By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The pace of controversial laws and legally questionable edicts coming out of Tallahassee this year has been so ferocious, it’s almost easy to forget how close to the constitutional edge state leaders have ventured.
Courts have found that legislation championed by Gov. Rick Scott requiring the drug-testing of welfare applicants was unconstitutional. An analysis by the Department of Children and Families of the first round of drug-testing also proved the policy wasn’t very smart. Only 2 percent of applicants tested positive. That figure, far below the national average of 8.7 percent (and 8.13 statewide), cost the state between $30,000 and $40,000 a month to reimburse the 98 percent who took the test and passed.
Now it will cost the state more money because on Thursday Scott’s administration decided to appeal the court ruling.
And the lawyers’ meter just keeps ticking away: cha-ching, cha-ching.
It hasn’t been a good year for drug laws. Earlier this summer, two judges found that the 2002 state legislature did such a bad job of writing the state’s drug laws that the laws were unconstitutional, causing the release of people who had already been convicted. Legal experts are hoping lawmakers will fix the law in the next session. Although considering the track record of this crowd, that could lead to even more cha-ching moments.
Courts also found that Scott and the legislature’s plan to privatize prisons was unconstitutional. On this one, Scott demurred on appealing the ruling. So the legislature did it for him.
One chamber of the legislature is also appealing a court ruling that sided with Florida taxpayers in a suit filed by U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown and Mario Diaz-Balart against the immensely popular Fair Districts Amendments. The two Fair Districts amendments, approved by 63 percent of Florida voters, prohibit drawing up election districts to favor an individual or a party. The state House of Representatives apparently opposes such a concept to the point that it’s willing to fight it in court — and allow taxpayers to foot the bill.
A judge also found that a recently passed law prohibiting doctors from asking patients any questions about guns unless there was a “compelling” reason was unconstitutional. Scott has vowed to appeal.
And then there’s the new Florida law restricting voter registration and access. It places harsh fines on anyone who tries to conduct voter registration drives and doesn’t turn in every registration within 48 hours, it cuts the amount of days for early voting and the number of hours for precincts to stay open, and eliminates changes of address and names on voting day at precincts. The whole thing is so perplexing and unwieldy that it may be historic: the one time that the tea party and the American Civil Liberties Union agree on anything.
Still pending is a lawsuit against a new law forcing public employees to pay three percent into their pensions. If the state loses that one, it could create an $860 million gap in the state budget.
Almost all the laws have one thing in common (other than being challenged as unconstitutional or found unconstitutional): They weren’t written to address any legitimate problem. Study after study found no rampant voter fraud, welfare recipients aren’t all a bunch of drug addicts, and there is no great medical conspiracy to do away with the Second Amendment.
Meanwhile, the National Assessment of Educational Progress came out last week. And it does point to a legitimate problem. After a decade-long climb in test results, the scores of Florida children are in the doldrums. For the second straight year, Florida’s schoolchildren did not improve in math and reading. The stalls seem to coincide with stiff cuts in education spending. Since 2007, the state has axed 12 percent from school funding for public education.
Not enough cha-ching for the children.