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The House-Senate imbalance

Only in the loosest sense could it be said that Florida's 160 state legislators "won" the seats for which they will take their oaths of office today in ceremonies at Tallahassee. Most got them essentially for the asking; effective competition was the exception, not the rule.

Only 14 primary or general election contests could reasonably be called close. Fully 60 percent of the senators and nearly as many House members had not even the pretense of effective competition at any point. These included 19 senators (out of 40) who had no ballot opposition and 56 House members who were either unopposed at the outset or faced only token opposition from Libertarians. Meanwhile, 20 so-called House "races" were won by landslides of 60 percent or more.

Much has been said of the fact that the Democrats are now as outnumbered in the Legislature as the Republicans used to be, but this wouldn't matter if the winners, whatever their parties, hadn't been able to take the voters so much for granted. Their gratitude owes instead to the gerrymandering that made so many districts safe for one party or the other, and to the special interests that bet their campaign contributions on the candidates they surmised would win. To a startling extent, the voters long ago lost their power to choose their legislators. Now, their legislators choose them.

Another characteristic is the unhealthy influence of the term-limit initiative voters adopted 10 years ago. As Speaker-designate Johnnie Byrd phrased it last week, the House has become something of an "entry-level legislature." Counting 28 true freshmen (two more have served before) and 56 members who are starting only their second terms, the House remains markedly inexperienced in comparison to the Senate. Of the 14 newly elected senators, only one is a true freshman. Twelve previously served in the House, which gave them the incumbents' advantage as far as the lobbies were concerned, and another is a former senator who returned without opposition.

It shouldn't be necessary for a citizen to serve an apprenticeship in the House before running for the Senate. Some of Florida's best senators have gone there directly from private life, among them Rules Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and former Sens. Jack Latvala and Don Sullivan of Pinellas County, Republicans who were forced out by term limits this year. Florida will be the poorer if fewer such people go to the Senate in the future.

The House-Senate imbalance will continue to assert itself so long as term-limited House members find themselves with nowhere to go but the Senate. One unintended consequence of term limits (though voters were warned) is that they amount to free passes for legislators who haven't exhausted their eight-year quotas. Why run against an incumbent who will have to vacate the office in two or four years anyway?

The new House is more experienced than the last, in which fully half the members were new, but the lesson learned by too many of last year's freshmen was that they were expected to follow orders. It is true that it takes a firm hand to keep order among any group of 120 politicians, but that should apply only to the procedure, not the results. What Florida wants to know of the 56 returning sophomores, especially the Republicans, is whether they are ready now to think for themselves.