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Column | Howard Troxler

Four reforms for a better Legislature

"I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it." — Alexander Woollcott

How bad is the Florida Legislature these days?

It's historically bad — the worst since the infamous "Pork Chop Gang" that was in charge of our state during the 1950s and 1960s.

The Legislature of recent years is simply incapable of governing Florida wisely. It lacks the intellectual horsepower, the will, even the desire. It's a machine for collecting laundered campaign money, paying back that money with favorably written laws, and getting itself re-elected.

Good grief! The joint lacks gravitas, ballast. It is a collection of superficial sloganeers. These days, a wacky idea pops up on a Tuesday and is a proposed amendment to the state Constitution on a Thursday, no questions asked.

Look at the major policy areas challenging our state. Insurance? We're worse off than ever, a sitting duck for storms. Taxes? The tax structure is as brutally unfair as ever, thanks to attempts to govern by gimmick and catch phrase ("drop like a rock").

Not only are we not planning for Florida's future — the 2009 Legislature's biggest idea was to weaken the past quarter-century of growth-management laws. Our current Legislature shows a perverse hostility to the future, cutting university budgets, attacking the state's land-buying program and the Lawton Chiles tobacco trust, and even out of the blue at the last minute, without the slightest study or deliberation, trying to throw open Florida waters to oil drilling.

On top of it all, this spring a grand jury in Tallahassee indicted the immediate past speaker of the state House and in a critical report blasted the way the Legislature operates. The Legislature's response has been, more or less: Yawn.

On the bright side, if your biggest concern is whether Florida should ban "truck nuts," which was last year's headline fight, or this year's attempt to plaster an image of Jesus on a state license plate — well, this is just the Legislature for you.

Sheesh!

And yet the age-old question recurs:

What can we do about it? In the civics textbooks, the answer is: Vote for better candidates. But in the real world, there's not much chance to elect "somebody else." The system is rigged.

So here are some suggestions on how to reform that system — not with a bunch of top-down laws and impractical new rules, but with fundamental, bottom-up changes geared toward electing a better Legislature in the first place.

Four points:

(1) Fair districts to improve competition, making incumbents more answerable for what they do.

(2) "Honest money" so voters can see who is really paying for legislators' campaigns.

(3) More experience, in the form of longer terms, to give legislators time to develop more judgment and independence.

(4) A "citizen accountability project" that reconnects election campaigns to the actual decisions that the Legislature makes.

Fair districts

The Legislature draws its own members' districts, and this is the first thing we ought to address. The Legislature cynically draws the map after every 10-year census to create as many "safe" seats as possible.

Rigged districts make it much less likely that we'll have true competition, and make it almost impossible for the voters to hold their legislator truly accountable at the ballot box.

The Democrats rigged the map in their favor when they had the most votes, and it was the Republicans who were demanding a more fair system. Now the Republicans have the most votes, and it's the other way around.

Neither party will change it, which is why it's up to the citizens to do it.

A group called Fair Districts Florida is gathering signatures for an amendment to the state Constitution. (The Legislature spent our tax dollars trying to block this petition in court, but did not succeed.)

The idea is simple. The Legislature would still draw the maps, but the courts reviewing that map would make sure it was not drawn "to disfavor or favor a political party."

Districts also would have to be "as compact and equal in population as feasible," making it harder for the Legislature to draw some of the wacky, gerrymandered districts we have now.

If you want to sign the petition or learn more, the Web site is: www.fairdistrictsflorida.org.

Now, make no mistake — if you're a Republican, remember that your party currently has the most votes in the Legislature. The easiest way to hold on to that power is to keep the districts rigged. Some Republicans even consider the fair-district movement to be a Democratic plot, just as the Democrats used to call it a Republican plot.

But the chairman of Fair Districts Florida is a lifelong Republican loyalist named Thom Rumberger, a Tallahassee attorney.

"I don't see this as a partisan issue at all," Rumberger said in an interview. "If the Democrats came back into power, they would just as actively be campaigning against fair districting."

The current system, Rumberger says, "is wrong, wrong as rain. By golly, some of us have to stand up and make a real effort."

He's right.

Honest money

The second crying need for change in Tallahassee lies in our system of raising political money. It has become a money-laundering scheme with the purpose of deceiving the public.

You can only give $500 to a legislator directly — but you can give virtually unlimited money through the political committees that have been set up by dozens of legislators, or to the political parties, which then move that money among themselves in a shell game.

The result is that Floridians often have no way to know the true source of the money behind their legislator's campaign. All those billboards and mail brochures with cheerful slogans are largely paid for with disguised money from interest groups that want something.

These committees, like the "527" groups named after a section in the Internal Revenue Code, have bland, reassuring names ("A Better Way For Florida," "Floridians for Principled Government") that mask their true purpose.

My colleague Steve Bousquet, our Tallahassee bureau chief, has done a yeoman's job of tracking these committees over the years. Recently he reported that they raised $6 million in the election cycle leading up to this year's legislative session.

