The battle to become Florida's next Attorney General may hinge on one simple question: What is the proper role for the state's top legal officer?
It is not just a semantic exercise, because it could have deep ramifications if the next Attorney General takes a more activist - and confrontational tone - against others in state government.
State Sen. Dan Gelber, a candidate for Attorney General, last week published a provocative piece where he sharply criticized Attorney General Bill McCollum - and former Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Holly Benson- for defending the state in an ongoing lawsuit over Medicaid reimbursement rates. (Benson is one of the Republican candidates seeking to replace McCollum in 2010.)
The class action lawsuit filed by the Florida Pediatric Society and the Florida Academy of Pediatric Dentistry and on behalf of Floridians under 21 asserts that the state is violating federal requirements because its low reimbursement rates has resulted in many doctors refusing to treat Medicaid patients.
Gelber - who is running for Attorney General - contends that by taking the case to trial that McCollum and Benson are "fighting to block access to care for children."
"If he wanted to, our Attorney General could concede that is morally repugnant that Florida has the second highest rate of uninsured children in the nation,'' Gelber wrote. Gelber said that instead of fighting the case that McCollum should have settled it and forced the Legislature to spend more money on Medicaid.
This marks the second time that Gelber has threatened to fight the Legislature. Back in October he said that if he were Attorney General he would sue them over education funding.
Ryan Wiggins, a spokeswoman for McCollum, said it wasn't the job of the Attorney General to decide the policy of Medicaid reimbursement rates. Instead the Attorney General has a "obligation" to defend the state in lawsuits.
"Barring conflicts, it is the responsibility of the Office of Attorney General to represent the state, an obligation Attorney General Bill McCollum takes very seriously,'' said Wiggins. "Furthermore this is a policy issue that should be addressed by the Florida Legislature, not litigated in the courts."
The Republican candidates for Attorney General so far have stressed issues such as cybersafety and battling gangs as among the top priorities for the job. Benson on her website says she will fight government regulation on behalf of businesses.
State Sen.Dave Aronberg, a former assistant Attorney General who is challenging Gelber in the Democratic primary, said the job calls for a balancing act.
"As a former Assistant Attorney General, I watched as Bob Butterworth sometimes had to defend laws that he disagreed with,'' said Aronberg. "Other times, however, the Legislature can act so egregiously and in a way that will hurt the people of the state, that the Attorney General must refuse to go along. The key is to find the right balance without being either a rubber stamp for the Legislature or a political grandstander."
When asked whether or not he runs the risks of being viewed as a grandstander, Gelber responded that he believed the state's position on the Medicaid lawsuit was "contrary to the interests of Florida citizens" and that the state should have settled it "years ago." Gelber also said that the "failure of the Legislature" to provide a high quality system of education as required by the state constitution "violates the rights of the citizens."
"As the AG I am not the representative of an ordinary party to a controversy,'' said Gelber. "My obligation is not simply win a matter, but to make sure justice is done. I do have a much different vision of the office than the current AG - and I do intend to use the office to stand up for everyday Floridians even it inspires the ire of the Legislature."