By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog
TAMPA— In the state of Wisconsin, it took an $80-million recall election to validate Gov. Scott Walker‘s fiscal reforms on public-sector collective bargaining and pension requirements for state employees.
In Florida, where similar legislation has been passed and signed into law, the biggest impediment to Gov. Rick Scott‘s agenda has not been the threat of a recall election but rather myriad lawsuits and constitutional challenges.
In the course of Scott’s 17 months in office, the laws or executive orders that have been held up by a court order or pending legislation include:
- Requiring drug testing for welfare recipients, halted by Middle District Judge Mary Scriven in October 2011;
- Requiring drug testing for state employees, struck down by Southern District Judge Ursula Ungaro in April;
- Requiring public employees to contribute 3 percent to their pension, ruled unconstitutional by Northern District Judge Jackie Fulford in March;
- Restricting early voting hours and ability of third party groups to register voters, struck down by Northern District Judge Robert Hinkle in May;
- Privatization of prisons, struck down by Northern District Judge Jackie Fulford in November 2011;
- Rejection of federal funds for high-speed rail projects, upheld by the State Supreme Court in March 2011;
- Redrawing electoral districts, rejected by state Supreme Court in March;
- Prohibiting doctors from asking patients about firearms, struck down by Southern District Judge Marcia Cooke in September 2011;
- Removing ineligible voters from county voter registration lists, halted by Justice Department order in May.
These are all issues that have served as the core focus for Scott and the Republican majority in the Legislature, elected during the tea party tidal wave of 2010, advocating fiscal responsibility and reduced public spending.
But questions raised on the constitutionality of these reforms, whether they are pensions, voting or drug testing, have kept the first-term governor and state Attorney General Pam Bondi quite busy in the past year and a half.
In April, the South Florida Sun Sentinel estimated that the cost of these lawsuits to Florida taxpayers amounted to $728, 840 for both staff salaries and special fees.
This amount includes costs for private law firms defending Florida legislation in court, including the Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird defending the pension case and a Washington, D.C.-based firm to argue the voter registration and early voting cases, according to the Attorney General’s office.
“By hiring outside counsel with substantial knowledge and expertise in this area, the Department of State has been able to more effectively prepare cases for submission to the court,” Department of State spokesman Chris Cate told the Sun Sentinel.
Neither the office of the governor nor attorney general returned calls to Florida Watchdog.
Bruce Jacob, former Florida assistant attorney general now teaching constitutional law at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, said most laws signed by Scott would be considered constitutional, but suggested the Legislature be more diligent when crafting such sweeping legislation.
“There are some issues which are debatable and can be brought up in court, but all these lawmakers have counsels and attorneys who inform them on the law,” Jacob said.
“If lawmakers are writing and passing a law they inherently know to be unconstitutional, then they’re just inviting lawsuits from all sorts of various groups.”
Just last week, the governor told Newsmax.com that the results of the Wisconsin recall election “absolutely” validated the policies that are being challenged in Florida, adding that a focus on “making your state a business-friendly state, reducing taxes, reducing regulations, and putting people in place that are going to be pro-business,” were essential for maintaining both fiscal responsibility and public support.