Amid cries of dollars down the drain, Broward County commissioners last week admitted they're probably wasting $300,000 in taxpayer money -- and funneling it to Republican hired guns responsible for the ugly "Big Sugar" campaign of 1996.
"A lot of your constituents are going to be angry when they hear about this," thundered Commissioner John Rodstrom, who opposed the spending. "You're not sugar people or lobbyists. You're gatekeepers of the taxpayers' money!"
The $300,000 is going to a political action committee (PAC) called "Floridians for Fairness in Court Funding" to finance a $3 million campaign to change the way Florida pays for its court system.
Although state government runs the system, each county government must pay the costs within its boundaries -- and that's big money. In Broward the property tax shoulders the burden for almost $70 million a year in court-related costs, yet county commissioners have almost no control over how that money is spent by circuit and county court judges, the state attorney, the public defender, and Clerk of Courts Robert E. Lockwood.
Because the county is forced to pay court-system costs, Lockwood, as commissioners ranted on April 7 about his $1.3 million racial discrimination settlement, was able to sit at the back of the commission chambers, snarling to a colleague, "By law they have to fund me."
Needless to say, Broward and other counties want state government to take over the court costs and are asking voters to force that change by approving in November a constitutional amendment known as Article V.
So far, so good: Let voters decide. But the counties also decided to have taxpayers pick up the tab for their Article V advertising campaign -- in effect attempting to manipulate the public by using the public's own money.
To finance the campaign, the Florida Association of Counties set up the "Fairness in Court Funding" PAC, then assessed each county a portion of the $3 million budget, with Broward commissioners agreeing in February to contribute $306,000.
When Rodstrom and Chairwoman Lori Parrish flew off to Tallahassee to learn how Broward's money will be spent, they returned to report, with some embarrassment, that, as Rodstrom informed his colleagues on April 7, "They've hired the Sugar People!"
In order to run the Article V campaign, commissioners learned, the counties' Fairness PAC is paying $125,000 to a Washington consulting firm headed by bigtime Republican strategist Roger Stone -- the behind-the-scenes mastermind of the sugar industry's take-no-prisoners assault on the penny-a-pound sugar tax in 1996.
As voters and TV viewers will remember, that Big Sugar campaign was considered among the most negative in Florida's political history, criticized for inaccurate scare advertising threatening everything from massive job losses to huge increases in food and medicine costs.
While the sugar-tax amendment lost statewide, Broward voters overwhelming approved it, in effect rejecting Big Sugar tactics that the Sun-Sentinel, in a editorial, branded "a triumph of disinformation."
In that 1996 battle against Big Sugar, Broward's "Save Our Everglades" leader was none other than Lori Parrish, who thus has firsthand knowledge of the Republican strategists who will be spending Broward's $306,000.
"I chaired the campaign against those guys," Parrish fumed.
"Don't tell me that message wasn't distorted," Rodstrom added.
All this sent Broward commissioners -- all Democrats -- into two weeks of indecisive dither, with Suzanne Gunzburger suggesting they send part of the money now and the remaining money "if we're not ashamed of the campaign," an idea refined by Parrish to mean, "as soon as we see the first commercials."
Against this ethical guilt gush, tough-person Ilene Lieberman argued the counties needed raw Big Sugar-like power, urging the Republican hired guns to sell Article V with a simplistic slogan "like they did with sugar." To win voters, Lieberman suggested the ad phrase, "It Will Save You Money!", which besides being simple and forceful, would be similar to Big Sugar's in another way: It's not true.
While the Article V amendment would transfer county court costs to the state, another provision says the state legislature doesn't have to specify where it will get the extra money until the year 2000 -- and then the transfer will likely mean higher state taxes and fees.
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So, Parrish says, Broward's $306,000 is really going to a "pro-tax PAC," admitting at one point, "We're baiting and switching the general public."
Commissioners acknowledged one other argument against their $300,000 PAC contribution: It probably won't work.
In the final positioning on the November ballot, Article V is not a separate, easily located amendment question but instead is lumped with three other court-related amendments involving merit selection of judges, judicial terms, and the judicial qualifications commission. Since voters must approve or reject the entire confusing package, commissioners have little doubt what will happen in November.
"I think it's going to fail," Parrish said, but in the end commissioners decided to send the $300,000 to the Big Sugar hired guns anyway, hoping it might do some good on Article V. The only "no" votes came from Rodstrom and Norman Abramowitz, who stormed at the majority, "You're just taking that money and throwing it down the drain!