State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, called it “insane” and “a runaway train.” Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, described the total as “a gosh lot of money.” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said, “We’re getting gouged.”
Is it spending on a taxpayer-subsidized economic or tourism development agency? An expensive and inefficient social welfare program?
No, it’s the more than $250 million Florida has spent on private legal fees since 2011. That includes $16 million the state had to pay for opponents’ attorney fees. It’s a total the state wasn’t even aware of until The Associated Press added up the costs by analyzing budget documents and making public records requests and bringing the data to the attention of key officials.
A chunk of that figure — more than $41 million just in the last 18 months alone — went to a legitimate cause: Florida’s legal fight with Georgia over water rights. That battle, which has been ongoing for nearly three decades, involves a dispute over how much water Georgia siphons from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin in Florida and Alabama to accommodate growth in the metro Atlanta area. More water for Georgia means less for the Apalachicola Bay in Florida’s Panhandle, which harms marine life and, by extension, that area’s renowned oyster industry.
Florida is justified in seeking to protect its environmental and economic interests. But its decision to spend so much on private attorneys when the Attorney General’s Office already employs 450 state lawyers — with an annual budget of nearly $309 million — deserves a second look.
Meanwhile, other legal fees are more questionable or flat-out wasteful. These include Gov. Rick Scott’s losing battle to test welfare recipients for drugs, a policy that, based on precedent, had no shot from the beginning of passing legal muster. The state also has hired outside legal counsel to defend efforts to trim the state’s voter registration lists and ban companies that do business with Cuba from bidding on government contracts.
States commonly use private attorneys to supplement their state employees, but as the AP notes, Florida’s practice appears exceptionally lucrative to outside lawyers. For instance, it found that New York state since 2012 has spent more than $86 million on such fees — an average of $17 million a year, or less than half what Florida has spent.
What’s worse is that nobody in Tallahassee was keeping track of the bills. The AP reports that a spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office explained he didn’t have that information and was “unaware of a way to capture expenditures for the purchase of outside legal services that would not entail an exhaustive search of documents.” In addition, the governor, Legislature and other state elected officials do not have to report their spending on legal fees to the AG.
When lawmakers this legislative session seek to identify spending to cut so they can fit more important priorities into the budget, one of the first places they should look is Florida’s reliance on private attorneys. They need to question whether the state needs to hire so many outsiders to do its legal work and whether it is paying exorbitant rates when it perhaps could get better deals elsewhere. Finally, the Legislature needs to create a process that accounts for every cent spent on attorney’s fees so it is transparent and can be regularly monitored.