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Recalling the 'golden age' of reform in Florida politics

My former colleague Martin Dyckman is enjoying a productive "retirement." His latest book, published by the University Press of Florida, focuses on the remarkable tenure of former Gov. Reubin Askew, who led our state from 1971-1979. Its title is Reubin O'D Askew and the Golden Age of Florida Politics.

On Friday, Dyckman came down from the North Carolina mountains (!) to address the Tallahassee Tiger Bay Club. The text of his speech was so strong that I thought it would be a good use of Sunday ink to repeat some of it.

He described the years 1967-1978 as an era of amazing reform, once the state had been liberated from the "Pork Chop Gang" that had clung to power by rigged districts.

In a long but impressive passage, Dyckman noted that during those years our state's new generation of leaders:

replaced Florida's obsolete 1885 constitution … reorganized the judiciary and the executive branch; made the governor rather than the elected Cabinet responsible for the state budget; stopped cities from dumping raw sewage into the environment and created effective, enforceable pollution controls; established a pioneering system of water-management districts; enacted restrictions on development and requirements for land-use planning; began the purchase of environmentally sensitive land for recreation and preservation; limited campaign spending and required effective disclosure of campaign contributors; passed an open-meetings law and strengthened the public-records statute; registered lobbyists; stopped the commercial dredging and filling of bays and estuaries; enacted a corporate profits tax and repealed the sales tax on household utilities and residential rentals; made the judiciary nonpartisan and provided for appointing rather than electing the appellate bench; created an ethics commission and required public officials to disclose their financial assets and liabilities; ordered due process in rule-making and other administrative procedures; passed a deceptive trade practices act modeled on federal law; instituted no-fault divorce and auto insurance; gave utility consumers an advocate before the Public Service Commission and switched its membership from election to appointment; granted home rule to cities and counties; created a statewide juvenile justice system; required treatment rather than jail for alcoholics; protected the civil rights of mental patients; rewrote the school code to equalize spending between rich and poor counties; reformed property taxation; demanded effective regulation of nursing homes; capped the small-county shares of state race-track revenue; redistributed gasoline taxes to help growing counties; and taxed the mining of phosphate and other minerals.

Neither was this done along party lines. Dyckman's review of more than 300 votes of the Legislature showed that most involved a bipartisan majority.

Dyckman recounted an extraordinary speech that Askew delivered to the Council of 100, a statewide business group. He read from his book:

The ballroom of the luxurious Breakers resort was filled with men in tuxedos and women resplendent in gowns and jewels. They were powerful, prosperous people unaccustomed to the sort of tongue-lashing that Askew, speaking without a script, was about to give them. "We don't have too many poor people in this room tonight," he said, contrasting the glittering scene with the poverty of migrant labor shacks at nearby Pahokee. Florida "isn't so beautiful for a lot of other people, and there's no reason for it, Florida being so affluent as it is," he declared. "This is not the end of tax reform," he told them, "but the beginning — the beginning of a new day."

Several audience members that night walked out.


The contrast with modern Florida politics is obvious. The question is: Why?

Dyckman's first culprit is the abolition of multimember districts in the Legislature. Not only did members no longer have to worry about broader communities, but the new system made it easier to rig the Legislature's districts.

Next on Dyckman's list: the eight-year term limits passed by the voters in 1992.

"Term limits have turned the ship of state into a ship of fools," he said. The rush for power — funded by special interest money — requires lawmakers to choose their leaders years in advance, and then to obey them slavishly.

But his dominant theme was money. A series of court rulings have made it clear that money gets its way in politics.

His dark conclusion:

"I no longer have any confidence that democracy can survive in this state or nationally unless the Constitution is amended to allow Congress and the states to limit campaign spending. … It is difficult to imagine how that amendment could be accomplished, but the alternative is to bid farewell to this country as we have known it."

Well, again!

Let's talk more about this.

Recalling the 'golden age' of reform in Florida politics 04/30/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 8:42pm]
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