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Public schools reopened across Florida this month under the cloud of an astonishing threat from the Florida Department of Education to withhold nearly $300-million in lottery money unless the districts could prove that no employee payroll deductions were destined for political use.
As proof, the department suggested that each teacher "certify in writing that the deduction is not being being paid to an entity that, in turn, pays all or a portion of such amount as a political contribution."
In effect, Florida's schoolchildren had become hostages to a campaign to destroy the teachers' union. Though the ultimatum didn't single out the Florida Education Association and its local affiliates, there's no doubt who the intended targets were. Speaker Tom Feeney and his fellow right-wing fanatics rammed a union-busting bill through the House this spring. After the Senate refused to take it up, a last-minute budget proviso of mysterious origin ordered the department to withhold lottery money from districts that fail to abide by a long-standing law against making or soliciting political contributions in public buildings.
Only by the most tortuous misinterpretation could that law apply to routine union dues (or any other payroll deductions not expressly earmarked for politics), but that's how James A. Robinson, the Education Department's new general counsel, chose to read it. Even the House and Senate education budget chairpersons said he was wrong. Only Feeney said he was right.
Education Commissioner Charlie Crist supposedly did not see Robinson's letter to the school districts before it was sent out Aug. 6, which if true raises some interesting questions as to who might actually be in charge at his lame-duck agency while he campaigns for attorney general in next year's elections. Nor was Crist heard from until the story broke 10 days later. Less than 24 hours after that, Crist was happily notifying the press and union leaders that Robinson had taken him off a very shaky limb with a clarifying opinion that said teachers don't have to prove the innocence of their contributions before Crist sends the lottery money. He doesn't have to presume the districts are violating the law absent any evidence of noncompliance.
But that doesn't end the sorry chapter. Someone else might try to force the issue, so it needs to be settled definitively. As Crist himself conceded Friday, the teachers' union isn't the only politically active agency that receives payroll deductions. There is, for example, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, a major provider of employee health insurance, which has made more than $900,000 in political contributions since 1996. Last week, school administrators in Hardee County, one of the smaller districts, sent the department a 51-page list of financial institutions, businesses, insurance companies and other organizations to which they relay payroll deductions.
The easiest way for Crist to end this would be to request an official opinion from Attorney General Bob Butterworth as to whether the law against political solicitations in government buildings can be stretched so far as to disallow union dues, insurance premiums, or direct deposits to banks that, like the teachers' unions, lobby and make political contributions. Considering the stakes, one might have thought that the department would have asked for Butterworth's views in the first instance.
Meanwhile, it bears remembering what's at stake in the election to succeed Butterworth, who is term-limited. There has been concern all along that Crist was in over his head even in the fairly shallow waters of the Education Department. He was far out with the sharks this month and nearly didn't make it back. How would he survive as attorney general, where the water is deep and turbulent all the time?
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From the Times