"In many cases," Bousquet writes, "it is impossible to track who really donated the money to a committee or a legislator."

Listen: We're never going to be able to get rid of money in politics, no matter how many rules and limits we try to pass. Besides, the courts have ruled that giving money is part of free speech.

But there absolutely is a compelling public interest in knowing the real source of the money that elects our Legislature and influences our public policy.

I would let special interests give as much durn-tootin' money as they wanted to a legislator — on the sole condition that the money be reported under the donor's true name, and reported instantly to the public, with tough penalties for violations, even disqualification of the candidate and criminal charges for the donor.

More experience

This is hard to admit because I was a strong supporter of the "Eight is Enough" term-limits movement in 1992. Like the 77 percent of Floridians who voted yes, I wanted to see those politicians kept on a short leash.

But time has proven that an eight-year limit has failed to make the Legislature more responsive to the people — just the opposite. It has made the Legislature much worse.

The eight-year term limit has only accelerated the race for power in Tallahassee, and made those seeking that power more susceptible to special-interest money than ever. It also has created a crop of young, brittle legislators with little sense of history, balance or experience.

The House is especially awful — callow, partisan, superficial, intemperate and secretive. The House is controlled by an almost Soviet-style inner circle whose power is locked down years in advance (a textbook example being the recently indicted former speaker, Ray Sansom). That inner circle dictates to House members from the day they are elected, and they go along. When former Speaker Johnnie Byrd (2002-2004) famously referred to his House members as "sheep," he was being unwisely blunt — but accurate.

It's no coincidence that our Senate usually is a moderating influence on the House. The Senate is less willing to jump off the cliff into untested policy, more sensitive to Florida's competing interests, and more likely to find common ground between its Republicans and Democrats.

Your typical senator is older, more experienced and tempered, often because he or she went through an "apprenticeship" in the House first. And the typical senator is much less likely to be bossed around by an inner power circle, as in the House. Each senator is more of an "independent contractor," with his or her own sphere of influence.

We probably shouldn't repeal term limits outright; there have been plenty of lawmakers over the years who needed to go. But a 12-year limit seems more reasonable, giving even House members a little more time to grow into statesmanship, slowing the all-consuming race for power, and raising up a crop of senior members with more judgment and independence.

One important caveat:

There's a good reason that I list longer term limits in third place, after fair voting districts and honest money. It would be a horrible idea to give 'em a longer leash without fair competition in their district, and without an honest reporting of their money.

Citizen accountability

My last idea is only half-formed, if not half-baked. It deals with the reality that no matter what stunts the Legislature pulls in Tallahassee, most of those things rarely show up as issues in the few contested campaigns we do have.

Incumbents present themselves to the voters as champions of the people, "fighting for you." Challengers (usually in the grip of their cynical party campaign machine) often try to twist some single vote out of context to smear the incumbent.

(My all-time favorite of these attacks, which I keep at my desk, is a brochure accusing an incumbent of being in favor of child molesters.)

But political campaigns are too important to leave to the candidates. What we need is a "citizen accountability project" in which the Folks Back Home arm themselves with the factual record and put the question to their legislators: Why did you do this?

Why haven't you fixed insurance and taxes? How could you vote for that bill? Are you really in favor of drilling oil off my beach, raising fees on little guys while handing out tax breaks, jacking up tuition on my kids while cutting university budgets, and weakening Florida's growth laws?

I do not know exactly how to do this, and cheerfully ask for suggestions. Inspired by PolitiFact.com, I wonder if the Florida media should commit themselves to a more thorough or even cooperative presentation of the incumbents' records, a better version of the "Voices of Florida" project from some years back.

I wonder if the Tiger Bay clubs around the state, the League of Women Voters, groups such as Leadership Florida, or even the public-policy centers at Florida's universities might be participants. (I mean, how's the Legislature going to punish the universities — by slashing their budgets?)

This is the beginning of a conversation, not the end. For myself, I promise to do a better job in 2010, once we know who's running, of reviewing the major decisions made by the Legislature over the past two years, and how our incumbents voted on them.

For a better Legislature

Experience teaches that no amount of top-down "reform" can repair our politics. Ethics laws, campaign-contribution limits, caps on terms, and nitpicky rules (you can't buy a legislator lunch) are not effective.

But these systemic, organic changes to our system are targeted at electing a better Legislature in the first place.

How will we know if they've worked? If fair districts create more competitive races. If the source of "honest money" becomes an issue in those races. If more experienced legislators stand up to their leaders and break the cycle of power in Tallahassee, especially in the House. And if more citizens are armed with the true record of the Legislature to hold their lawmakers to account.

I'm not claiming these are The Only Answers. They're suggestions based on a quarter-century of watching the process. If you've got a better idea, send it to me at htroxler@sptimes.com.

Four reforms for a better Legislature 05/06/09 [Last modified: Sunday, May 10, 2009 7:41pm]

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