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Howard Simon

Do we really need this Legislature?

Does Florida really need a Legislature? This sounds like a radical idea — but entertain it for a moment.

I'm not raising it simply because this legislative session has been a disaster for civil rights and civil liberties. If there is a human right, this Legislature will find a way to restrict or threaten it.

• The right to vote, under attack more in Florida than possibly anywhere outside of Vladimir Putin's Russia, is again a target. Our governor has restricted who can vote, and the Legislature is advancing legislation to require more people to vote by provisional (rather than regular) ballot, which may or may not be counted, and to make it more inconvenient to vote.

You have to be willfully naive not to see this as crude manipulation of the rules for the 2012 election by disqualifying or driving away citizens whose votes threaten those in power.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, proclaimed the legislation necessary to "strengthen" election laws and address "the risk … that fraud could occur." Unfortunately for Baxley, the Secretary of State's Office, displaying commendable independence and honesty, noted that there were no reported cases of fraud like the ones he says he is trying to fix.

• The Legislature is on the verge of adopting Arizona-style anti-immigrant legislation, now blocked by the federal courts. The bills would allow police to use "reasonable suspicion" to inquire if someone lacks proof of citizenship. In the real world, people will be stopped, questioned, detained and investigated based on their skin color or accent. The Legislature may ineptly damage our tourism and agriculture-based economy — and in the process drive a dangerous wedge between police and immigrant communities.

The best defense by bill sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami: "It would be worse without me."

• If legislators can conceive of a way to restrict a woman's access to abortion, then it has been proposed and is likely to pass. Paternalism and religious politics are being used to obstruct access to reproductive health care. The result will be greater inequality for Florida women.

The record of much of this legislative session has been dismal: "Rep. X introduced the speaker's bill dealing with Y. Acknowledging that he knew little about the bill because the 150-page amendment became available only late last night, Rep. X asked staff to describe it. Committee Chair Z then granted 12 minutes for testimony by the 250 people who traveled from Pensacola, Tampa and Homestead to express their concerns, after which the committee immediately proceeded to approve the bill along party lines."

Do we really need to spend millions of dollars on a "deliberative" process of this quality?

Why not just phone it in — or take a lesson from Gov. Rick Scott and "tweet" it in?

A Legislature that makes laws and sets policies for the state might have been the way it was in the past, but not this year. These days, Tallahassee is as much about the search for issues for the next election as the enactment of laws and good public policy.

The 2011 Legislature is about power, and how to manipulate elections to hold on to it. The rules that will affect the outcome of the 2012 Florida election are being cobbled together in Tallahassee in 2011: who will be able to vote, how many hours you will need to stand in line before you vote (or give up), and whether you will be able to vote at all.

Then there is the art of loading the ballot with invented issues designed to stimulate turnout of the right kind of voters.

With a few weeks still to go, here's a sample of what we may see on the 2012 ballot:

• The right of religious institutions to receive government funding.

• Ending taxpayer funding for abortions — even though it is already against long-standing federal law.

• Allowing the governor to pack the Supreme Court and the Legislature to dictate to the courts — which ends judicial independence, the basic protection for freedom.

The disgust Floridians have for the Legislature is not simply because of the legislation it enacts. They are put off by a process in which political advantage too often trumps good public policies.

The irony is that despite the venom hurled at the courts by legislative leaders, the more they produce sloppy and politically driven public policies, the more they transfer power to the courts to sort out the mess they made.

So, even if we need a Legislature, maybe we just don't need this one.

Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

Do we really need this Legislature? 04/22/11 [Last modified: Monday, April 25, 2011 5:37pm]
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