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Districting not the root of all evil

A lot is going to be said in coming months, as the Legislature approaches its 1992 reapportionment, about whether the way Floridians elect their state lawmakers _ one per district _ is at fault for making it seem that they elect so many crummy ones. The lobbyist gift scandals and budget "turkeys" of recent years have created a perception that lawmakers have become less honest and more parochial since the Legislature scrapped multimember districts in 1982. More parochial? Maybe. Less honest? True or not _ and it's probably not _ single-member districts cannot fairly be blamed for it.

As discussed last week, it was not unknown for the sainted legislators of yore to borrow money from lobbyists, sleep with their prostitutes, put mistresses on the payroll, drink in the Capitol building at a bar stocked by the liquor lobby, show up nightly at the mobile home lobby's private steakhouse, coerce state agencies on behalf of private law clients, take kickbacks in the guise of referral fees and send their restaurant checks to lobbyists who hadn't invited them to dinner. Back then, legislators didn't even have to account for any of the gifts they took.

The Leon County Grand Jury has charged that some legislators have been brazen about soliciting meals, trips and other gifts. But former House Speaker Lee Moffitt of Tampa says it's the lobbyists' fault "for not saying no." Moffitt, who now practices law and lobbies, chaired the 1982 House reapportionment committee; single-member districts were his doing. "People tend to point to single-member districts for all the things that they can't otherwise explain," he complains.

"The stuff that is flagrant is new," says Rep. Peter Wallace, D-St. Petersburg, chairman of the present House Reapportionment Committee. "The suggestion that the Legislature used to be pristine and above this avarice, I find particularly hard to believe."

Even former Rep. Marshall Harris of Miami, who opposed single-member districts for fear (which he says has proved true) of parochialism, agrees that the integrity issue is irrelevant. "I don't think it has anything to do with honesty," he says.

Sen. Jack Gordon, D-Miami Beach, chairman of the current Senate reapportionment committee, would hold other factors responsible for any perceived decline in ethics. "I think there's less integrity in the society today than there was 20 years ago," says Gordon. "Part of that is reflected." Gordon also cites the "enormous amounts of money" spent on elections. "We're in a society that thinks more and more that society can buy anything and the pressure on standards is greater." Florida's campaign spending limits were foiled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

One expectation that single-member districts have fulfilled is the diversification of what used to be a white male oligarchy. Among 120 House members in 1982, there were only 12 women, 3 blacks and 1 Hispanic; there were only 4 women and no minorities in the 40-member Senate. Nine years later, there are 20 women, 12 blacks and 8 Hispanics in the House and 2 blacks, 10 women and 4 Hispanics in the Senate.

But the change may have made the Legislature more parochial in the sense that each legislator is now responsible for his or her own constituent service and for bringing money home to the district. Harris notes that large delegations shared the ombudsman and pork barrel duties, which made time available to those who devoted themselves to state issues such as the budget, his specialty.

Yet there are still legislators such as Wallace and Sen. Curt Kiser, R-Palm Harbor, who earn high marks for their attention to statewide issues. But for single-member districts, in fact, Wallace could not have been elected as a Democrat from Pinellas County. And Pinellas, which has had its share of House and Senate minority leaders, would not now be looking forward to Wallace becoming the first House speaker from Pinellas in 1994.

It does appear, though, as if the Legislature neither enjoys nor deserves the respect it had in the glory years following the 1967 court-ordered reapportionment that ended rural rule. That was when the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University ranked Florida's Legislature fourth best in the nation and first in terms of its independence from lobbyists and the executive branch. It owed to historic luck; a bumper crop of enormously talented new members coincided with the election of a loose cannon, Claude Kirk, as governor. The Legislature had to run the state more or less on its own, and it had plenty of enthusiasm and brainpower to apply to the task.

Attrition has since taken its toll. So have the declining stature of institutions generally, the money chase (thanks to that woeful Supreme Court ruling) that has forced many scrupulous people out and the fact that while the Legislature has become essentially a full-time job, the salary has not kept pace. And perhaps some ethical standards have become too strict.

Too strict? More on that later.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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