For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans control the Florida Legislature. It is a historic occasion, a political milestone that one day may be viewed as the point where the state turned in a new direction. That doesn't mean anyone should expect an abrupt change in course. This should be an evolution, not a revolution.
Tuesday's election solidified the Republicans' control of the Senate, where they now hold 23 of 40 seats. More significantly, the defeat of two incumbent Democrats enabled Republicans to win the slimmest of majorities in the House, 61 of 120 seats. That means for the first time this century there will be a Republican House speaker, Dan Webster of Orlando. It also means Republicans will hold chairmanships, control the flow of legislation and sit in the front of the House instead of the back.
Florida's pressing needs, though, are the same. The state's tax structure is inadequate. Too many classrooms are overcrowded, and too many students do not have textbooks. Health care remains unavailable and unaffordable for many Floridians. The safety net of social services is frayed, and campaign finance reform needs to be tackled before 1998.
Any significant accomplishments will be achieved only through sincere bipartisan cooperation. Actually, that has been true for several years. As the House Republican leader, Webster regularly met with outgoing Speaker Peter Wallace of St. Petersburg to set priorities. Gone are the days when a speaker had enough votes to single-handedly dictate the fate of every bill and amendment. That is not a bad development.
While conservative, Webster is no Newt Gingrich. He is a thoughtful lawmaker who rarely raises his voice and understands that a radical agenda in Tallahassee would trigger a backlash just as it did in Washington. He is comfortable working with Democrats. Webster's biggest challenge now will be to fight off efforts by some overzealous Republicans who see an opening to restrict abortion and create publicly funded vouchers that students could use to attend private schools. Moderate Republicans such as Rep. Sandy Safley of Clearwater could help him avoid such mistakes.
Before the election, Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles predicted he would face "a long, sort of useless two years" if Republicans won control of both the House and Senate. The Republicans won, and the lame-duck governor may be tempted to spend the rest of his term hunting birds instead of legislative compromises. If Chiles is to leave any lasting legacy, he will have to learn to work with Republican legislators on the issues that matter to all Floridians.