TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Do you or someone you know work for a state agency? Have you been involved in making a new law? You can call for a free legal consultation today.
But if you hire a lawyer, it will cost you. And as state agencies lay out their budget needs for the coming year, one of the most frequent anticipated costs is going to court.
From lawsuits over election laws to revamping the Medicaid system, if state government officials are doing things, they likely are defending what they're doing in lawsuits, according to legislative budget documents released by the various agencies this week.
The Department of State, which oversees Florida's elections laws and rules and is at the center of every controversy involving how residents vote, anticipates it will need a half million dollars next year to pay for legal help.
The state has faced lawsuits on a range of voting controversies, from the effort to strip ineligible voters from the rolls to plans to reduce the number of days of early voting, and also has been enmeshed in the process of getting federal court approval of a whole new voting law.
The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, meanwhile, is asking for an extra $4.4 million next year to help cover legal expenses that it expects to face because of major lawsuits and an overhaul of the Medicaid program.
AHCA, in its budget request, said the litigation includes a class-action lawsuit that the Florida Pediatric Society has spearheaded about care that children receive in the Medicaid program. Also, AHCA pointed to a lawsuit and a U.S. Department of Justice investigation about disabled children who are placed in nursing homes.
The budget request also cited legal challenges that could result from the state's plan to move to a statewide Medicaid managed-care system. AHCA is overseeing a process that will lead to managed-care plans competing for contracts in regions across the state.
The first part of the process involves HMOs and other plans bidding to provide services to seniors who need long-term care, while the second part involves the broader Medicaid population, such as women and children. AHCA will award dozens of contracts and said in the budget request that it anticipates "multiple protests of each award for LTC (long-term care) services."
"Effective legal representation is necessary to bolster AHCA's chances of winning the bid protests and any federal class action lawsuits,'' the request says. "A loss of any one federal lawsuit could potentially cost the state of Florida millions or even billions of dollars in increased Medicaid funding."
In its legislative budget request for $500,000 from the state's general revenue account for lawyer fees, the Department of State, which includes the Division of Elections, said the state attorney general's office and in-house counsel can't do it all.
"The Department has limited staff and funds available to handle on-going lawsuits," the agency says in documentation explaining its request. "…In some instances it is necessary to obtain outside counsel with expertise in elections…."
The request is for legal fees for cases already ongoing and anticipated costs, said agency spokesman Chris Cate. The request is the same as the agency received in the current year budget.
Each state agency this week released its proposed budget for the coming year, an early document that serves as a framework for lawmakers who ultimately will write the budget. Gov. Rick Scott will make his recommendations to legislators after the first of the year, and lawmakers will likely complete work in late April or early May on the spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1.
Several other agencies are requesting money to deal with increased litigation. Even the most seemingly arcane parts of government get mired in legal disputes. For example, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation is anticipating an uptick in complaints against licensed real estate appraisers because of changes in federal law that the agency says encourage banks and borrowers to make such complaints.
DBPR's Division of Real Estate is requesting money for three new senior attorney positions as well as other positions related to investigations of complaints against appraisers.
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