Man is the only animal that laughs and has a state legislature.
Samuel Butler, English novelist
Have you ever had a time when, because of crisis, or family emergency, or college final exams, or even a storm, All Bets Were Off?
That the usual rules didn't apply for the duration? That everybody got to stay up late and eat bad things?
When new romances formed out of the blue, or old ones broke up just as suddenly? When people found an excuse to break their diets and take up smoking again?
That's what this year's session of the Florida Legislature is like. The state is in the worst jam it's been in for a long time, money-wise.
And in this stressful passage, when the normal rules do not seem to apply, plenty of people are seeking to take advantage, in the name of the economy or the budget crisis.
It's striking how easily our state Senate, for example, is able to propose a sweeping expansion of gambling for Indian reservations and parimutuel facilities.
"Don't kid yourself — we are a gaming state," explained state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island. This is the first time I remember Florida being described outright as a "gaming state."
The Legislature is even considering, on the fly, dramatic ideas such as a penny increase in the state sales tax, which seems to be both ill considered and counterproductive.
Isn't raising a regressive tax on retail activity exactly the opposite of "helping the economy," as the Legislature claims to want to do? Yet at the same time, it seems to be turning up its nose at more than $1 billion in federal money for unemployment assistance.
The unifying theme of this year's session is not just "Economic Crisis" — more accurately, it's "Taking Advantage of Economic Crisis."
A strong deregulatory thread runs through this session. Telephone companies seek to escape most of the rest of their controls. There's a bill for fewer inspections of nursing homes. Yep, that's what we need.
There's even a bill to stop regulating nursing schools. Nobody likes this idea — except the for-profit schools that would benefit.
But the biggest and most important trend of all in the 2009 Legislature is the use of this crisis to justify gutting a big part of the regulation of growth in this state.
Remember the example of an ex-smoker relapsing in a crisis? That's exactly what's going on here. Florida's growth machine is hoping to use the crisis to send this state back to the 1950s and our old addiction to growth.
There are bills to abolish the state agency that regulates growth, the Department of Community Affairs, and if that doesn't work, bills to take away its powers.
Other bills are aimed at the law we've had since 1985 requiring that there be enough schools, roads, water and other resources to handle growth.
There are bills to gut the protection of Florida's wetlands, to handcuff local control of growth, to kill impact fees, and to ban new local rules to protect wildlife or the environment.
It is hard to imagine that this is what Floridians really want. A prominent theme for the rest of this session will be how much of this the Legislature gets away with, and how much of that gets vetoed by the governor. My guess is, some, and some.