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Lawmakers' budget must not sabotage state law

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By HOWARD TROXLER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 2, 2001


Do you remember that sneaky change made in this year's state budget, after a lobbyist in Tallahassee complained that his kid in a military academy couldn't get into medical school in Florida?

Presto, chango! Without debate, hearings or publicity, legislators stuck in a line that said Florida's med schools have to take a quota of military academy students.

Do you also remember how the Legislature this past spring tried to bully the locals up in Tallahassee?

The Legislature wrote into the state budget that certain road money wouldn't get spent up there -- unless the speed bumps were removed from a route that legislators took to the airport.

These were two examples of secrecy and arrogance. Now, if Gov. Jeb Bush is correct in the lawsuit he filed last week, they also will be ruled unconstitutional abuses of the Legislature's power.

Bush's lawsuit cites the med school and speed bump items, along with five others, as instances of trying to use the state budget to change Florida's law through the back door.

Because Bush can veto the state budget only in chunks -- one line-item of the budget at a time -- he either has to swallow the bad with the good, or throw out a lot of good to get to the bad.

This matters to all of us because the Legislature is sneaky enough as it is.

If the Legislature had the power to do any old thing it wanted with the budget, then the governor's veto power would be meaningless, and we would more or less have a one-branch monarchy.

The state budget ought to be just that -- a budget. It declares how Florida will spend its money (your money) for the coming year. It is NOT an extra way for the Legislature to accomplish what it was too lazy, ashamed or disorganized to do in the general law.

Med school admissions are a perfect example. Under existing Florida law, the state Board of Education, and each state university's board of trustees, sets admissions standards. If the Legislature wants to change that law, then by gum change the law.

But the Legislature cannot just sneak a line into the state budget saying, "Psst! No matter what the law says elsewhere, do it this way instead!"

Second, the strings that the Legislature attaches have to be related to the thing being budgeted. In the med school case, the budget item dealt with health care for the poor. It had nothing to do with admissions policy.

That's also why it was wrong for the Legislature to hold hostage the money meant for a state road project in Tallahassee, unless the locals removed speed bumps from a county road.

All seven examples cited by Bush in his lawsuit deal either with an improper change in state law, or a string attached to an unrelated budget item. One deals with reorganization of the state treasurer's office. One deals with the powers of the Department of Revenue. One would benefit a single hospital in Broward County. One creates a pilot project not authorized by general law.

Now, there is an unfortunate consequence to all this. The seventh item cited by Bush's lawsuit deals with a program called Kidcare, which provides medical care for uninsured children. Nothing could be more worthy.

Unfortunately, state law clearly requires local contributions to the program, set by a board of directors. The Legislature tried to evade Bush's veto by putting language into the budget saying no local matching funds would be required. But the same problem remains: Words slipped into the state budget cannot trump, erase or nullify the law.

This is the second time Bush and the Legislature will collide in court. The lawmakers sued Bush in 1999 for improperly trying to rewrite their budget -- and won. This time, Bush is the one doing the suing, and he is in the right.

- You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxler@sptimes.com.

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