GOP moving to get House in order

TALLAHASSEE — This year marks the effective 10-year anniversary of term limits in Florida.

Cause for celebration? Not hardly.

Voters decided "eight is enough" in 1992, so limits on terms didn't actually kick in for good until 2000.

Nowhere is the effect of term limits more obvious than in the state House of Representatives, which has devolved into a political revolving door emblazoned with a huge dollar sign.

They come and go — Republicans, mostly — and many of them barely leave a set of footprints. They generally hew closely to a rigid party-line agenda, or following "leadership," as it's known in Tallahassee. A lot of them become senators, prolonging their legislative careers for another eight or 10 years.

In the House, inexperienced rookie legislators are running for speaker before they know where the bathrooms are in the state Capitol. The obsession with raising money is worse than ever, and House members serve two-year terms, so it seems they are perpetually running for office.

Against this backdrop, House Republicans hope to pad their huge majority this fall. They now hold 76 seats to the Democrats' 44. The GOP wants 80 or more seats, partly to have tighter control over the machinery of lawmaking, and partly as veto-override insurance in the event Democrat Alex Sink is elected governor (it requires a two-thirds vote to override a veto by the governor).

The battlegrounds are in St. Petersburg, Port St. Lucie and Lake City, and they are few and far between. Districts are carefully drawn by the party in power to maximize control, and many incumbents, fortified by massive amounts of special interest money, are re-elected without opposition. An incumbent who loses has to be inept, incredibly unlucky or both.

Thirty-one House seats are technically "open," meaning no incumbent is running, a factor that theoretically makes elections more competitive. Of those 31, 24 are now held by Republicans and seven by Democrats.

Three seats are not even in play because only Democrats fielded candidates. All three seats are in Miami-Dade.

Republicans think their best hopes of gains are in Pinellas, in two rare competitive districts where the seats are held by Democrats Bill Heller and Janet Long; in North Florida, where Democrat Debbie Boyd faces a rematch with Republican Liz Porter; and on the Treasure Coast, where former Republican Rep. Gayle Harrell is seeking to win back her old seat against Democrat Adam Fetterman of Port St. Lucie.

Porter looks like the GOP's best bet: She nearly beat Boyd in '08 with Barack Obama providing coattails. That won't be the case this time around.

Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, the incoming House speaker, says internal Republican Party polling shows that voters want most to see state spending reduced as a way to kick-start the economy. "Overall," Cannon says, "it's a very positive environment for Republicans, and we feel like we've got great candidates."

Cannon says polling shows most voters trust Republicans more than Democrats to control government spending.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the incoming House Democratic leader, has a more optimistic view, and says Republicans are overestimating the level of anti-Obama feeling in Florida.

Saunders says voters know Republicans are in charge in Tallahassee, and they're in a mood to throw out incumbents. He wants to see Republicans spend lots of money because it will underscore the incumbency factor.

Dems like their chances best in Tampa, with Stacy Frank against Republican Dana Young in a closely competitive district, and in South Miami-Dade, where Democrat Katie Edwards faces Republican Frank Artiles and tea party hopeful Alex Fernandez.

"Not only are they not going to take any of ours, but we're going to take some of theirs," Saunders says.

Let the battles begin.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

GOP moving to get House in order 09/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 11:52pm]

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