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A faraway golden age in Tallahassee

The Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, circa 1950, long before it was replaced by the current tall version where the Legislature now meets.

Times file (1950)

The Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, circa 1950, long before it was replaced by the current tall version where the Legislature now meets.

The Florida Legislature did have a Golden Age, one that bloomed nearly two generations ago, then withered away. How did that happen, and is there hope for the future?

In the late 1950s quiet developments were setting up the Sunshine State to shine:

• Florida was becoming an end destination for new residents because of its reputation for low taxes and neither income nor inheritance taxes.

• The Florida Legislature encouraged the in-migration of new residents by continuing its homestead exemption from property taxes.

• Florida was expanding its modes of transportation by completing the interstate highway and rail system the entire length of the state.

• Florida was expanding its affordable community college public education in more than 25 urban and rural locations.

• Regional employments centers or "clusters," were emerging in the state — insurance in Jacksonville, education in Tallahassee and Gainesville, military in Pensacola, resorts in Orlando, agribusiness in Tampa Bay and Lakeland, and import-export opportunities in South Florida.

But the one real hidden driver of growth in Florida was a hurricane. It occurred in 1947, before hurricanes were named. The primary area affected by the ravaging storm was around Lake Okeechobee, eastward to Palm Beach County. In the aftermath, powerful political and business interests proposed for the U.S. Congress to fund the building — with 100 percent taxpayer money — of a series of canals so that any future flooding from storms could be manually controlled by adjusting mechanical levees. What was not discussed was what would happen when the flood waters were drained. The result was there was even more land — that was now dry and buildable. For the new property owners, the bonus windfall was that the cost of the new "irrigation system" was borne completely by the U.S. Treasury.

So the 1950s saw the birth of the new and affordable towns of Palm Beach Lakes, Wellington, Century Village, Greenacres, Coral Springs, Plantation, Davie, Bonaventure, Weston, Miami Lakes and Kendall. The west coast included Marco Island, Cape Coral, Lehigh Acres, Golden Gate, East Naples and Fort Myers. The growth continued up the southwest coast of the state. The structures built on all of this "new" land were single-family homes, apartments, co-operatives, condominiums, townhouses, trailers and even time shares.

Since this development went largely unnoticed by the small and close-knit group of politically controlling Pork Chop Gang, 500 miles to the north, the 1960 Census was a shocker. The population in the state had moved significantly southward, and under the federal principle of "one man, one vote," all of these new Floridians were entitled to representation. But since the Constitution had a set number of senators and representatives, the only alternative was to substitute new seats for the old seats. Said another way, many incumbent North Florida legislators had to lose their seats to new, in many cases, never-elected-before lawmakers from South Florida. In one new legislative seat moved from Gainesville to Miami, it was said there were over 100 candidates qualified to run for the seat. The political noise in the state was deafening. The 1960 Census and the corresponding reapportionments during the 1960s created the Golden Age of Florida politics.

It was from this massive reapportionment that new legislators like Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Sandy D'Alemberte, Pat Neal, Terrell Sessums, Curt Kiser, Dick Pettigrew, Phil Lewis, Elaine Gordon, Don Reed, George Firestone, Elvin Martinez, Lee Moffitt, Buddy MacKay, Joel Gustafson, Mary Grizzle, Jim Redman and Betty Easley, among many others, were first elected. The legislative reforms coming out of Tallahassee were unending — education, judiciary, the environment, the elderly, children, the disabled, transportation, redistribution of taxes, economic development, and of course the funding to support the reforms.

Then came the reapportionment of 1982. There was a movement afoot led by one of the aforementioned progressives, House Speaker-designate Lee Moffitt of Tampa, to adopt single-member districts to accelerate minority representation in lieu of multi-member districts in urban areas of the state. Another progressive and ardent civil rights supporter argued that single-member districts would result in narrow thinking, prioritizing individual re-elections over a statewide perspective. As we now look back on history, I believe that was the first nail in the coffin of the Golden Era.

The next nail came with a successful 1992 constitutional amendment pushed by Winter Park businessman Phil Handy at the urging of the Republican Party of Florida. Handy was a clever marketer who branded his statewide initiative "Eight is Enough" to seize on the frustrations of Floridians. The Democrats were preoccupied with trying to hang on to their majority in the Legislature, so Eight is Enough passed. The result in looking back on history is that the legislators were term-limited out after eight years, but that is not the case with the lobbyists and the legislative staff — who really now run the state government today. This was the second nail in the coffin of the Golden Era.

The third nail came slow and gradual with the growth of the Internet starting in the 2000s. The public became interested in the "right now" of news from the Web, even though it was often without attribution or authenticity, and less interested in the press as watchdog. Abuses began to abound.

The final nail came in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that there could be no limit on campaign contributions, so the special interests had more direct access into the lawmaking process. The 2010 elections resulted in arguably minorities winning majority elections all over the country, to no small extent because of the Supreme Court ruling on campaign financing.

So in a duration of just over 20 years, single-member districts, term limits, the Internet and unbridled campaign contributions were, at the very least, major causes of the demise of the Golden Age of Florida politics. Is there hope for the future? Yes. Politics is cyclical, so let's hope for the best.

Robert W. McKnight is a former Florida state senator and representative who served during the Golden Age of Florida politics. He has written two books on Florida politics, including "The Golden Years … The Florida Legislature," from which this column is drawn. He provides regular political commentary for the Tallahassee Democrat, Facing Florida television, and Florida media. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

A faraway golden age in Tallahassee 03/06/14 [Last modified: Friday, March 7, 2014 4:12pm]
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