There's no question that the decision by powerful State Sen. John Thrasher to seek the presidency of Florida State University has created a bit of a controversy especially among some members of the faculty and students.
A lot of the debate has centered on Thrasher's political career where he has been a loyal Republican who has also been willing to cross swords with unions and public school teachers.
Thrasher has also had a dramatic role in the reshaping of higher education in Florida.
At a restaurant meeting in Orlando with then-Gov. Jeb Bush it was then-House Speaker Thrasher who drew up on a napkin the plan to dissolve the statewide Board of Regents and replace it with local boards of trustees at each state university. It was the regents who at the time had thwarted at least initially plans to bring a medical school to FSU. (The plan was carried out, only to have part of it rolled back by a constitutional amendment creating the current Board of Governors.)
The big argument that supporters of Thrasher - including local political heavyweights such as former Sen. Al Lawson - is that Thrasher's presidency will help FSU in its quest to attain additional financial support in the halls of the state Capitol.
There is an overriding belief that FSU's bid to push itself into the top ranks of American research universities cannot be achieved without an increase in state money. One FSU professor speaking last week to the the presidential search committee lauded FSU alumnus Thrasher as a "successful and passionate" advocate for the school who could help bring in the added money to bolster faculty salaries and build the school's infrastructure.
There's an argument that can be made that the fractious nature of the Legislature - combined with a chief executive now in power who has made it clear that he wants universities to spend less not more - means that even someone with tremendous political capital could have difficulty achieving some sort of major windfall from the state.
But there's a more simple dilemma to deal with: John Thrasher can't really lobby the Legislature.
At least not for the next two years.
Florida's ethics laws, as they have been interpreted by the state's Ethics Commission, make it clear that Thrasher can only have a limited engagement with state legislators.
The commission has dealt with the issue several times, but most recently in 2009 with the hiring of former State Rep. Joe Pickens as a college president.
The commission has taken the position that Florida's Constitution does not allow a former legislator to lobby the Legislature even if it is viewed in the capacity of a public service position. The argument is that the prohibition applies to a higher education position because the goal of the two-year ban is to make sure that legislators do not take actions designed to help them attain the future job. (Just this past session as Thrasher was considering whether to apply for the job he pushed to split up FSU's joint engineering college with Florida A&M University.)
From that opinion:
While we have no doubt that the former member here, like the members at issue in CEO 00-7 and CEO 00-18, is merely furthering a career of service to the public, it is clear to us that neither "opportunities for personal profit through lobbying after leaving the Legislature" nor the potential for influence peddling or the appearance thereof, are exclusive to situations where the employment held after legislative service involves lobbying for private entities.
In the context of conflicts of interests we have often said that the prohibition does not hinge on the personal integrity of the individual, but is rather is prophylactic in nature. CEO 81-76, CEO 97-15. The same is true here; the prohibitions of Article II, Section 8(e) and Section 112.313(9) are clearly and directly stated, and are designed as preventive measures. As we said in CEO 81-57, "the provision seeks to preserve the integrity of the legislative process by ensuring that decisions of members of the Legislature will not be made out of regard for possible employment as lobbyists.
Since legislative decisions affect those in the public sector as well as those in the private sector, it would seem to be equally important that legislative decisions not be colored by regard for future lobbying opportunities in behalf of public entities." For these reasons we recede from our opinions in CEO 00-7 and CEO 00-18, and return to our position, stated in CEO 81-57 and CEO 90-4, that former members are prohibited from representing, for compensation, another person or entity, be it public or private, before the Legislature for a period of two years following their leaving office."
To be clear - this doesn't mean that a university president can't talk to the Legislature.
A legislative committee chairman could indeed "invite" Thrasher to appear before them to discuss issues, including funding issues. But it does mean that there are limits on Thrasher's ability to independently seek out and ask legislators for help during the frenzied 60-day period when legislators work late into the night hammering out a state budget.
Now in case you are wondering.
Thrasher, who between stints as a House and Senate member worked at a prominent lobbying firm in town, is aware of the commission decision. As is FSU'S general counsel. As is FSU Board of Trustees chairman Allan Bense.
It's just something that so far has not received a lot of public discussion so far.
When asked about it last week, Thrasher insisted it would not be an issue, especially since he is not the main lobbyist for the university.
"I don't think it's a real problem for us given the staff we have, given the few times presidents actually go over to the Capitol,'' Thrasher said. "They are going to know what we want. Trust me."
But what's also interesting is that it was Thrasher himself who wanted to go even further than what is in existing law. Two years ago it was Thrasher who sponsored a bill (SB 1560) that would have barred him from even seeking the presidency in the first place. The ethics bill stated that legislators could not work for state universities or colleges while in the Legislature or go to work for them for up to two years following their departure. The bill wound up dying in a Senate committee.
Thrasher is a "non traditional" candidate. Even the search consultant assisting FSU acknowledged that Thrasher would not be considered for a top post like this outside of the state of Florida. It's Thrasher's connections and clout in Tallahassee that make him a candidate worth considering, the consultant said.
The question, however, is whether the presidential search committee and FSU's board has a full discussion on what the 70-year-old Thrasher can achieve during the first two years that the lobbying ban is in effect.