Florida will be better off with someone other than Ray Sansom as House speaker, someone who can devote their full attention to the state's pressing issues. But the Destin Republican's announcement on Friday that he is temporarily giving up one of the state's most powerful political offices as he faces a state grand jury investigation does not go far enough. Now Republicans must move quickly to select a permanent replacement to ensure that the House has clear leadership and that Sansom cannot pull any strings.
Throughout this scandal, Sansom has been the slowest to acknowledge reality. He saw nothing wrong with accepting an unadvertised $110,000-a-year job at Northwest Florida State College on the same day in November that he became speaker — and after he had steered $35 million to the college in the two previous years as House budget chief. Then he tried hiding out in his Capitol office while the public demanded answers about the job, a meeting with the college trustees he helped arrange that skirted the Sunshine Law, and an indefensible college building at a Destin airport that he arranged with $6 million in public money. He gave up the college job effective today. But when he finally publicly answered questions nine days ago, he was unrepentant and unwilling to offer specific answers.
It took considerable pressure from other House Republicans to force Sansom out of the speaker's office. But he still clings to the notion that he can survive investigations by a grand jury, the state ethics commission and the House. Some of those investigations will most certainly continue through the nine-week legislative session that begins March 3, and temporarily giving up the speakership leaves the House in limbo. The chamber needs strong leadership as it works with the Senate and the governor to address a state budget crisis, a property insurance crisis exacerbated by this week's pull-out by State Farm and other issues. Neither the public nor the Legislature will be well-served by a temporary custodian, Speaker Pro Tem Larry Cretul of Ocala, who was not elected speaker by his peers.
Gov. Charlie Crist, Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach and Florida Republican Party chairman Jim Greer were conspicuously silent as the Sansom scandal grew. Then they released statements Friday commending Sansom for temporarily stepping down. That's too easy. They should encourage their Republican colleagues in the House to meet and choose a new speaker who can serve out Sansom's two-year term.
The most logical solution is to move up Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who is in line to become speaker after the 2010 elections. There may be other options, but it is important to establish clear lines of authority and a leadership team as quickly as possible. There should be a thorough House cleaning in the speaker's office — including removing Sansom's chief of staff, Mike Hansen, who played a role in Sansom's funneling of money to the college.
Sansom's reluctant relinquishing of the speakership is a step in the right direction — but only a step. He can remain a legislator while the investigations proceed, but he should not have a hand in guiding the chamber or any opening to return to the top job. If he will not voluntarily give up all claims to the speakership, House members should remove him and name a successor.