Apparently, Florida’s legislature is under siege from heartless people in the media who would take the food right out of the mouths of hungry legislators – all in the name of pesky conflicts of interest.
Imagine the temerity of the press to suggest that legislators ought not take jobs with the same state universities and colleges that have to come before the legislature, academic caps in hand, pleading for appropriations.
One might think the decision whether to prohibit our state legislators from accepting high-paying jobs with any state entity they also fund would be a relatively easy one, even in Tallahassee. To many citizens living in the real world, these jobs look like sweetheart deals and horrible conflicts. Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, must have thought so, too. He sponsored Senate Bill 1560, which addressed the issue.
This bill did not arise out of the blue or the mere musing of editorial boards. Former House Speaker Ray Sansom landed a high-paid sinecure with a community college to which he had helped steer millions in appropriations. He was indicted (though the charges were later dropped) with a co-defendant over an alleged conspiracy to funnel $6 million to a building project through an award to the panhandle public college that employed Sansom. He also resigned in disgrace. But Sansom was the not the only legislator with a comfortable, if at times ill-defined, position in state-supported institutions of higher learning.
Too bad the Senate Rules Committee failed to take the hint and instead concluded the real problem was the news media, which was trying to dictate public policy and deny politicians an opportunity to earn a living post-politics. The committee decided the time had come to take a stand and to stop listening to the scolds.
As reported in the Sun-Sentinel this week, legislator after legislator complained the media was making a mountain out of nothing, that the legislators needed to work and earn a living just like the next person, and that such a rule would keep honest faculty members from running for the legislature and deprive the legislature of all sorts of expertise.
Sansom might be the poster-legislator for the ethically challenged, and prohibitions of such obvious conflicts might seem an easy call. But the problem runs deeper and is more complex than even Sansom’s shenanigans might suggest, or legislators might want to admit.
In matters of government, citizens get that for which they pay. We may not be getting much in Tallahassee, but look at what we are paying. Aside from expenses and other perks, the typical Florida legislator is paid about $30,000 per year for the job. That’s not much — ask any starting teacher.
One might be tempted to argue that’s just fine because legislators are only in session part time (60 days in a typical year) and they ought to understand what it means to live on a modest salary. But neither response is realistic for many reasons. Take your pick: Legislators generally come to Tallahassee with careers already in place (at least we hope so). These tend not to be people lacking in ambition or expensive tastes. They have not taken a vow of poverty or even near-poverty. They travel in circles in which modest lives tend to be the exception, not a virtue. They need to eat and educate their children, too.
The bottom line is actually simpler. If we want legislators of great skill, intelligence and ethics (and we should because they matter so much) – people with an education, business experience, moral fortitude or whatever – then we will have to pay them more – much more.
The dream of citizen-legislators doing a public service ignores reality. We ought to treat them as professionals and in return we should also demand stronger restrictions on outside employment, whether with government entities or private businesses.
Teachers and others government employees are important, too, but the stakes are particularly high when it comes to legislators because they can fix or screw up so much in our state. Pay them well, and demand absolute loyalty and freedom from conflicts – not the sort of self-serving gibberish uttered by the Rules Committee members this week to kill what was a good faith attempt to solve their own tattered images.
Our legislators would have done themselves a favor by agreeing to prohibit this rather self-evident conflict or at least by appearing to take the issue more seriously. If they could not see the conflict, and if they really thought the controversy was the creation of the news media, then perhaps rather than working at our state universities, they ought to attend one offering a basic course in ethics.