Florida lawmakers quietly stockpile millions to pay legal fees in upcoming partisan redistricting battle

AARON DESLATTE | Orlando Sentinel | 05/05/2011

TALLAHASSEE — While bemoaning deep cuts to health-care, education and public employee benefits, Florida lawmakers have stockpiled millions of dollars in funds that they control and are packing away even more to pay legal bills as Florida begins the partisan process of redistricting this year.

Buried within the $69.67 billion budget agreed to this week, the Senate is giving itself a 26 percent spending boost — more than $9 million above last year — to finance the coming legal fight.

The House, meanwhile, is sitting on $30 million in “discretionary” reserves — cash that the chamber hasn’t spent over the years but that doesn’t revert back to the treasury, as do unspent dollars in state agencies’ budgets.

That little-known pot of cash is roughly the same size as the corporate income tax cut lawmakers gave to Gov. Rick Scott this week. And it’s more than what the Legislature authorized for a three-day sales-tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers in August.

Republican leaders in both chambers say they need the cash because they’re planning to spend up to $20 million litigating over the re-drawing of political maps that will began in earnest this summer. And they’re pointing the finger at the FairDistricts amendments voters passed last year to make it more difficult to gerrymander legislative and congressional districts.

“The problem with redistricting every decade is it’s unpredictable. The litigation this year is likely to be more broad and complex than it has been in past decades,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Lawmakers have made much ado about their frugality in recent years, voting twice to cut their own salaries. After assuming the Senate presidency, Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, declared last winter that he had saved taxpayers more than $1 million by laying off senior Senate staffers and consolidating their jobs.

But redistricting is one area where they’ve spared no expense. Cannon has already spent approximately $800,000 on legal fees for redistricting, $700,000 of which was paid to his former Orlando law firm, GrayRobinson.

The expected cost of the coming fight has set off an eleventh-hour skirmish between the two chambers. The Senate has quietly complained that the House forced it to add the money to its public budget, while the House has amassed reserves over the years.

Unlike the House, the Senate needed the new appropriation because the chamber has already spent $8.7 million from its discretionary fund this year on things like information technology services ($4.8 million) and communications and outside consultants ($830,000). One consequence of those expenditures is an upgraded website that prominently features Haridopolos, who is a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the chamber had been “pretty aggressive at controlling costs” but that the House is appropriated more money every year – with 120 members, it’s three times the size of the Senate — and has squirreled away money while the Senate was spending down its reserves.

“Out of respect for the House, we haven’t tried to insist that they not carry that forward,” Alexander said. “Hopefully they’ll be responsive, but if not the people of Florida can see what they do” on the Transparency Florida Web site that posts all state spending, including outlays by the Legislature.

Last fall, a group called FairDistricts.org put Amendments 5 and 6 on the ballot as an attempt to de-politicize the redistricting process; the amendments prohibit drawing legislative and congressional districts to benefit certain members or parties. Cannon and Haridopolos campaigned hard against the amendments, but failed to persuade voters, who approved the constitutional changes.

As a result, “There will be more people who believe they have standing to file lawsuits,” said Senate Redistricting Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who prepared the chamber’s redistricting budget and said lawmakers spent close to $10 million a decade ago defending their redistricting efforts.

“The Whigs now have standing under the constitution to file a lawsuit,” Gaetz added sarcastically. “I think it could be an unfortunate use of taxpayers’ money to deal with all these costs.”

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