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It's not party, but power that corrupts in Tallahassee

Given the current scandals involving Republicans in Florida politics, I've heard lots of people say something like:

"This proves that Republicans are more corrupt, and that we need to elect Democrats instead."

To which I say:

Are you kidding?

When the Democrats were in charge in Florida, they were the same or worse.

It's not party label that makes somebody more or less corrupt in politics.

It's being in charge.

We'll talk about how to fix Tallahassee in a minute. But being a cranky old guy who was there, I ask you to revisit the closing years of Democratic rule.

In bed with corporate money? You bet. On the eve of an infamous Democratic vote to deregulate telephone profits in 1995, the telephone companies treated 40 key lawmakers to a secret lobster dinner.

Asked why the press and public were kept away, the Democratic chairman of the utility committee replied arrogantly: "Because we didn't want any pains in the a-- there."

It was a Democratic Legislature that held a notorious "beer and pizza" secret meeting at a lobbyist's townhouse in Tallahassee to rewrite the state's tax structure.

It was a Democratic Legislature that voted to legalize loan sharking in Florida, at the behest of banks and credit-card companies, by repealing limits on interest rates. The Democrats explained with a straight face that this was intended to help poor people get credit.

It was a Democratic Legislature that chose a Public Service Commission that took ski trips and other fancy vacations with utility lobbyists, while the PSC chairman waged a love affair, literally, with a telephone company employee.

It was a Democratic speaker of the House who arranged the payment of $47,000 in tax dollars to hush allegations of sexual harassment against a powerful Democratic chairman.

It was under a Democratic majority that 24 current or former legislators were charged with crimes for taking goodies from lobbyists and not reporting them. Besides the usual hunting and fishing trips, they included travel to New York, Mexico, Paris, Zurich, St. Tropez, Monte Carlo and Nice.

(Conveniently, the Democrats changed the law so it would not be a crime in the future.)

A former Democratic House speaker (Bo Johnson) as well as a former Democratic Senate president (W.D. Childers) later were convicted of felonies and sentenced to prison.

A Democratic speaker's wife with no degree or management experience was hired for a job in the state Department of Agriculture.

A Democratic speaker kept a falsified line in the state budget, under a fake name, to use as a kind of slush fund for other purposes. (Ray Sansom, are you taking notes?)

When the fed-up people of Florida put a petition on the ballot for eight-year term limits, the Democrats attempted to put a sneaky, rival "poison pill" amendment on the ballot to trick the voters into passing looser 12-year limits instead.

I hardly think this track record proves Democrats are ethically superior.

The answer is not that Party A is better than Party B.

The answer is that the choice between them has to be more competitive.

Only when Party A or Party B can truly be held to account at the polls will Florida's system be improved.

As I've said before, we need four things:

(1) Fair, competitive districts.

(2) Honest campaign money that cannot be laundered through no-limit committees controlled by individual legislators.

(3) Once (and only if) we pass those first two ideas, longer terms for legislators, 12 years instead of eight. Yes, really.

(4) Smarter, better-informed voters who actually hold the Legislature accountable for its actions. More on that theme over the rest of this year.

Look. We can never pass enough "ethics" laws to make Babylon "ethical."

Only true competition, and the threat of being held to account by the voters, will change things.

In other words, the answer to the sins of democracy is more democracy.

It's not party, but power that corrupts in Tallahassee 06/05/10 [Last modified: Sunday, June 6, 2010 1:30pm]
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