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Why Florida has had so many governors

For all of the precedent-shattering elements of Rick Scott's successful run for governor, one record has been little noticed. With his inauguration last week, Florida now has had more governors (Scott is the 45th) than the nation has had presidents (Barack Obama is the 44th).

How can this be so? Especially since Florida's first governor, William Dunn Moseley, did not take office until June 25, 1845, more than 56 years after George Washington took the oath of office in New York City on April 30, 1789?

Moseley, like most of his successors, was limited to one term in office, because Floridians had misgivings about executive authority — a sentiment that persists to this day. Article III, Section 2 of Florida's first constitution, the Constitution of 1838, limited the governor to one four-year term and made him ineligible for re-election.

The 1885 Constitution, the state's fifth which guided Florida for 81 years, not only prevented the governor from succeeding himself in office but created a convoluted Cabinet system of government in Article IV, Section 20 that required "The Governor shall be assisted by administrative officers as follows: A Secretary of State, Attorney General, Comptroller, Treasurer, Superintendent of Public Instruction, and Commissioner of Agriculture, who shall be elected at the same time as the Governor, and shall hold their offices for the same term." With this article, voters sought to prevent a governor from exercising the broad powers that federally appointed governors had during the era of Military Reconstruction (1867 to 1877).

The U.S. Constitution did not initially limit the terms of office for president, despite the fears of many that the president could become a sovereign-like ruler. George Washington assuaged those concerns when he served two terms (eight years) before stepping down. That tradition lasted until Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected four times to lead the nation through two monumental crises in the 1930s and 1940s — the Great Depression and World War II.

Despite Roosevelt's popularity, voters were never comfortable with a president serving multiple terms in office and the accrual of power that could result. In February 1951, states ratified the 22nd Amendment specifying that "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice. ..."

But the nation's voters never tried to constrain the president's authority in the way Floridians curbed the governor's authority in the 1885 Constitution. While it was unclear initially in the U.S. Constitution that there would be a Cabinet, Washington established one and he then appointed his Cabinet officers. None were independent of him. Quite the opposite was true in Florida where the Cabinet officers designated by the 1885 Constitution formally voted, were not restricted to one term in office like the governor, and could actually outvote the governor on statewide issues because they saw themselves as having equal standing.

For these reasons, Florida had a series of very weak governors throughout the late 19th and well into the 20th century. One would be hard-pressed to identify most of these governors, and only one, LeRoy Collins (1955-1961), would rank with those Florida governors who served after the adoption of the Constitution of 1968.

Collins' achievements resulted in part from having served six years in office, when he succeeded his predecessor Dan McCarty, who died from a heart attack early in his first term. The Florida Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Collins could not only complete McCarty's term, but could run for a four-year term.

This decision was particularly fortuitous for Florida when the announcement of the U.S. Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the reaction to it threatened to derail Florida's postwar modernization and economic development. Collins proved a bulwark against the forces of hatred and racism.

The Constitution of 1968, the state's sixth and current constitution, strengthened the governor's hand considerably by allowing a person to serve for two four-year terms and granting the governor a line-item veto. Although it retained the Cabinet system, the Constitution empowered the governor to exercise his influence over an eight-year period, making it more difficult for Cabinet members and the Legislature to challenge his authority. The Constitution also granted the governor a line-item veto in Article III, section 8(a), enabling the governor "to veto any specific appropriation in a general appropriation bill ..."

The president lacked the line-item veto until 1996, when Congress gave the power to President Bill Clinton, who then used it to strike down 38 projects worth $287 million. But a legal challenge to the veto led the Supreme Court to revoke it in 1998, ruling that the measure overreached presidential powers.

With the changes in the Florida Constitution of 1968, the state's governors have since exercised nearly as much informal assertive power in their own domain as presidents do in theirs. Reubin Askew set the tone for the modern governor in Florida in 1971 when he pledged to improve funding for public schools, end racial discrimination, implement a tax on corporations and phosphates, and protect Florida's environmental, land and water resources. When legislators balked at some of his proposals, Askew went directly to the people for their support.

Since Askew, Florida governors have asserted their authority broadly, despite the constitutional limitations imposed by the Cabinet system. Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush would all be regarded among the top five governors in Florida history. All were very strong executives. And they benefited by serving two terms in office, having the opportunity to run for re-election during which they could convince voters of the merits of their programs, and using the line-item veto to focus legislative initiatives and funding.

Jeb Bush further enhanced the power of the governor by persuading the Legislature to have the offices of secretary of state and commissioner of education appointed by the governor, thus lessening the size and influence of the Cabinet.

As important as these formal constitutional changes and precedents have been, presidential and gubernatorial authority owes as much to the public's recognition that chief executives are "first among equals." Since the Great Depression and World War II, voters have looked increasingly to presidents and governors to address the critical issues facing the nation and the state.

The Cold War, international conflicts, terrorism, environmental catastrophes, and economic crises pushed the president to the forefront. Similarly, hurricanes, environmental catastrophes, fires, and economic crises have placed state governors front and center. Because developments of this magnitude and complexity affect the lives of many people, the public has reasoned that only the chief executive can resolve their suffering quickly. The media facilitates the public's response by turning to the chief executive for answers to such crises.

Much like the modern president then, the modern governor in Florida is a formidable figure as Askew, Graham, Chiles and Bush have shown.

Although Gov. Rick Scott has taken office with no political experience and with modest standing among voters after his narrow victory over Democratic opponent Alex Sink, and although Barack Obama saw his party get swamped in the recent congressional elections, voters, despite their wariness about executive power, continue to look to their chief executives, and not to newly empowered legislative or congressional leaders, to resolve the challenges facing the state and nation.

David Colburn is director of the Reubin Askew Institute at the University of Florida and author of Florida Megatrends, (2nd edition, 2010, with Lance deHaven Smith) and From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans (2007).

Why Florida has had so many governors 01/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 3:30am]
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