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Critics take on legislators who 'double dip'

At least that's what critics call it. But lawmakers who hold other public jobs say government workers should have the right to participate.

By LUCY MORGAN and SHELBY OPPEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 17, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- In the mid-1990s when he was young and new to the Legislature, Rep. David Bitner offered an amendment on the floor of the House to prohibit state universities from paying legislators as consultants.

"We had members on the education appropriations committee voting to approve budgets that included their own salaries," recalls Bitner, R-Port Charlotte.

His amendment quickly ran into trouble with key legislators who were receiving salaries from state universities and community colleges.

"I had no idea we had that many members working at universities," Bitner says.

It is a perennial problem. Florida has a "citizen legislature" whose members spend 60 days in Tallahassee each spring and generally spend at least one week a month in the Capitol for committee meetings the rest of the year.

They make $27,132 a year, plus a stipend. That means they have to be independently wealthy, find jobs at places where long absences are tolerated or find a way to juggle their day jobs around legislative duties.

Some work for public agencies they oversee:

A dozen House members work at the state's universities, community colleges and public schools. Absences are not only tolerated, but in some counties are actually encouraged by bosses who see their legislative service as a way to help bring home the bacon.

Five other House members and one senator work for hospitals and other governmental agencies who need money and help from the Legislature.

The controversy sometimes extends to former legislators. Last month, the University of South Florida fired former Democratic state Rep. Mary Brennan after she declared she was running for her old House seat, and after Republicans in the Legislature had questioned incoming USF President Judy Genshaft about Brennan's political aspirations.

Brennan got her job after leaving the Legislature. Some lawmakers who hold government jobs had them before running for office; others got them after.

The influence of legislators becomes important when the Legislature considers how it will spend the state's $11-billion education budget or considers bills that affect cities, counties and hospitals.

This year the House approved an amendment to the state budget that would forbid legislators from taking pay from another governmental entity while they are handling their legislative duties. Budget negotiators will determine whether it becomes law.

"When they are up here for committee meetings, they aren't only double dipping, they are triple dipping because they get reimbursed for their expenses," said Rep. Mike Fasano, the Port Richey Republican who co-sponsored the amendment. "This is just wrong."

The proposal, filed by Fasano and J.D. Alexander, R-Frostproof, passed on a voice vote. But there were many objections, particularly from Democrats who say Republicans are taking an elitist attitude on the issue. Fourteen House lawmakers abstained from the vote, saying they may have a conflict of interest.

House Speaker John Thrasher said he asked for the amendment after realizing Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, takes a drastic pay cut at his job prosecuting criminals in state courtrooms to serve in the Legislature while other lawmakers receive their regular salaries.

"It seems unfair," Thrasher said last week. "Others working for government agencies are paid as though they are working full-time, and, in fact, some of them are used as lobbyists."

Thrasher said he believes in keeping a citizen Legislature, but does not think the state's taxpayers should have to pay members twice.

Members of the Legislature handle the potential conflicts in different ways.

For example, Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg, is paid $77,000 as an associate vice president at St. Petersburg Junior College. But Hafner also has to decide this year whether to support a bill that would establish a new, four-year university in St. Petersburg.

So which master will he serve?

Hafner says he supports the bill creating a four-year school in St. Petersburg -- even though some view the school as competition for the community college -- because he sees it "as a statewide issue." The bill also would create new four-year schools in Sarasota and Broward counties.

He says he sees no conflict in voting on the education budget or on issues relating to community colleges. When he votes for more money for education, he is fighting for the entire system, not just SPJC, Hafner says.

Hafner says public employees deserve the right to participate in government as much as private-sector citizens.

"It's frustrating because people continue to bring it up," Hafner said, referring to the perception of conflict. "And yet the public sector has as much of a right to be represented as the private sector."

Hafner was an SPJC faculty member when elected to the Legislature in 1988. In 1998, he was promoted to his current position as an associate vice president. He takes vacation days to attend the 60-day legislative session. When those run out, he takes unpaid leave.

Meanwhile, school boards in Dade and Broward counties pay their legislator-employees even when they are not on the job in South Florida.

In Broward County, School Board members say employees who are legislators "are in a unique position to further the goals of the school district."

In effect, the legislators are advocates or lobbyists for their home school districts, adding to the clout a paid lobbyist can bring.

Legislators from Dade and Broward say their employers see their work in the Legislature as an extension of their full-time jobs working on behalf of the school systems.

"This is a passion," says Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami. "I work Christmas Day, Thanksgiving. . . . When everyone is on break, I'm in my office. Voting in the Legislature is not a problem for me. I would have the same philosophy whether I worked for the schools or not."

A former Miami-Dade County School Board member, Wilson gave up a higher-paying job to continue working in the school dropout prevention program.

Rep. James Bush III, D-Miami, refused to discuss his job as a social worker with Miami-Dade schools. Bush has recently been criticized by the Miami Herald because he was unable to show what he is doing in his $62,400-a-year job. A candidate for state education commissioner, Bush would say only that he is obeying the law.

Rep. Addie Greene, D-Mangonia Park, teaches communications at Palm Beach Community College. She uses unpaid leave when she travels to Tallahassee on legislative duty.

But Greene makes no secret about her work on behalf of the college while she's in the Legislature. When her bosses tell her how many million dollars they need, "that means "Go get it.' "

She has filed bills to help the college reverse a law that penalized community colleges and bring them under the state's prepaid tuition program.

"Those are the types of things that make you look good to the faculty," Greene says.

She says she has never seen any reason to abstain from voting on the state education budget or any other bill. Greene says she works hard and has no children or husband, so she can work 24-hour days, seven days a week.

"Even my dog died about a month ago," Greene said.

Greene says Fasano's amendment was "stupid."

"If they ask me to come work for nothing, Addie Greene would not be here," she adds.

Other legislators insist they are more circumspect about their jobs as lawmakers. Instead of participating in the passage of key education bills, they work on other issues and avoid serving on education committees.

"I handle it carefully," says Rep. Cynthia Chestnut, D-Gainesville, who works for state-owned Shands Teaching Hospital as director of community education for health. "I don't serve on health care committees at all. And I don't handle budget requests for Shands."

Rep. Les Miller, D-Tampa, works for Tampa General Hospital and handles some of his hospital duties from Tallahassee.

"I'm paid when I am up here," says Miller, who gets $25,749 a year from TGH. "Our vice president says "You put in the time and you'll be paid.' I fax stuff back and forth. Even if I'm here, I'm still working."

Rep. Joe Eggelletion Jr. handles a diversity program for Broward County schools and also does some of his homework at his desk in Tallahassee.

But the Democrat from Lauderdale Lakes says he has sometimes opposed his School Board bosses -- most notably in sponsoring a charter school bill they didn't want.

And Eggelletion is careful to fill out time logs whenever he is handling legislative duties so he can avoid questions later. He has also asked school officials to leave his salary at the level of a classroom teacher instead of paying him an administrator's salary. He is paid for a 180-day year, the same as teachers, but works a lot of summer hours.

"People want to say we are double dipping," Eggelletion says. "But some of us have been working nights till 2 or 3 a.m. They have no clue about the amount of hours we put in."

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