The state Legislature's revolving door has a new face — 35 to be exact. That's how many freshmen just joined the 120-member state House of Representatives. Seven new senators also were sworn in last Tuesday but all are seasoned legislators, having served in the House.
"It's extremely exciting," said Rep. Lake Ray, 52, a freshman Republican from Jacksonville who served for eight years as a city council member.
"It's hard to put all the faces with all of the names yet," said Rep. Seth McKeel, 33, a Lakeland Republican starting his second term, who looks like a grizzled veteran next to all of his freshman colleagues.
The class of 2008 arrives at a perilous time. The aftershocks of the economic crunch have led to huge budget shortfalls that have put enormous stress on the budgets of the state and the local governments it supports.
Even after billions of dollars in spending cuts, the current budget is more than $2-billion in the hole, and next year's projected shortfall is as much as $5-billion.
Contrary to perception, most state legislators are not lawyers. In fact, nine new House members work as mortgage brokers, real estate agents or other jobs tied to the state's severely weakened real estate market — a fact sure to affect debates over how to bolster the economy.
The first official news for the freshmen isn't quite what they expected: The budget is so tight that legislative leaders have shut down the process for seeking state money for hometown projects such as parks, libraries and storm water improvements.
The latest crop of newcomers continues a trend begun in 2000 when the "eight is enough" term limits law first began to impact the political system. That year more than half of the House turned over, and the change has only barely slowed since.
Florida voters in 1992 supported term limits so overwhelmingly that legislators ever since have been fearful of tinkering with the eight-year limit.
Constant turnover brings fresh blood and enthusiasm but saps the Capitol of institutional knowledge that helps in grappling with challenges that face education, health care, transportation and criminal justice.
One of the 35 freshmen doesn't know it yet, but he or she is likely to be the speaker of the House in the 2014-2016 term. The jockeying for that plum post is already well under way, even though the freshmen haven't even cast their first votes.
A byproduct of term limits is that lawmakers start in the House, then move to the Senate if there's an opening. That allows a legislator to serve up to 18 years. (Senate terms are staggered, so some senators serve 10 years.)
Not surprisingly, many newcomers favor the term limits law that hastened their arrival.
"I don't believe we should be career politicians," said Rep. Ray, an eighth-generation Floridian. As exciting as his swearing-in was Tuesday, "It should only be a part-time opportunity," Ray said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.