By Paula Dockery
Just 10 of Florida’s 160 legislators voted recently on a $58-million budget amendment that carries large policy implications for citizens across the state. And although the change will affect constituents in my district, they had no representation in this decision -– or any other decisions passed by the Legislative Budget Commission.
When you enter the ballot box, your vote is supposed to have the same weight as any other citizen’s. “One person, one vote” is essential to our republican system of government. For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court says both houses of state legislatures must be comprised of voting districts with equal populations.
But by allowing only a handful of lawmakers on the Legislative Budget Commission to make important policy decisions, our state is increasing the value of some citizens’ votes, while completely robbing others of representation.
The Legislative Budget Commission was originally established for a rational reason. Because Florida’s part-time legislature meets in session only 60 days a year, small budget issues can arise later that need minor legislative fixes. The commission — seven members from the House, seven members from the Senate — is there to pass these small changes.
For example, in August the commission approved transferring $59,032 from an expense fund to a deferred-payment fund so that the Department of Juvenile Justice could improve its outdated telecom and data equipment.
For a decade, the commission performed as intended. But recently, legislative leadership has begun to abuse the powers held by its hand-selected commission members.
Undeterred by a court ruling that prohibits the legislature from changing policy through budget language, the Legislative Budget Commission last week approved a major policy change — privatizing prison health operations — with only six legislators voting in favor.
Last year, the courts struck down similar end-arounds designed to privatize general operations and health services at state prisons, saying such large policy changes must be made in stand-alone laws, not through budget language.
The legislature followed up by killing leadership’s attempt to pass a stand-alone prison privatization law with a razor-thin, 21-19 Senate vote. The bill failed after weeks of delay and arm twisting because proponents were unable to show that privatization would save money.
There may be good arguments for privatizing healthcare services at our prisons. Perhaps it would improve healthcare for inmates and save the state money, but it also may result in reduced care and higher costs.
Regardless, last week the Legislative Budget Commission ducked scrutiny and privatized prison healthcare after an hour of discussion among just 10 members, seven of whom were not even there in person.
History gives us reason to be skeptical of recent commission moves. Last year, it was given authority to approve a plan to migrate all state agency emails into a single system. The plan was supposed to save money, but commission members complained the projected savings didn’t add up. Still, they voted for the deal and signed a $70 million contract with Xerox.
The deal was so poorly reviewed that the legislature reversed the decision and removed all future funding for the contract. Nevertheless, this summer Gov. Rick Scott asked the commission to overrule the 160-member legislature and fund a $10-million contact.
The Legislative Budget Commission also plays a significant role in approving hundreds of millions of dollars for cash incentives to corporations. These corporate-welfare deals come with secret project names and promises of job creation. But the recent news of Digital Domain’s (aka Bumblebee) bankruptcy shows how poorly our policy of picking business winners and losers works. Even winners often fail and take taxpayer money down with them, $20 million in this case.
Other recent examples of the commission ruling on significant issues include the rejection of a $35.7-million grant to keep elderly and disabled people out of nursing homes by providing home health aides and other services. And in 2009, while legislative leadership bashed the Obama stimulus package, the commission voted to accept more than a billion dollars in stimulus funds.
In our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal.” It’s our responsibility to respect those words and ensure the vote of each Florida citizen counts equally.
Important policy-changing laws must be voted on by the full legislature, after rigorous debate and examination, not by a small group of handpicked, leadership-friendly members on the Legislative Budget Commission.
Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached by email here.