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A prophecy fulfilled

A speaker of the Maryland House of Representatives some years ago was supposed to have said that his members had only two things on their minds: reapportionment and racehorses.

Lucky Maryland. At least they cared about the horses.

The large majority of Florida's legislators appear to have absolutely nothing on their minds right now but safe districts and campaign contributions.

Lobbyists control most contributions. This is why the bill to discourage tobacco sales to minors didn't move an inch in the Senate last week.

It's why bills to open or renew tax loopholes (e.g., gambling ships) are rolling while bills to repeal them aren't.

It's why no comprehensive health care reforms are given much chance this year.

Where have all the heroes gone?

That question was brought to mind the other day by an envelope of clippings from the late 1960s and early '70s _ the so-called "golden age" of Florida's Legislature, freshly liberated from decades of malapportioned rural rule.

One of its products was a new Constitution, replacing one that had been much amended since 1885.

The Legislature passed it on July 3, 1968, with only a handful of members in opposition. Among them was state Sen. Louis de la Parte Jr., D-Tampa, who was disappointed that the compromise product put off court reform, left the voting age at 21 and continued the ban on an income tax that had been added to the old Constitution in 1924.

"Do we have the wherewithal to finance our schools?" de la Parte asked during the closing debate. "We can all say we're for quality education, but we've done nothing in the Constitution to let the Legislature handle it properly and fairly."

Colleagues with whom he rarely differed were on the other side that day. Among them was a young senator from Lakeland, Lawton Chiles. The faded clipping tells how de la Parte turned to face him and said, "I'm sorry that they feel in their hearts that this is the best we can do."

His prediction that sales and property taxes would have to be raised again and again came true. Florida has one of the nation's most unfair _ and inadequate _ tax structures. As for the schools next year, the Senate is proposing $40 per pupil less and the House $105 less per pupil than this year. Pinellas County is considering such drastic options as eliminating elementary school music and art.

Chiles, as governor, must be wishing he had listened to de la Parte way back then. The budget is so inadequate he has sworn to veto it, but he can't take it for granted that the veto will be sustained. Though the income tax is still "a mountain I'm not prepared to climb," Chiles is asking for other long-range tax reforms, including a broad repeal of exemptions, that would get Florida halfway there. Taxing lawyers' services, for example, is the next best thing to taxing their income. But even those would have to get through the Legislature first, and it is made up entirely too much of people who care about nothing except the next election.

De la Parte is no longer in the Legislature. By his choice. He was unopposed in his next and last campaign despite the principled and potentially unpopular stand he had taken on the income tax.

"You expected that out of a Lou de la Parte, and I mean that in the most complimentary of ways," says former Sen. Tom Slade of Jacksonville, a conservative Republican who often disagreed with de la Parte.

"A Lou de la Parte is a little bit akin to where I perceive a modern-day Paul Tsongas to be; you could expect whatever was in his heart to cross his mouth without consideration of the political consequences, and there were more than a few Lou de la Partes in the Legislature at that time," Slade says.

"One of the major differences today versus 25 years ago is you don't have the selflessness that existed in a fair number of people who served in the Legislature at that time."

Slade is a member of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission which has the power to put an income tax amendment on the November ballot and may do so. But the best moment may have been the one the Legislature missed 24 years ago.

For a variety of reasons, including the strategies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush to paint government as the people's enemy instead of their collective self, the public's confidence in government is dangerously low. So is its confidence in the economy. That's a bad climate for any new tax.

I asked Slade if he wished he had voted with de la Parte.

"I don't know," he said. "That may have been the appropriate time to do it if you were ever going to do it. There is a great deal of merit, in my opinion, to providing the Legislature the flexibility to tailor a tax structure that is truly equitable. The problem is that no one trusts the Legislature.

"And I'm not sure that I do. In fact, I'm reasonably sure that I don't."

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