By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Triangulate this story and you’ll find it falls somewhere between laughable, maddening and ironic: A bill moving forward in the Florida Senate would ban state college and university employees, such as professors, from serving in the state legislature.
Cue up the “Yeah, no need to taint the Capitol gene pool with some smart people” joke.
Although the proposal seems far from certain (SB 1560 only passed the Senate Rules Subcommittee on Ethics and Elections by a 7-6 vote on Monday), it has nevertheless passed its first legislative obstacle.
The bill, authored by Sen. John Thrasher, is supposed to prevent conflicts of interest by folks from state colleges and universities. But banning them from serving in the legislature doesn’t make sense. Because, almost by definition, every person in the state has the potential for a conflict of interest. That’s true not just for the state legislature, but every county commission, town council and water district seat.
It’s how our citizen government works. We pick people who live and work in our communities and ask them to manage the affairs of those towns and counties and the state. That’s why every governing body already has conflict-of-interest rules that forbid voting on a bill or ordinance from which you could benefit.
And if lawmakers are so concerned about conflicts of interest, why single out state college and university employees? Spend a little time going through the current Florida Senate roster and you’ll find that more than a quarter of the 40-person Florida Senate (12 lawmakers) identify themselves as lawyers or paralegals (one senator). And these are people who — wait for it — make laws. Talk about a conflict of interest. Or are they simply people with expertise and familiarity in that area? Thrasher, by the way, is on that list.
Another six see themselves as professional politicians. Four are farmers or ranchers. Another four are from the health care industry, and four more in education. Two are from real estate, two contractors, two former sheriffs, two bankers.
Which of those industries doesn’t have a vested interest in state laws?
If Thrasher’s bill keeps moving forward, it should be interesting to see how it will be received by Sen. Dennis Jones, a vice president with St. Petersburg College. Not to speak of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who lists his occupation as a professor at Brevard Community College (remember the $152,000 he got for a 175-page double-spaced book manuscript on Florida politics?).
The other major problem with Thrasher’s bill is that it’s another law for a problem that doesn’t exist (remember the bill that would ban Sharia law and the other bill to end the ban on dwarf-tossing?). How many times has there been a serious problem with folks from state colleges and universities taking over government?
Aside from Haridopolos’ book deal, the most obvious example is the case of former state House Speaker Ray Sansom, who was hired by Northwest Florida State College after he left the legislature, and subsequently used his political power and influence to the advantage of the college, himself and a developer.
Sansom was a lot of things — depending on your view: a hired gun, a politician/lobbyist, a scalawag — but no one ever seriously identified him as a professor.
And if this is really about addressing the Sansom and Haridopolos embarrassments, wouldn’t it make more sense to propose a bill that would ban politicians from becoming college professors, rather than the other way around?
Thrasher’s bill just doesn’t make sense. Yet seven senators — supposedly our most senior, respected lawmakers — voted for it and moved it past the first legislative hurdle.
And chew on this: SB 1560 has already gotten further than a bill that would have allowed Florida voters to recall state leaders.
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I won’t be updating you on the fate of SB 1560. Today’s item will be my last for the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. I’m leaving behind 28 years in journalism to write books and movies. I look forward to the opportunity to pursue that lifelong dream, but will seriously miss writing this blog and interacting with readers.
Every writer knows (or should know) that, by themselves, words are meaningless. It’s only when they’re read that they acquire any power. Thanks for giving some of mine a little juice.
I will continue to be an avid reader and fan of FCIR. If any of you feel a need to reach me, send me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Good luck, all.