Democrats Turn to Courts to Halt Florida GOP’s Agenda
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An outsider unaccustomed to the vagaries of the legislative process, Gov. Rick Scott has remarked how difficult it was to move bills through the Legislature.
On the surface, Scott should have found it easy to push his agenda, with a complete Republican Cabinet, a two-thirds Republican Legislature with like-minded leaders. But even after he signs a bill into law or issues an executive order, Scott is still finding roadblocks from opposition groups looking to thwart his policies through lawsuits.
The latest lawsuit came Monday when the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, filed suit over the pension reform bill Scott signed into law last month. The law requires the 655,000 state workers and other government employee members of the Florida Retirement System, about half of whom are school district employees, to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions.
Florida is currently the only state in the nation that does not require state workers to contribute to their pensions, but the FEA and two other state worker unions that have intervened in the suit, claim that the new law is not progressive, and that forcing current workers to contribute to their pensions is a breach of their contract and a violation of the state Constitution.
Despite the pushback, Scott is not shying away from defending his policies.
“Asking state employees to pay a small percentage into their pensions is common sense. Floridians who don’t work in government are required to pay into their own retirement. This is about fairness for those who don’t have government jobs. Plus we are ensuring a pension will be there for state employees when they retire. I’m confident this law is good for the people of Florida and will stand up in court,” Scott said.
The law is scheduled to take effect Friday, but the FEA, as part of the suit, has asked the court to put any employee salary contributions after that date into a separate account until the case has been decided. The court will hear initial arguments Thursday.
But the fight over pensions is just the latest lawsuit to be filed in an attempt to block Scott’s agenda.
In March, a blind Miami woman trying to reapply for Food Stamps filed suit against Scott’s executive order halting new rulemaking. Scott’s order was one of his first after taking office in January, and he stated he wanted to review all new regulations to ensure they do not hurt Florida’s economy or don’t weaken its ability to create jobs. A hearing in the case is scheduled Wednesday before the Florida Supreme Court.
The lawsuit was actually the second filed against Scott, as Sens. Thad Altman, R-Viera, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, filed suit to block his refusal of federal funds for the highly controversial high-speed rail line, which was to stretch from Tampa to Orlando. The Florida Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Scott’s favor.
The Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has also filed suit against new legislation aimed at preventing voter fraud, but which they claim is an attempt to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning voters.
Florida Democrats, however, are hoping the court battle over the elections law stops before it really begins.
Under the Voting Rights Act, changes in election laws must be approved by the Department of Justice. Because of historic discrimination in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties, the DOJ must give preclearance to the law in those counties.
Florida House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, and Minority Leader-designate Perry Thurston, D-Miami, sent a letter to the DOJ this week urging them to halt the new law.
The law, which Scott signed in May, prevents voters from changing their address at the polls if they move outside of their county, imposes fines on third-party voter registration groups that submit faulty names or paperwork, and reduces the length of the early voting period from 14 days to eight days.
“The law has the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or language minority group,” Saunders and Thurston claim in their letter.
Republican lawmakers counter they are merely trying to prevent fraud at the polls, and there is ample time to vote.
The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, joined by three Florida physician groups, filed yet another suit earlier this month, designed to block a new law preventing doctors from asking patients about their gun ownership without a legitimate medical reason. Under the law, doctors who inquire about the guns of patients could face fines or the suspension of their license.
A spokesperson from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office said they are awaiting an amended complaint in that lawsuit before filing a response.
Ultimately, the battle over these major policies will be decided in the courts, but just as Democrats have little recourse but in the judicial branch, there seems to be little Scott or the Legislature can do but wait for their day in court.
“Anyone can file a lawsuit,” Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said about the FEA's lawsuit.
The spate of suits does not look like it will abate anytime soon.
FEA general counsel Ron Meyer said they are likely to file suit over the controversial teacher merit pay law in August, and are looking into other lawsuits over easing class-size restrictions expanding the McKay Scholarship program and a constitutional amendment that would allow state money to go to religious organizations under the name of faith-based initiatives.
Reach Gray Rohrer at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.