Dems Fight to Block Health Care Lawsuit, Demand Audit
Democrats called on Thursday for an audit of Attorney General Bill McCollum’s office over his lawsuit challenging the federal health care law, after trying unsuccessfully in the Senate to block the suit.
House and Senate leaders said in a news conference that they would ask for an audit by the state’s auditor general into McCollum’s office if he proceeds with his lawsuit. On the Senate floor Thursday, a Democratic senator running to replace McCollum tried to unsuccessfully to amend a bill (SB 712) that deals with the attorney general's ability to hire outside counsel to outlaw the federal lawsuit.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, was voted down 24-14 along party lines.
Gelber said McCollum’s move was a “political fraud,” aimed at maintaining congressional Republicans’ longstanding opposition to President Obama’s key initiative. “You pay payroll taxes everyday for your Medicare,” he said. “Is that unconstitutional?” Gelber asked.
“Why is our attorney general spending all the resources of his office on this political frolic whose only purpose is to get headlines?" he said. "He had a press conference every single day on this. It was nothing other than a political issue. It's incumbent on this body to stand up and say we want our chief legal officer…spending his time protecting our citizens."
Democrats in the House agreed, joining the Senate Democratic Caucus in writing a letter Thursday to House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater calling for an investigation. Republican leaders generally support McCollum’s move.
The suit is filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Florida on behalf of 12 other states in addition to Florida.
McCollum’s former law firm, Baker and Hostetler of Orlando, will represent the states seeking to overturn the health package as an unconstitutional mandate on states, by eventually forcing their citizens to obtain health insurance.
Democrats said that the auditor general could decide independent of the Republican leaders to launch the audit and House Minority Leader Franklin Sands, D-Weston, agreed the lawsuit was politically motivated.
“It appears the Republican attorney general wants to use the treasury of the state of Florida, the people’s money, as his own personal political piggybank,” said Sands.
Sands said the federal health care plan would provide insurance to millions of Floridians who do not have any.
But opponents argue the new law’s requirement that citizen be insured is unconstitutional because the federal government does not have the right to force residents to buy a product.
Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson said the Legislature requires Floridians to do things all the time.
“If that was the case, every city and county would be filing suit against the Legislature,” he said. “We put mandates on cities and counties all the time, and they haven’t filed a lawsuit against us.”
Democrats also contended that the fact that so many other states had joined into the lawsuit made McCollum’s actions un-needed.
“Guess what, if it’s unconstitutional in South Carolina, it’s unconstitutional in Florida,” Sen. Chris Smith, D-Tampa, said. “There was no need to go out, spend taxpayers’ money to join a lawsuit that other states have already done. If the attorney general wanted his voice heard in this, he could have filed an Amicus brief.”
Republicans countered by defending the health care lawsuit as a defense of Florida's sovereignty and continued criticizing the federal health care plan on the Senate floor.
"This is about the duties and responsibilities, under our constitution, of the chief legal officer of the state of Florida, nothing more, nothing less," Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. "We empower him legislatively and in the (state) Constitution to defend the rights and privileges of the state of Florida."
Thrasher, who doubles as the head of the state Republican Party, said that Democrats did not have to agree with McCollum’s legal analysis for him to have the authority to file the suit.
“The question is every time we disagree with something the attorney general does, are we in this body going to take a stand and pass a law that says ‘no you can’t do that particular thing you were going to do on behalf of the state of Florida,” he said. “I don’t think we as a body ought to go into every single issue that the attorney general ultimately decides that he thinks is in the best interest – that’s why he was elected. If the attorney general ever stops defending what he believes are the rights under our constitution and under the federal constitution, than we ought to get a new one.”
A spokeswoman for McCollum deferred questions about the politics of the lawsuit to McCollum’s campaign for governor, but defended the legal appropriateness of the action.
“The general said many times that the lawsuit is simply about the law and our oath to protect the people of Florida,” McCollum spokeswoman Sandi Copes told the News Service.