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Time, term limits ease Florida lawmakers from office

The people of Florida amended the state Constitution in 1992 and imposed eight-year term limits on legislators. But it wasn't until 2000 that the impact became clear.

The lawmakers elected in 1992 were the first ones who had to leave. In November 2000, more than half the members of the House of Representatives changed, a dizzying level of turnover not seen in decades.

A total of 63 of the 120 members were freshmen, the biggest one-year overhaul since a court-ordered remapping of legislative districts broke the rural so-called pork-choppers' stranglehold on power in 1967.

At the 2000 organizational session, as the outcome of a presidential election hung in the balance, there were so many new faces that lobbyists furtively held photos of the freshmen. They didn't know their Aaron Beans from their Mitch Needelmans.

When the 2008 legislative session opens Tuesday, it will mark the final session for that big Class of 2000.

But a funny thing happened between then and now. A lot of them are long gone.

More than half of those 63 freshmen (34, to be exact) are no longer in the House, which suggests that term limits aren't necessary to ensure that the composition of the Legislature keeps changing.

It happens all by itself.

Six members of that class went to the Senate. Two others headed to Congress, two became judges, and a few were elected to or lost races for countywide offices back home.

Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp was in that class. So was Frank Peterman, a St. Petersburg Democrat recently appointed by Gov. Charlie Crist to run the Department of Juvenile Justice.

The last member of the Class of 2000 to fade into oblivion was Bob Allen, the Republican from Merritt Island whose conviction on a sex-solicitation charge forced him to resign.

In a special election Tuesday, voters in House District 32 chose a Democrat, Tony Sasso, to take Allen's place. It marked the 10th special election for the House in the past 15 months — another antidote to term limits.

Sasso is the ninth Democrat to win a House seat formerly held by a Republican since November 2006. A Cocoa Beach city official and a Boy Scout leader with an A-rating from the NRA, Sasso ran as a conservative and is the latest example of a Democratic candidate who matches up well with the makeup of the district.

Democrats stole the issue of illegal immigration away from Republicans and used it against Republican Sean Campbell, who ran a day-labor staffing company.

Sasso will be the newest face in the House chamber when Speaker Marco Rubio pounds the gavel Tuesday morning to open the 2008 session.

Over the past 15 months, Democrats have put together an impressive winning streak, and in this race they beat the GOP on its turf. But it has to be put in perspective: the Republicans' high-water mark was 85 seats of 120, and that's a level of dominance that was not sustainable.

The margin is now 77 to 41 with two safe Democratic seats currently vacant.

Term limits have elevated the importance of special elections, because challengers now simply wait out the eight-year clock until a seat is vacant again.

The man who runs the House remains an unabashed fan of term limits, even though the best surviving example of a pre-term limits legislator is Dan Webster, the Senate majority leader, who was elected in 1980.

"I'm more of a believer in them than ever before," Rubio said.

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

Time, term limits ease Florida lawmakers from office 02/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:20am]
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