The U.S. Supreme Court this week agreed to insert itself into a spat between Georgia and Florida. And this game probably wastes more money that the big one brings in each winter in Jacksonville — fondly known hereabouts as the “Worlds Largest Cocktail Party.”
The dispute has been ongoing for some time and this one is known as “Water Wars.”
Exhausting legal remedy, the case last year was handed over by the high court to a special master to mediate, and earlier this year he sided with Georgia.
Now the Supreme Court will hear Florida’s challenge to the special master’s decision. According to the Atlanta Constitution, it could approve or dismiss the findings of the special master or send him back for another look.
The fight is over the flow of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers into Apalachicola Bay.
Florida says Georgia is hogging the resource to slake the never-ending thirst of Atlanta. And our Apalachicola River is taking a beating in terms of the health of the bay, famous for its oyster industry. Georgia, in turn, contends we’re being greedy.
But where the real greed — and the waste — occurs is in the payouts to outside attorneys who Florida lines up to fight the war. Depending upon who’s telling the story, the cost thus far in Florida is $237 million or $253 million.
It all came to light this year when the Department of Environmental Protection had to go to the Legislature for emergency funds for the budget year to continue the fight. It had only $28 million in hand, but was budgeting $41 million for legal fees this year. These costs don’t show up as line items within the various agency budgets. But the Associated Press spent weeks digging through records to uncover costs.
The AP figure translates into more than $40 million spent annually by Florida taxpayers since FY 2011 — and that’s strictly on outside attorneys. One, the AP reports, bills at $850 an hour. That Washington D.C. firm of Lathan &Watkins alone billed Florida $36 million from July 2015 through November 2016.
That billing alone more than doubled Gov. Rick Scott’s total budget request that year to repair the Apalachicola watershed from exactly the kind of damage we’re fighting in court. Is that more moronic than ironic, or the other way around?
Understand that, in addition, Attorney General Pam Bondi oversees a herd of in-house, salaried attorneys numbering around 450.
We know this scenario is pie-in-the-sky, but ... what if Georgia Attorney General Christopher Carr and our own Pam Bondi made a pact. They’d each get to pick their best staff attorney (no ringers brought in late in the game) and send her/him to the Supreme Court to lay out their respective cases as best they could — gladiator style, if you will — and let the Chattahoochee chips fall where they may.
Let’s face it, high-dollar lawyers can be much more astute at obfuscating issues than solving them when millions more is on the line with the issue unsettled.
Let’s save this year’s $41 million for, say, education, affordable housing or hurricane mitigation — and let the lawyers fend for themselves. What do you say?