LAtely I've been rereading a book titled From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans. It's a political history of our state written by David R. Colburn, a professor at the University of Florida. • One striking part of the book deals with the government of Florida in the early 1970s, a period of great energy and reform. The state had finally been freed from the grip of the "Pork Chop Gang," old-time Democrats in the Legislature who had held back the state's progress and had survived the governorship of the colorful but ineffective Republican Gov. Claude Kirk. • A new governor named Reubin Askew — sometimes with the help of the Legislature, and sometimes despite it — led Florida in an unprecedented program of modernization and reform, including:
• A total revision and modernization of the way Florida paid for schools.
• A much-needed statewide system of water regulation.
• New programs to buy and conserve Florida's natural land.
• The first law requiring "comprehensive planning" for Florida's growth.
• "Fair share" taxes on businesses that, because of their political influence, had enjoyed one of the nation's lowest tax burdens.
• A burst of "sunshine" and ethics laws, including a constitutional amendment requiring public officers to disclose their personal finances. Opponents of these ethics reforms mocked Askew as "Reubin the Good."
Askew then ran for his second term.
At every step Askew was working for the long-term interests of the state, and he did not care if he lost popularity because of it.
Winn-Dixie's founders fought him. St. Joe Paper fought him. Associated Industries of Florida fought him. To rebut the claims of Florida's businesses that a fair tax would drive up prices, Askew famously displayed to the public a Sears shirt bought in Georgia, and the same shirt bought at a similar price in Florida, even though Sears paid far more in taxes to Georgia.
Neither was Askew's program a secret — he did exactly what he told the voters he was going to do if elected. Colburn quotes him as saying he wanted to get elected, but "not so bad that I would spend four years of frustration with my hands tied."
The comparison with the modern politics and government of Florida is, of course, unavoidable.
• • •
Every year there is a series of articles in the St. Petersburg Times under the collective headline, "For a Better Florida," and every year some themes recur. A lot of them are about planning for the state's long-term needs in a sober, grown-up fashion.
Florida's budget, frankly, is a mess. We stagger by from year to year, spending whatever we have (in good years and bad), fishing spare change out of the sofa, and figuring out which fees we can jack up without calling it a "tax increase." Higher fees: conservative. Higher taxes: liberal.
As for where we get our money, that is equally a mess. The tax structure is creaky and outdated. It is filled with exemptions and sweetheart deals for interest groups. Anybody who wants to fix them is immediately labeled as a liberal tax-raiser.
The Legislature is run by Republicans, which means they do not like what the Democrats in Congress are doing. This has not kept the Republicans in the Legislature from taking as much federal stimulus money as possible, and propping up the whole state of Florida with what is, essentially, a fiscal fraud.
Ethics? The immediate past speaker of our state House is under criminal indictment, faces ethics allegations and just resigned his seat to avoid potential discipline in the House itself. The grand jury that indicted him blasted the workings of Legislature itself in a critical citizens' report called a "presentment." So many local officials have been removed from office or accused that the governor called for a statewide grand jury to investigate public corruption.
The Legislature's response, so far, has been: Yawn. The only hope of reform in this arena comes from the Florida Commission on Ethics, which is asking the Legislature, like a meek supplicant, for at least the ability to open its own investigations. So far there is no sign the Legislature will agree even to that. Maybe there will be bills proposed to reform the scandal-ridden Public Service Commission — but watch out; some of the bills already filed actually are sneaky attempts to benefit the utilities that the PSC regulates.
Major problems of the state? We remain a sitting duck, financially speaking, for hurricanes — and have managed to wage the worst possible policy, stuck between private-sector and public-sector answers. The state either needs to take over, and give Citizens Property Insurance Corp. what it needs, or it needs to let the private companies off the leash. Both courses are tough and unpopular, of course, so we do nothing.
Jobs and the economy? That will be the rallying cry for all sorts of favors to private industry, oil drilling, maybe even further attacks on Florida's already-weakened growth management and environmental laws.
But the real economic future of Florida depends on a first-class state university system. One bright spot is that the system, under chancellor Frank Brogan, has proposed an ambitious program to double its budget in coming years, with at least lip-service support of the governor. The first year's requested installment is $100 million, compared to an existing budget of $3 billion or so. The Legislature's reply so far: Sorry, no more money than this year; maybe less.
On the other hand, if you like gambling, get ready. Instead of approving the governor's limited deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Legislature may considering opening the state to casinos on a larger scale. It is easy money, impossible for modern politicians to resist, and yet it's depressing to think of what future awaits us.
Such gloom! Sorry. The headline is "For a Better Florida," not "Why We're Doomed."
So, to our friends in the Legislature:
Above all else, fix Florida's tax structure. Get rid of the loopholes and tax breaks — and if you're worried that's a "tax increase," then you should lower the overall rate on everybody else who's been paying all along.
Quit fighting the "fair districts" citizen petition in an attempt to protect your own empires.
Do something about the sneaky political committees that you have formed to launder campaign money.
Once you agree to fair districts and honest money, then you should be able to ask voters to increase your terms from eight years to 12, so we can develop a little more maturity up there.
Give the universities what they want. All of it. Quit fighting them over political control.
Give the Ethics Commission what it wants, too.
Don't decide oil drilling until you've heard every study, from every party, and maybe not even then until you've gone to walk on beaches in oil-pumping areas yourselves.
If you really must gamble, don't give away the store to the casinos. Extort them until they scream and threaten not to come. Then get even more for the problems they're going to cause.
Put back the money you took from the Florida Forever land-buying program. Good grief! Robbing Florida Forever? Are you proud of that? Are you going to brag to your grandkids, "When I was in the Legislature, my big accomplishment was killing the money that we used to preserve Florida"?
Think about what's right in the long term. Don't be bullied by the leaders of the Legislature when you know they are wrong, especially in the House. They can't actually kill you. They can hurt your bills, take away your good committee assignment and office and parking space, and generally make you feel like an outsider, but they can't kill you. One day in your old age you will remember this and you will feel good about yourself.
C'mon, do it. For a better Florida.