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Readers' smart ideas for fixing the broken Florida Legislature

In last Sunday's Perspective section, I argued that the Florida Legislature is "historically bad" and no longer capable of governing our state wisely. I proposed bottom-up changes to our system and invited readers to make their own suggestions.

The response was swift, intelligent, enthusiastic — and sometimes surprising. One recurring theme, for example, was that Florida needs a full-time, professional Legislature with higher salaries and longer terms!

My four proposals:

• Fair districts for legislators, instead of districts drawn to protect incumbents and minimize competition. A group called Fair Districts Florida (www.fairdistrictsflorida.org) is petitioning for exactly that.

• "Honest money" contributed directly to candidates and fully disclosed to the public, instead of being hidden and shuffled among mysterious campaign committees that disguise the source.

• Term limits of 12 years instead of eight, to give legislators — especially in the House — a chance to develop judgment and independence instead of falling in line obediently to the Tallahassee machine.

• More accountability back home at election time, with citizens, private-sector groups and the media holding incumbents directly accountable for the decisions the Legislature makes.

In reply, the single most common theme voiced by readers was a demand for more, and more accessible, information about what the Legislature does.

"What we need," reader Pete Edwards wrote, "is a Web site that graphically depicts Florida government. . . . Bills should have a history of their passage and could be connected to newspaper and Internet articles that reference them."

Dr. Edward H. Stein of Tampa agreed: "One important thing your newspaper could do would be always to publish bill numbers. . . . If the bill numbers are included with the article or editorial, it is much more possible to write to a representative or a senator, or to the governor, regarding that matter.

"It also would be extremely helpful," Stein added, "if after the more important bills are voted on, the SPT would list, even in small-type font, the way local legislators voted."

Robert Eschenfelder added: "Why can't the Times run an ongoing listing, both in print and on its Web site, of all the donors to candidates, officials, and 527s controlled by the officials?

"Then, to further educate the readers who may not connect the dots, let them know the probable reason why the big donors gave what they gave. Sexy? Not in the least, but if newspapers/outlets are to continue to have a legitimate claim to be the 'guardians of democracy' they need to step up on things like this."

I agree with these sentiments. The Legislature's own Web sites (www.flsenate.gov, www.myfloridahouse.com) are difficult to use, better for insiders than for a general audience. I believe our Tallahassee outfit these days is doing an outstanding job — in fact, in our new partnership with the Miami Herald, better than ever. The newspapers can't possibly print all the roll-call votes and campaign contributions. However, we could certainly print more of them — it should be automatic on the big issues — and there's a lot of work left to be done on the Internet.

The second-most common theme from the readers was that Florida needs a professional, full-time Legislature, with salaries that attract qualified people to the job, and longer terms to combat the never-ending grab for campaign money.

"This is a full-time job — legislating for nearly 18 million people. Treat it like one," wrote David Raphael Smith of Fort Lauderdale. "Make it possible for most people to serve."

Pat Rosseway wrote that a 60-day annual session "may have been fine back in the day when there were fewer full-time residents, and less business, but this state is too big now for the small-time stuff if we are to be taking care of our current population and environment and at the same time, be taken seriously by the rest of the world."

Several readers suggested, in concert with the idea of a 12-year term limit, that individual terms for the state House be increased from two years to three years.

Hugh M. Marthinsen of Tampa explained: "This means the politician does not have to spend the second half of a two-year term in campaign mode and it saves money for the public as well as meaningless election campaign rhetoric."

Some of the other suggestions included:

• Making the Legislature comply — no, really — with the state's "sunshine" laws, requiring decisions and deliberations to be made in public. Ab-so-dad-gummed-lute-ly.

• Creating some sort of citizen "grading system" or screening process for candidates. (I am tempted to say that we have one called the "ballot box," but it has not been entirely effective.)

• Adding a binding, "none of the above" option to election ballots.

• Showing which candidates on the ballot are incumbents. (Ironically, the thinking used to be that this gave the insiders an unfair advantage — these days, incumbents are just as likely to want to lie low.)

• Changing our expectations for candidate debates, making them true exchanges of rival ideas and pointed follow-ups instead of the delivery of pat, prepared answers.

• Moving the state Capitol from Tallahassee, which is too far away from most citizens. I agree wholeheartedly — there's always been a weird psychological isolation up there — but the expense would be enormous.

As I said last week, here's hoping this is the beginning of a conversation. Hearing from so many people with deep feelings about their state government gave me a feeling not always common in discussions about the Florida Legislature — hope.

Howard Troxler can be reached at htroxler@ sptimes.com.

Readers' smart ideas for fixing the broken Florida Legislature 05/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 6:45pm]

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