Saturday, March 24, 2018

To a new speaker from an old hand

Editor's note: Like House Speaker Will Weatherford, Lucy Morgan got her start in Pasco County. She was a Tampa Bay Times reporter in Pasco from 1968 until December 1985, when she was appointed capital bureau chief in Tallahassee. She retired from that post in 2006 and has since worked part time handling special projects. She shared the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting with Jack Reed for stories about the Pasco County Sheriff's Department. She retired again Friday after penning this open letter of advice for the new speaker.

Dear Will, I thought you could use a few words of advice from an old-timer who spent a lot of time in Pasco County before moving to Tallahassee in 1985, especially since I'm retiring and won't be around the Capitol to help keep you in line.

You are the first speaker to come from Pasco in 120 years. Hopefully you won't be the last.

You have plenty of promise. But you need to be careful. There are a lot of pitfalls along the way for a nice guy in this town. Some speakers fail because they are not mean enough. Others grow too comfortable with the power, and a precious few turn out to be a bit crazy.

You can make a difference. At 33 years old, you are one of the youngest speakers ever and likely to have a lot of senior members and lobbyists trying to tell you what to do. Watch out. Not all of them will have your best interests at heart.

Take the lobbyists seriously but keep them at arm's length. There are nice ones, some smart ones and some downright cutthroats who wouldn't mind sacrificing you on the altar of making more money for a well-heeled client.

When you see herds of lobbyists on either side of an issue, think twice. You might be better off pleasing neither side.

For some reason, Florida businesses have grown accustomed to having their way with folks like you. When Alamo Rent a Car is fighting Avis or Hertz, you might want to sit that fight out. There is almost no way any good can come of it.

Watch your back. Hire a few good people who can help you watch it. You'll need all of the help you can get.

Open your doors. Do the public's business in public. Take a lesson from former House Speaker James Harold Thompson. He is the last speaker who left his doors open so reporters could stroll in and find out what was really going on behind the big desk.

Former Speaker Allan Bense, your father-in-law, came close to that standard. Listen to him. There is a reason he made it through the political weeds without a blemish. He is one of only a few speakers who came to Tallahassee to pursue public service for eight years and then went back home.

Lots of speakers have talked about doing business in the sunshine while creeping up to the "Eagles' Nest,'' a dank room on the fifth floor of the four-story House Office Building. Former House Speaker Jon Mills and his crew hatched a tax increase or two up there and down the street at a sugar lobbyist's townhouse. It came back to haunt them and clouded the state's revenue picture for decades.

Other speakers have locked their doors to reporters seeking information, trying to script what gets out. It doesn't work. There are no secrets in Tallahassee that stay secret forever.

Watch out for those bills that enrich certain contractors. If the bill seems to be drafted to help a particular business that has hired a few expensive lobbyists, it probably isn't going to help anyone but that business and the guys wearing Gucci loafers.

If you feel lonely and isolated up there on the fourth floor, get a dog. (Just don't get rid of it a few days later after it bites a lobbyist.)

Answer questions. Don't even think about saying, "No comment.'' It is generally an admission of guilt. Answer questions fast. This is the day of continuous news cycles. Failing to respond quickly means you are behind in the battle for public opinion. But don't make the answers up on the fly, and feel free to acknowledge when you don't know something.

Listen to members on both sides of the aisle. You are a Republican, but each one of those Democrats represents actual people — the same number of people represented by each Republican. And most people don't care which party you are in when you start to pass dumb laws.

Think before you leap into any more laws that would further restrict elections or make it harder for individuals to cast their ballot. You guys are wearing that one now. You need to fix it. Fast.

Keep your house clean. And I don't mean just the one where you and your wife, Courtney, and your three cute little girls live.

If your members behave badly, do something. You have the power to remove them from committees and censure them. It probably won't happen twice if you do it right from the beginning.

Eliminate the summer camp atmosphere that often comes with lawmakers when they come to town. This is not camp, and those who are spending too much time at the lobbyists' drinking trough need to understand that.

Take a cue from former House Speaker Dan Webster and go home for the day at a reasonable hour.

Those of us who watched drunken lawmakers and lobbyists (and a few reporters) staggering around the Capitol in the wee hours of the morning could tell you a thing or two about the laws that passed in those days.

Webster and his counterpart across the Rotunda, Senate President Toni Jennings, shut business down for the day by 6 p.m. every single day of the two years they presided. And they adjourned the legislative sessions on time.

Webster also swept the lobbyists out of his office in the final week of session. Those who don't limit these folks will find them wandering around with "little amendments'' designed to help a client. And all too often those amendments end up in bills. Sometimes they wind up in bills that have no relation to the amendment.

Remember the night the House and Senate plopped a $32 million bond issue to build a fancy new courthouse into a huge transportation bill that had nothing to do with bond issues or courthouses. The state is going to wear that one for years to come as it pays off the debt for a lavish building put up in the midst of a financial crisis.

Finally, be your own person. If the governor or the Senate is asking you to do something that doesn't seem right, walk away. Don't let someone else set your agenda.

Make Pasco County and all of Florida proud of you.


Lucy Morgan


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