1. Opinion

Florida political insiders are pessimistic about state's leadership

The Old  Capitol in Tallahassee. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)

The Old Capitol in Tallahassee. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Jan. 8, 2016

IN FLORIDA, EVEN MANY OF THE MOST PLUGGED-IN PLAYERS are deeply pessimistic about the current state of Sunshine State leadership.

The Tampa Bay Times last week surveyed more than 120 prominent lobbyists, former elected officials, political consultants, fundraisers and activists. Some sad highlights of this Florida Insider Poll:

• More than three-fourths don't expect state leaders to address substantively the most important issues facing Florida.

• Almost 7 in 10 do not believe state government effectively deals with Florida's problems.

• Six in 10 think the Legislature is less responsive to citizens than 10 years ago.

"Look at every bill put forward in this upcoming session and you'll see nothing but lobbyist-driven legislation," lamented one Republican. "Very few members of the Legislature have any ideological or constituency-driven legislation. When special interests and lobbyists are enriching themselves, Tallahassee becomes a hub of corporate welfare and the problems of the people quickly take a back seat, or worse, are completely forgotten altogether."

"Term limits have resulted in the election of a significant number of legislators who know nothing, do nothing and learn nothing," said another Tallahassee veteran, a Democrat. "Too many have no real goals and focus on getting publicity rather than actually serving the people. They are termed out before they can learn the real issues and become effective in dealing with real problems. When candidates who have never served a day in their lives announce they are running for speaker of the House before even being elected to a first term, you know the system is broken."

These are unscientific polls. To encourage frank answers, the Times allows anonymous answers by the Florida Insider Poll participants, consisting this month of 63 Republicans, 48 Democrats and 11 people registered to neither major party.

We asked them to name a significant problem facing Florida that Tallahassee leaders have solved in recent years, and received numerous examples: Pulling the state through the grinding recession without raising taxes; fixing problems with electronic voting machines; reforming the prepaid college system; lowering workers' compensation costs for businesses; stabilizing property insurance; improving education accountability and, inversely, scaling back on school testing; and eliminating the intangibles tax.

Still, roughly half of them struggled to name major successes for Florida achieved by their state government.

"Tallahassee politicians courageously faced down the crisis of Floridians only being able to buy beer in 32-ounce single servings and were able to double that to 64 ounces for the public good," quipped one Democrat.

"Every 'major' issue that's been resolved was driven by business groups," a Republican said. "It's time for the Legislature to truly represent the needs of Floridians."

Republicans have held the governor's office and both legislative chambers for more than 15 years. Naturally our Republican insiders were considerably less gloomy than the Democrats. "Our Legislature is rapidly becoming dysfunctional. You get the impression from our leadership that our single-biggest problem is over-taxation," a Democrat said.

From another: "Unfortunately the only significant problems that Tallahassee leaders solve are the problems of special interest groups. In 2014, when the people voted to utilize funds to protect our environment, our Legislature placed money in the hands of farmers for water farming (the very group responsible for some of our pollution), funded sewage projects and sidewalks. Another example of them protecting special interests rather than middle-class Floridians is the use of public education funds towards charter schools."

Fifty-six percent of the Republicans said state government is effectively dealing with Florida's problems, while just one of the 46 Democrats said so. Still, that's hardly a ringing GOP endorsement from the Republicans who keenly follow (or shape) the governance of America's third-biggest state.

"Without a strong leader who possesses a positive vision of the future, politics and policy will be decided by self-interest: 'How will this change benefit me?' Neither Republicans or Democrats have provided the quality of leadership this state desperately needs and deserves," said one Republican.

Another pointed to legislative term limits: "Term limits will come to be recognized as the single-worst thing that could have ever happened to state politics in Florida. It has attracted less than qualified individuals to run for office, and has made worthy public servants slaves to political contributions. It's all about the money and fundraising these days, not the strength of your policy positions, and that is sad to be a witness to."

Asked to identify the most important issue or issues facing Florida, the economy was most frequently mentioned, followed by education and the environment — including rising sea levels and Florida's water supply. Health care — improving access or coming to grips with Medicaid costs — was also cited repeatedly.

Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg contributed to this report.