TALLAHASSEE — Once upon a time you could walk down a street in the state capital and buy copies of every big newspaper in the state. Floridians could fly here for very little money to buttonhole a lawmaker and let them know what the folks back home were thinking.
Indeed. Tallahassee was the only city in the state where you could pick up daily copies of the St. Petersburg Times, Orlando Sentinel, Miami Herald, Tampa Tribune, Jacksonville's Times-Union and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel just to name a few. Those days are gone.
Now there is a problem just getting to Tallahassee. Even some legislators and lobbyists who live in Central and South Florida routinely drive six to eight hours just to get here. That means a whole day on the road coming and going. Some lawmakers spend the time on their cell phones. Others listen to books on tape or recruit someone to make the trip with them.
Former Rep. Dudley Goodlette just drives. The Naples lawyer accepted an emergency call to staff duty in the House this year after Speaker Ray Sansom resigned and makes the six-hour drive down the interstate but says he'll likely spend most weekends in Tallahassee once the session starts Tuesday.
Getting here by air has become all but impossible. Delta and Northwest would have you fly from Tampa to Atlanta, change airplanes and then get to Tallahassee — at costs ranging from $375 to $641. And some of the flights include a four-hour layover in Atlanta for a total trip time of 6½ hours to fly a distance that would take you four or five hours to drive.
Only Continental flies direct from Tampa to Tallahassee — at a recent cost of about $433. They have at least put bigger airplanes on the route now that others have pulled out so your propellers are no longer powered by rubber bands. Delta promises to return some direct flights, but that will be too late for the start of this year's legislative session.
Back in 1823 when Tallahassee, a city that is almost in Georgia, was selected as the seat of state government, it was midway between the only two population centers of Pensacola and Jacksonville. Our founding fathers apparently didn't expect much to happen in the rest of the state. Efforts to move government to Orlando failed in the late 1970s when the new Capitol was built. It's likely to stay where it is despite its distance from most Floridians.
The absence of daily newspapers, the decline in the availability of commercial air service and the total absence of trains or other alternative modes of transportation have left us with a government that is even more isolated from its citizens than ever.
There has always been an "Inside Capital Circle'' mentality here, much like the famed "Inside the Beltway'' disease that afflicts Washington. But this sense of isolation is more serious than ever.
Some of it is due to a declining economic situation. Newspapers began pulling out a few years ago. The Times was the last to go a year ago, leaving the Tallahassee Democrat as the only Florida paper that can be purchased in the capital. The big Florida papers still have reporters working in the Capitol, but most have substantially reduced staff.
Increasingly we are forced to depend on computers and the Internet to know more about what is going on around the world. Other factors have also contributed to this sense of isolation. In late 2005 lawmakers rightly approved a bill that prohibits them from taking food and drink from lobbyists. It's a good thing that has perhaps been taken a step too far.
Like many new laws, it had unintended consequences. Because legislative lawyers have interpreted the law to preclude food and drink that might be offered at a gathering of any organization that hires a lobbyist, the hordes of Realtors, insurance salesmen and other businessmen who once flocked to the Capitol during legislative session are no longer spending as much time and money eating and drinking with lawmakers.
It's downright awkward to tell a legislator he has to pay $32 to attend a function, so many have abandoned the practice, much to the angst of restaurant and bar owners who say the bottom has dropped out of their businesses.
All of these things tend to make the "Camp Tallahassee'' experience more pronounced than ever. Legislators and their aides come to town for the 60-day session and spend most of their time in the company of lobbyists and each other. Little outside air reaches them except when they go home for weekends, and that has gotten harder and more expensive.
I write all this to explain why the Legislature frequently looks stupid. Sometimes lawmakers just can't help it. They don't know any better.
Lucy Morgan is a Times senior correspondent.