Ban State College and University Employees From the State Legislature?

Florida State Senator John Thrasher has introduced a bill into the Florida legislature that would ban state college and university employees from being state legislators.  As a professor myself, I found Thrasher’s bill interesting (but I assure you I have no inclination to run for any government office).

Senator Thrasher’s concern is that legislators who are employees of state colleges and universities will use their political power to steer taxpayer dollars toward their employers.  Isn’t this a potential issue regardless of where legislators work?  (In Florida, being a member of the legislature is a “part time” job and pays $30,000 a year, so all legislators have income sources beyond their legislative pay.)

On the one hand, it might not be bad to have legislators who have first-hand knowledge of one of the larger items in the state budget, even if they are advocates.  Most businesses tend to hire people into management positions who have substantial knowledge about the businesses they will be managing.

On the other hand, universities might use state money to hire legislators, perhaps hoping for a sympathetic ear when budgets are being determined.  Maybe Senator Thrasher’s concern has some merit.

Florida has a number of state college and university employees in its legislature.  The most visible, beyond a doubt, is Senate President Mike Haridopolos.  Prior to his election to the legislature in 2000, Senator Haripopolos was a history instructor at Brevard Community College, teaching there with a Master’s degree in history.  In 2008, as he was about to move into the Senate Presidency, he accepted a faculty position at the University of Florida in the Department of Political Science.  This was controversial because the political science faculty were not consulted prior to his hire, and he did not have a Ph.D. degree.  (He has since earned a Ph.D. degree in Public Administration at Florida State University.)

I single out the case of Senate President Haridopolos only because of its visibility, and what appears to be a connection between his university appointment and his position in the legislature.  Senator Haridopolos has been a consistent fiscal conservative and I find myself in agreement with most of his legislative agenda.  From my political perspective, he is the best Senate President we have had in Florida in at least a quarter of a century.

That makes Senator Thrasher’s bill more interesting from where I sit.  The legislator who seems to best fit what Senator Thrasher is trying to prevent is one I like, but looking at the academic career history of Senator Haridopolos, I can see Senator Thrasher’s point.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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