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A Times Editorial

Power and patronage

Republican legislative leaders did all the dirty work, but the effect of their actions was to concentrate unprecedented power in Gov. Jeb Bush's office.

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001

Republican legislative leaders did all the dirty work, but the effect of their actions was to concentrate unprecedented power in Gov. Jeb Bush's office.

Throughout more than a century as a minority party, Florida Republicans pledged to govern more responsibly than the Democrats when their time finally came. Yes, and they would still love us in the morning.

The legislative session that ended May 4, only the third since the GOP added the governor's office to its pantheon of power, was historic for the ruthless abuse of power.

Speaker Tom Feeney ran the House as if parliamentary rules were only for other people. And though the Senate was conducted with proper decorum, the end game for both houses was the same: to give Gov. Jeb Bush powers that Huey Long might envy. Lawmakers did not settle simply for putting the jobs of 16,000 more state workers at Bush's disposal, or at replacing the bipartisan Board of Regents with 139 individual university trustees for Bush to appoint, or even at converting the nonpartisan judicial nominating commissions into gubernatorial patronage committees.

On the last day, they also made mischief with the grandest of political prizes: the $12-billion or so that the state spends annually on goods and services. A bill aimed ostensibly at doing more public business on the Internet acquired an amendment that appears to undercut competitive bidding throughout state government.

On deciding that bidding will not result in "best value," an agency may now issue invitations "to negotiate" instead. The government may now also buy goods or services "by a request for a quote" from vendors already under contract, giving an enormous advantage to those already in the door.

This reduces competitive bidding from a legal imperative to an easily avoided inconvenience All this was done under a title beginning, "An act relating to information technology . . ."

This would be much too large a blank check even if it applied only to the $1-billion a year that Florida spends on information technology. Already, one politically well-connected company appears to be getting the better of another that bid $700,000 less to equip Highway Patrol cars with laptop computers. But if House Democrats are correct (as they appear to be), the amended bill would reopen the door to patronage purchasing throughout the government.

From the day Gov. Bush signs that bill -- if he does -- no business should expect to do business with the state on the basis of offering the best product or service at the lowest price. Rather, campaign contributions will become a basic cost and an assumed prerequisite of doing business. Prices will be padded accordingly.

This slipped through the Senate without notice. In the House, Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, who served on the Information Technology Committee and knew what the bill was supposed to be, raised a timely alarm. But her corrective amendment failed, 53 to 60.

The amendment is essentially identical to a separate bill sponsored by Rep. Fred Brummer's House Committee on State Administration. (Brummer, it will be remembered, also originated the legislation to give Bush full political control of the judicial selection process.) Because committee bills require the speaker's approval, the raid on purchasing bears Feeney's fingerprints, too.

But the most important fingerprints are those of the governor and of Cynthia Henderson, his secretary of the Department of Management Services, where state purchasing is housed. It was a joint effort by their lobbyists.

His bill or not, Bush should veto it. Its suffers from the serious constitutional infirmities of a misleading title and multiple unrelated subjects. It offends sound public policy by providing such easy exceptions to competitive bidding. And the way these unrelated subjects were coupled into what legislators call a "train" sadly recalled how Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Dan Webster, the best of the recent Republican presiding officers, tried to put a permanent stop to such abuses five years ago.

There were unworthy personal power plays as well.

Responsible conservatives would not allow the Legislature's authority to be abused for sleazy vendettas such as House Majority Leader Mike Fasano's retaliation against Tom Herndon, the highly respected administrator of Florida's pension funds, whose job is another of those now at the governor's disposal.

They would not make patronage dumps of public medical schools.

So much of this took place at the last minute as to suggest the need for a formal "cooling-off" period that would apply to other legislation in the same manner as the 72-hour delay imposed by the Constitution on budget bills. Rep. Johnny Byrd, R-Plant City, who is in line to succeed Feeney as speaker in November 2002, says he's giving thought to something like that.

Even the best of rules, however, is only as good as the respect it is paid by those to whom it applies. Fundamentally, the Legislature doesn't need new rules half as much as it needs leaders who will keep all those good promises the Republicans used to make.

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