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The Legislature that knows no tomorrows

It is often said of the Florida Legislature that most of them cannot see beyond the next election. The real problem is that they can't see even see that far. Why should they, when they don't have to?

The way the districts are rigged, only one incumbent in 10 _ if that many _ will have any serious opposition. If they ran horse races that way, the perps would go to jail.

So long as legislators keep the lobbies and the leadership happy (it is sometimes hard to tell which is which) the campaign ends when they file. In other words, before it begins.

This is true in nearly every state, regardless of party. There is more real democracy in some Third World countries.

For Florida legislators, the meaningful event horizon is not necessarily the next election, but the one at which their term limits expire. For most, this gives them eight years. For reasons not worth explaining here, some senators can serve 10.

They're gone long before the vultures come home to roost.

There was a decent turnover rate long before voters bit on the term limit gimmick in 1992. Most legislators left, voluntarily or otherwise, before 10 years. Among those remaining there was a collective wisdom and sense of responsibility that Florida could not afford to lose. It was worth putting up with the few, like W.D. Childers, who stayed too long.

Conspiracy theorists could find more than coincidence in the fact that the instigator of term limits, Phil Handy, is now one of the key figures in an administration whose apparent goal is to privatize half the government and neuter what's left. Throughout the country, term limits were the tool of people who wanted to see government weak and special interests strong. A weak Legislature _ the predictable consequence of term limits _ is exactly the ticket if one's ultimate goal is, as Jeb Bush boasted at his second inauguration, to leave state buildings standing empty.

I have heard some people say that it was remarkable that so shortsighted a Legislature was willing to vote more than $310-million for an investment, the Scripps Institute, that is unlikely to bear measurable fruit (if it ever does) until after these legislators are gone. Can it mean that for once the Legislature did look beyond the next election?

Not necessarily. If the Scripps vote turns out to be worthy of blame, not credit, who'll still be around to bear it? No one. That made what should have been a tough vote an easy one, and what made it even easier was the fear _ among those few who might have competitive campaigns _ of how Governor Gimmick would bash them in the media, which he commands, if they turned down the glittery prize he had brought back from California.

Medical research is, of course, a good investment for any government to make. But it is a gross inversion of priorities to invest so much money through a nonpublic corporation, even one that is nonprofit, at the same time Florida is starving its existing universities and colleges. While we fund Scripps, junior colleges in this fast-aging state are turning away nursing students. Scripps is free to pick up and leave whenever it pleases the spoiled scientific darlings who insisted that no place but Palm Beach County suited their California-style tastes. Our universities, on the other hand, are here for as long as the state is. Or so one hopes. What higher education will get from Scripps is ambiguous at best, given that it is within an easy commute of none of our research universities.

Florida could afford both Scripps and a healthy university system. The Legislature would have voted for both, if we had a governor who wanted both. Big things happen only when there is a governor willing to lead. Why this one cares so little for higher education is a tragic mystery.

There is some good news from Tallahassee. Tom Lee, the next Senate president, wants a constitutional amendment to require legislators to write a five-year financial plan and update it annually. Just like any sensible business does. Congress already does this, and some Florida Democrats had a similar idea, to which nobody paid attention, last session. The nice twist to Lee's plan is that the governor can't veto constitutional amendments and subsequent legislatures cannot easily ignore them. But they also require three-fifths in each house, not just a simple majority, as well as voter approval. The last part would be the easier.

The last time there was equivalent vision in Tallahassee, the Legislature under Gov. Lawton Chiles set up a tiny agency called the GAP Commission _ Government Accountability to the People _ to establish goals and see how they are met from year to year. There were some 270 of these benchmarks. How many kids are graduating? How many, like the 11-year-old cancer patient my colleague Howard Troxler wrote about the other day, have no health insurance? The last GAP report was in 1996. As soon as the Republicans took over, they defunded it.

The governor and the House _ but to its credit, not the Senate _ have opted for budgeting systems that make it nearly impossible to tell how well, or how poorly, the state is caring for its people and managing its finances from one year to the next. Ed Montanaro, who quit as the Legislature's chief economic forecaster before Johnnie Byrd could drag him to the guillotine, brilliantly calls it "faith-based budgeting." It is deficit spending (which the Constitution forbids) by stealth. Florida is by official policy the land of no tomorrows.