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Column: My 30 years of covering the Florida Legislature

TALLAHASSEE

Florida has it all: a state bird, state reptile and a state song.

Shouldn't it have a state pie, too? (Key lime, naturally).

That was one of the less weightier questions that faced the Legislature in 1988, the first year I covered the Capitol, as a cub reporter for the Miami Herald, our journalistic partner in Tallahassee for nearly the past decade.

The regular session that ended May 8 marked 30 years, and that has made for a long run of memorable stories: the recount of the 2000 presidential election that transfixed the nation; the death of Gov. Lawton Chiles a few weeks before he would have left office; the rise of the Republican Party, led by Gov. Jeb Bush, who succeeded Chiles, and the parallel fade of the Democrats as a political force; the 2009 resignation of a House speaker, Ray Sansom, in a controversy about the pitfalls of secretly doing favors in the state budget for friends at the last minute.

The years fly by, and some issues never go away: Abortion, guns, taxes, the death penalty, the Everglades, voting.

Despite technological advances that make the Legislature's work easier to follow than ever, far too much secrecy remains. It's not new, and it's wrong.

• • •

The key lime pie bill didn't pass. It wasn't much of a story.

But the lawmaker who filed that bill taught a young reporter a lesson about how Tallahassee's top-down, undemocratic style of governing really works.

Rep. Norm Ostrau, a Democrat from Broward County, was more candid than most about the frustrations of being shut out of big decisions by leaders of his own party, and for no reason.

"You'd love to be part of the secret meetings," he said, "so you could hear them make up your mind for you."

Little of consequence happened in that 1988 session, and one reason was that everybody was so exhausted from the turmoil of the previous year.

After five special sessions in 1987, legislators passed a broad new tax on professional services to help the state better keep pace with its explosive growth, only to backtrack when Republican Gov. Bob Martinez demanded the tax be repealed in the face of overwhelming opposition from the business community, including newspapers that resisted a tax on advertising.

That pretty much ended Martinez's political career, and it has held a paralyzing grip on the state for three decades.

Whether under Democratic or Republican rule, the Legislature has shown no will to modernize a creaky World War II-era system and to shift some of the tax burden to wealthy people who can afford accountants and lawyers and away from poor and the middle-class residents — who pay most of the regressive sales taxes that run this state.

Senate President John McKay of Bradenton made a valiant effort in the 2002 session but got no traction with Bush. That was another great news story.

In 1988, lawmakers debated whether to pass a bottle bill to reduce litter, outlaw smoking in shopping malls and reduce from seven to three days the waiting period to buy a gun.

Neither of us knew it at the time, but my first year in Tallahassee would be Sen. Dempsey Barron's last.

The Panhandle rancher, the widely feared and respected Capitol power broker, would lose his seat in an upset, and ride off into the sunset.

• • •

Picture ol' Dempsey in today's Legislature, on Twitter naturally, with the hashtag #assumenothing (his motto).

Today, only a social-media clueless legislator does not have a Twitter feed — a 140-character spin room to push agendas and belittle opponents.

Back in 1988, reporters didn't have cell phones (and they were called "portables" then, remember?)

We wore pagers and wrote print-only stories on a little portable Radio Shack laptop called a TRS-80 and sent them to editors by attaching rubber couplers to a pay telephone's handset.

A familiar high-pitched tone meant the story was on its way. When the editor said "Got it," it was time to head to Clyde's for a cold beer and a bowl of popcorn, where we would find lobbyists and lawmakers, and would work that smoky crowd for more tips and stories.

• • •

The political changes that have swept through the Florida Capitol since 1988 have been dramatic.

Democrats enjoyed the kind of majorities in both houses in 1988 that Republicans have today.

Term limits didn't exist.

It was also still perfectly legal for lawmakers to party the night away and have a lobbyist pick up the tab.

Things got out of hand a few years later. A lot of big-name legislators pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of not reporting lavish, lobbyist-paid trips to places like Mexico and the French Riviera.

That led to a gift ban in 2007, which has done little other than make the relentless pursuit of campaign money look worse than ever.

Two of the biggest changes in the past 30 years have both been very bad for the institution, and for Floridians.

The first is the spread of individual lawmaker-controlled fundraising machines known as political committees, with no limits on contributions. That has increased the obsession with money, reduced the influence of small donors who only have $100 or $250 to spend, and made politicians less dependent on political parties, which has made both parties weaker than ever.

The second is term limits, which forces even rookie lawmakers to jockey endlessly for political position, and has led to so much turnover that the place has lost a good deal of its historical perspective.

Tallahassee needs more people who have some knowledge of the history of growth management or why the school funding formula is the way it is.

Allen Morris, the former Miami Herald reporter who was House clerk for 20 years and was listed as the House's historian in the 1988 clerk's manual, would be appalled at how few of today's lawmakers know who Dempsey Barron was, or what the Yellow River Code was.

The code, coined by former Sen. "Wig" Barrow of Crestview, meant simply that your word is your bond and a handshake is a contract.

• • •

The Capitol is a much more transactional place today than it was in 1988.

It's meaner, too.

Republicans have engaged in open warfare for months and it shows no sign of ending.

Make no mistake, the Democrats fought bitterly in the 1980s, too, but they didn't use TV ads and social media as blunt instruments in the way the politicians of today do.

The noise is a lot louder, and once it's there on the Internet, it's there forever.

• • •

One of the longest-serving current legislators is Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, who spoke to the Capital Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee a few weeks ago.

Latvala decried an "unprecedented attack on home rule" by members of the House, led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, "who think that they are smarter than anybody elected at the local level."

In his talk, he also cited the effects of staffing reductions by Florida newspapers.

Most papers have cut their staffs, but online news outlets that did not exist 30 years ago have multiplied (for the record, the 1988 clerk's manual listed 73 full-time reporters. The 2017 edition lists 62).

"The press corps has really been decimated in the last several years," Latvala told the Tiger Bay crowd. "There's a lot of things that we'd have never gotten away with back in the '90s that people get away with now."

The day after Latvala's talk, the press corps, led by the Times/Herald's Patricia Mazzei, working the phones until midnight, revealed the shocking racist and sexist rants of Sen. Frank Artiles of Miami, who quickly resigned his seat.

So much for a "decimated" capital press corps.

• • •

Thirty years.

The number 30 is a part of journalistic lore and signals the end of the story. It dates to the Civil War, when news was sent by telegraph using Morse Code. In some cases, an X meant the end of a sentence, XX the end of a paragraph and XXX, or the Roman numeral for 30, the end of the story.

But there's no end in sight in Tallahassee.

A wild and unpredictable race for governor is only beginning.

A governor whom no one saw on the horizon eight years ago, Rick Scott, is angling to run for U.S. Senate.

A powerful group of appointees want to overhaul the state Constitution.

And the next session of the Legislature starts right after Christmas.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

Column: My 30 years of covering the Florida Legislature 06/01/17 [Last modified: Friday, June 2, 2017 11:27am]
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