget.
Sansom and Odom’s defense had said the money was needed for a joint-use emergency operations center and classroom building and there was nothing unusual about the way the money was put into the budget.
The bombshell on Friday dropped after Circuit Judge Terry Lewis rejected a key witness. Prosecutors were hoping to put the college’s former president, Bob Richburg, on the stand. He had originally also been charged in the case, but agreed to testify against Sansom.
But to introduce testimony by Richburg, prosecutors needed to show evidence of a conspiracy, and Lewis ruled he hadn’t seen that evidence. Without Richburg’s testimony, State Attorney Willie Meggs decided he couldn’t get a conviction and dropped the charges.
PARTY LIKE IT NEVER WAS 2010
The Sansom case being back in the news wasn’t the only throwback to an earlier legislative session this week.
Legislators late this week overrode two vetoes by former Gov. Charlie Crist, continuing the Republican effort to erase his memory. One of the bills wasn’t really controversial – having passed the Legislature unanimously last year and then again in the veto override vote this week. That bill dealt with local farm regulations – even Democrats agreed widely that the bill made sense, eliminating some local ability to make rules that could make it hard for farmers to do simple things like replace a fence without a permit.
But the other measure lawmakers restored was highly controversial.
That bill creates “affiliated party committees” to allow legislative leaders to raise money independently of the political parties and parcel it out to lawmakers they need to get elected to help them in their quest to control the legislative process.
The accounts will be controlled by both parties’ leadership. And another word for account is fund. So in the generic, we might normally call them leadership funds. But when we do, we get a gentle, annoyed reminder from Republicans that these are nothing like “leadership funds,” which were outlawed in 1989.
And in fairness, those funds were pretty opaque and may have been more accurately called backroom slush funds. The new funds are far more transparent than those were, and, backers say, more transparent than the current process even. That makes them a step forward for openness, the proponents of the new type of funds said.
Democrats argued against them, saying they were really just a return of leadership funds. But just as in 2010, Democrats are vastly outnumbered and so without Crist on their side they couldn’t stop the return of whatever these funds should be called. In fact, they not only lost Crist as an ally on this particular issue, they have lost since the last election any ability to block it by themselves because Republicans now have 81 members in the House. The number of votes needed to override a veto: 80.
So why are leadership … affiliated party committees, needed now?
Last year the normal process for doling out fundraising help in the Legislature – having the parties do it – didn’t work out too well for Republicans. The party was having a bit of a hard time raising money on account of its chairman being accused of misspending it at first, and then later of outright stealing it. The chairman, now former chairman, is facing criminal charges.
"I was frustrated by the actions of the former chairman, where we raised a lot of money and they spent it," said Senate President Mike Haridopolos. "We want to make it where what money we raise, we show, and what money we spend, we show."
He’s on message as far as transparency, but what he could have been saying was they want to make it so that money they raise doesn’t get siphoned off.
In fact, in the House, Rep. Paige Kreegel, R-Punta Gorda, did say so. He said the bill was needed to make sure leaders could still raise money and get favored candidates elected when "the leader of a party rips the party off and leaves the party without any money."
ARE YOU ON DRUGS?
Gov. Rick Scott did say this week during a visit to the Agency for Health Care Administration that he thinks state workers ought to be paid fairly – though he didn’t say they deserved a raise, which they haven’t had for a while.
He told the workers that he thinks it’s fair for government to make its workers pay into their pensions because that’s the way it works in the private sector. And, in response to a question from an employee, he acknowledged it ought to go the other way too – wages should be competitive with those in the private sector, he said.
That drew applause.
But so far, there’s no proposal for a state worker pay raise, and actually, many in the state workforce feel like Scott doesn’t think much of them. His proposals to lay some of them off haven’t been particularly well received in the halls of Tallahassee’s government buildings.
So it probably wasn’t that much of a surprise when he implied this week that the problem with state workers is that they might just be drug users.
Scott made national news this week when he ordered random drug testing for all state workers who answer to the governor regardless of suspicion. He also ordered drug testing for all new state job applicants. Again, it’s the norm in the private sector workforce, Scott argued.
There would be a cost of about $25 a test, and Scott’s plan doesn’t spell out where that money would come from.
For the sake of humor, we’ll suggest that the state deduct it from workers paychecks. Some of the money in those checks – dollars that now go to the worker’s union – may soon be freed up. Besides, the union would probably just fight against these drug tests anyway.
UNION PAYCHECK DEDUCTIONS
It wasn’t a good week for unions in Tallahassee, but really when was the last time it was?
The House passed a bill that prevents unions from collecting dues from members who are government workers through automatic payroll deductions. Democrats and unions said it was an attack on the unions – payback for supporting Democrats. Republican backers of the bill say it just makes sense, that the government shouldn’t be in the business of helping unions collect their dues in the age of PayPal – especially when those dues are going in part to political activity that is aimed at attacking some of those in that government.
The bill passed along party lines, but now goes to the Senate.
BUT THINGS ARE LOOKING UP FOR WORKERS
Also this week, Florida got some rare good economic news. The state unemployment agency announced on Friday that the jobless rate dropped last month by about a half a percentage point. It’s still higher than it was a year ago and much higher than the national rate, but now at 11.5 percent, it’s at least headed in the right direction and the economy has added jobs for several months now.
In other news about major legislation, the House proposal to overhaul the way Medicaid works changed fairly dramatically this week when backers added to the bill limits on malpractice awards in cases brought by those on Medicaid.
The government health care program has long suffered from not having enough doctors, who complain the reimbursement rates are too low. The solution to that problem that emerged in the House this week – make it more attractive by making it less likely that a doctor will be sued for medical malpractice if he is treating Medicaid patients. Overall, the House and Senate are moving Medicaid to a privatized managed care program – an issue that will be on the House floor on Tuesday of next week.
Politically, the U.S. Senate race got a bit clearer as Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack said on Friday that he won’t pursue the seat now held by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. The Fort Myers Republican would have been a strong contender, but his decision leaves Senate President Mike Haridopolos as the GOP frontrunner to take on Nelson at the moment.