This week the 1st District Court of Appeal rendered a really, really important decision. And in some ways the practical effect of the ruling may be not be as important as the court's opinion on the scope and power of the Florida Legislature.
The court overturned a circuit court decision that blocked the privatization of prison health care services in three regions of the state.
If the decision stands it will allow the Department of Corrections to proceed with plans to go ahead with a roughly $230 million five-year contract that had been put on hold by the lawsuit filed by several groups including the union that represents state workers. This means that as many as 2,600 state workers will lose their jobs unless they win them back with the company that holds the contract.
Both the lower court decision and the district court decision turned on a lot of arcane matters. For example - does the law allow the department to contract with private vendors? Was the money that the department wanted to use in fact a "specific appropriation" as required?
Let's set aside that for right now.
The decision could have also long-standing ramifications going forward that impacts the power of the Florida Legislature - and those in leadership positions.
Why? Because the court opinion could open the door for the governor and top legislative leaders to make serious budget decisions without ever taking it to the vote of the full Legislature.
That's because one part of the lawsuit dealt directly with whether or not the Legislative Budget Commission had the power to approve the initial transfer of funds that allowed the department to begin the privatization effort. (Some of the history of the LBC _ which is a 14-member panel of lawmakers _ I delved into previously here.)
In short, the commission was created in order to make adjustments to the annual state budget when the Legislature is not in session. The commission can take up budget changes given to them by either the governor or the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
The union attorneys contended the LBC _ which is authorized under the constitution but whose duties are spelled out in law _ was never supposed to be able to make major kind of decisions that should be left up to the entire 160 members of the Legislature. It's no secret prison privatization has sharply divided the Legislature, especially in the Florida Senate where some Republicans have broken ranks and joined with Democrats in opposition.
Judge John Cooper last December sided with the union.
Cooper in his ruling stated that the budget panel action did not meet a requirement that its vote to approve the privatization effort was "consistent with legislative policy and intent." Cooper's logic turned on the fact that the 2012-13 state budget had a provision that authorized the privatization of health care services for one region of the state. He said that meant that the LBC couldn't on its own expand that privatization effort beyond to the rest of the state.
"Whether to privatize some or all of this state's prison operations is a significant policy decision," Cooper wrote last December. "Under existing law the Legislature weighs in on this policy decision through its appropriations power."
This week the three judges of the appeals court disagreed with Cooper.
And just as significantly, they created a precedent for how the LBC can proceed in the future.
"The LBC has expertise as an entity composed exclusively of legislators that is charged with the inherently legislative function of appropriations," Ray wrote. "Given the LBC's expertise and unique role within the Legislature, the LBC is entitled to deference in administering its budget adjustment authority."
Ray in her decision made some other significant points. First she stated that just because the Legislature had expressed its intent to privatize in just one region of the state did not mean that privatization couldn't be expanded beyond there. She rapped Cooper for using the concept of expressio unius est exclusio alterius.
She also stated that because the LBC and Gov. Scott had agreed on the budget amendment the "circuit court should have accorded deference to this judgment."
One lawyer who has dealt with the LBC has stated this kind of means that the LBC can decide what it can do, and what it can't do in the future.
It remains to be seen if the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and its partners in this lawsuit decide to appeal this up to the full Supreme Court.
But it can be argued that if the decision remains then legislative leaders with the consent of the governor could make significant changes to the budget absent a vote by the full Legislature.
The state law that covers the budget commission states that the budget panel cannot eliminate an existing program or initiate and commence a "new program." But under Ray's ruling it would appear that the commission itself must should be given "deference" in deciding what means.