The University of Central Florida misused more than $38 million in state money intended for operating expenses like salaries to build a new academic building.
Imagine you’re a naughty 4-year-old caught stealing cookies.
You have no excuse for your actions. You saw a box of unguarded Thin Mints, swiped it and scarfed them down.
Fortunately for you, you also happened to spy fellow 4-year-old Tommy do the same thing with a box of Peanut Butter Patties.
So what do you do when asked to explain yourself?
Fess up? Heck no. You start screaming about Tommy.
Tommy’s the problem!
Tommy needs to pay!
Let’s paddle Tommy!
Florida legislators are like this naughty little 4-year-old.
They caught the University of Central Florida using funds from the wrong pot of money — and are screaming bloody murder, demanding more sacrifices at their political altar.
Already, the school’s CFO has resigned, four more employees are losing their jobs, and the president has been stripped of two years’ worth of bonuses.
But that’s not enough. Legislators have more hearings planned where they can pound their fists and scream about the sanctity of spending money precisely as instructed.
Yet these very same legislators are the poster tots for improper spending.
They have siphoned off money meant for schools. (Remember “The Education Lottery” shell game? After voters approved a lottery to boost school spending, legislators actually spent a smaller percentage of the state budget on education.)
They ignored a constitutional amendment on environmental spending. (A judge ruled last year that lawmakers “defied” the voters’ will with Amendment 1.)
And perhaps the worst example is the lawmakers’ continual raid on a housing fund.
Lawmakers have swiped more than $2 billion earmarked for affordable housing. These were real estate taxes specifically collected for housing that legislators have spent in other ways.
So here’s my question: How many of these politicians are ready to resign as well?
If it’s a sin for UCF to misdirect $38 million, it sure seems like it should be a mortal one for legislators to do the same with exponentially more.
I initially cheered on former House Speaker Richard Corcoran when he first started screaming at the school.
But then I realized I was cheering on a cookie-stealer for chastising a cookie-stealer.
Actually, a better equivalence: I was cheering on people who stole boxes of cookies for demanding penance from someone who stole a single wafer.
I certainly can’t bless UCF’s actions. School officials took money meant for operational costs and spent it on a building.
You shouldn’t do that. But it’s not like anyone personally profited. They took money meant for salaries, for instance, and used it to replace an old, moldy building with new classrooms and offices.
And now they’re paying the price — with the hubbub costing five of them their jobs and the president as much as $120,000 in bonus pay.
Yet the legislators’ histrionics continue — even as they continue raiding designated funds as well.
Specifically, legislators have raided something called the Sadowski fund, which collects money from real estate taxes that are supposed to pay for affordable housing — something direly needed in this low-wage state.
The fund was established more than 25 years ago in memory of a state leader named Bill Sadowski, who was killed in a plane crash while in the midst of a crusade to address the state’s affordable-housing shortage.
To honor him, legislators agreed to earmark a portion of real estate taxes, so that billions would go directly to that cause.
The legislation was hailed as both a solution to a problem and also an economic stimulus because of the thousands of construction and design jobs it would generate. “Everybody wins,” said former Gov. Lawton Chiles at a bill-signing ceremony in Orlando in 1992.
But lawmakers couldn’t keep their cookie-stealing paws off it. They wanted to use the money for other things — tax breaks for yacht repairs, funding for Visit Florida and any other programs they wanted to finance with their general fund.
So they started stealing it, doing so 15 of the last 26 years for a total of more than $2.1 billion. Last year alone, they swept more than $180 million from the fund — more than four times what UCF spent on Trevor Colbourn Hall.
Legislators might argue they changed their own rules to allow them to steal these particular cookies, just as they tried to justify the cookie-stealing from education and environment. But it’s still a violation of what they promised citizens. (And in the case of the environment, a violation of the state Constitution, according to a judge.)
I’m not expecting Tallahassee politicians to praise UCF officials for using money meant for one educational purpose on another.
But I am looking for a little proportionality. And intellectual honesty. And for legislators to start following the designated-funding principles they get so incensed about others violating.