Daniel Ruth: The Florida Legislature tells voters it knows best

Lawmakers embraced efforts to suppress the vote and squash voter referendums.
The Florida Capitol, where it all happens. [Times photo by Scott Keeler]
The Florida Capitol, where it all happens. [Times photo by Scott Keeler]
Published May 10

There’s an old political joke, which has been cleaned up a bit for a family newspaper. It’s election night and the losing candidate forlornly goes before his supporters to grudgingly concede by noting, “Well, the people have spoken – the dirty, rotten, lousy, stinking half-wits!”

And that, quite naturally, brings us to the Florida Legislature, the Pyongyang of the Panhandle.

For two months the money changers of Tallahassee took time out from stuffing their pockets with legalized lobbyist baksheesh to essentially send a message to the great unwashed of the state that all this inane blabbering about democracy, freedom and civic engagement isn’t worth a bucket of warm gruel.

Oh sure, the quaint notion of the will of the people is all well and good, unless the will of the people conflicts with the political agendas of those lemmings of the Legislature who would sell out their first born if the bouncing bundle of joy threatened their ambitions.

Last year, a clear, concise, unambiguous ballot measure that would restore the voting rights of most felons upon the completion of their sentences won 65 percent of the vote. The ballot language was approved by the Florida Supreme Court. The issue was widely debated across the state and in the end the people - Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives – spoke loud and clear.

All Tallahassee had to do was sit down and shut up and honor the outcome of the vote. But where is the fun in that? What’s the point of wielding power if you can’t abuse it? This is the Florida Legislature, after all, which has never met a vote it didn’t want to suppress.

Fear abounded. Conventional wisdom held that most of the 1.4 million former felons might register as Democrats, thereby holding out the potential of a seismic challenge to Republican control of state government. The very idea of losing power because of felons heading to the ballot box might be the cause of getting tossed from office went over with about as much enthusiasm as proposing a statue honoring Jane Fonda at The Villages. Oh dear.

So in short order Rep. Jamie Grant, R- Tallahassee’s Tammany Hall Poster Child, leaped into action to make sure Florida’s felons would continue to be disenfranchised. Grant championed a bill to require felons to also settle all fines, fees and restitution before they would be permitted to cast a ballot. Spoiler alert: It passed. The measure was politically craven. And it smacked of a not too subtle return to the Florida’s sordid, racist era of laws aimed at preventing blacks from casting a vote.

A question. If there was quantitative evidence that suggested all these felons would vote Republican, does anyone doubt Grant would have been storming the barricades defending the God-given right of these fine, upstanding folks to be fully engaged in democracy – fees and fines and restitution be damned?

The Jamie Grants of this world and his fellow poltroons in the Legislature don’t give a rat’s patootie about the will of the people. They don’t count. And their votes most certainly must not be counted.

Just to make sure those uppity peons don’t get carried away with any more of this democracy fiddle-faddle nonsense, lawmakers made it more difficult for future citizen-driven constitutional amendments to make it onto the ballot. That was particularly important to accomplish as amendments that would raise the minimum wage and allow “energy choice” to expand solar energy options are being promoted for the 2020 ballot.

The Florida Legislature also passed a corporate welfare measure that would divert public money away from public schools and give it to largely unaccountable private schools. All of this sleight-of-hand was pitched with a wink and nod as simply offering parents more “choice” to educate their tots.

But when it comes to making it easier to Floridians to exercise “choice” in opting for solar energy over traditional power utilities, the Legislature said “No, no, no.” Sorry to be cynical, but do you think this has anything remotely to do with the state’s powerful (and generous) utility companies opposing the expansion of solar energy into the Sunshine State by anyone but themselves?

The reigning legislative junta ruling over the lives of Floridians is annoyed with citizens advocating for change. It is dismissive of attempts to give citizens a voice, a choice.

Somewhere Mr. Jim Crow is smiling down on Tallahassee for a job well done.

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