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  1. Florida Politics

Majority rules? Not in Tallahassee

Published Mar. 23, 2013

Somewhere along the line, they stopped caring what you think.

They would never admit this. In fact, they often spout the opposite.

But it's hard to come to any other conclusion when you consider how legislators in Florida consistently ignore the voices of those they supposedly serve.

You think that's overstated?

Let's start with the Quinnipiac poll released last week. This well-respected, independent polling service revealed that 91 percent of Floridians favor universal background checks for gun purchases. Among actual gun owners, it was 88 percent.

To put that in context, I'm not sure you can get 90 percent of Floridians to agree that April should follow March on the calendar.

So it's safe to say there is overwhelming evidence that lawmakers should be looking into this idea of universal background checks.

Yet what has our Legislature done? Next to nothing.

A bill on this topic was introduced weeks ago and hasn't even gotten enough traction for a committee hearing. Which is not so different from last year. Or the year before.

"It's almost like, at times, Tallahassee legislators and the executive branch are living in their own little world,'' said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "They're not hearing what people back home are asking them to do.''

Not convinced? Then consider Medicaid expansion.

Two different polls conducted in February showed about 62 percent of Florida residents were in favor of expansion. An amendment on the ballot in November also indicated a majority of residents supported the Affordable Care Act.

Even Gov. Rick Scott, one of the nation's loudest critics of Obamacare, looked at the polls and understood the need to support Medicaid expansion.

Yet legislators in the House and Senate voted against it. Instead they have taken it upon themselves to find some alternative form of health insurance.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated examples.

You've got lawmakers who, year after year, take up the cause of for-profit charter school companies despite resistance from groups as mainstream as the Florida PTA.

Last year, the Legislature heard opposition from the students, the faculty, the Board of Governors and the senator representing the district involved, and still decided to turn USF Polytechnic into an independent university.

You had a handful of legislators trying to sneak prison privatization through a back door in 2011. You have a poll suggesting 70 percent of Floridians have a favorable view of medicinal marijuana, but even the current sponsor of a bill doubts it will go anywhere.

Not exactly the picture of representative government, eh?

"Absolutely, this has become a bigger problem in the last 10 years,'' said Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, who was in the Legislature from 2000-10.

Justice and Fasano point to legislative gerrymandering as one of the likely causes. Districts have been drawn in such loaded fashion that lawmakers don't have to worry what the average Florida resident thinks, just the likely voters in their custom-made districts.

This means they're more concerned about primary challenges in their own party than a general election. And that makes them less likely to buck party leadership.

"If you don't think that impacts how legislators vote, you're mistaken,'' said Justice. "The districts are drawn in more extreme ways than in previous cycles. My (old Senate) district goes from Treasure Island to Tampa. There is simply no reason for that."

You might also thank special interest groups that wield outsized influence. A thumbs-down from the National Rifle Association, for instance, can keep legislators awake at night. Not to mention the impact of campaign contributions from corporate interests.

"The special interests have more pull in Tallahassee today than ever before,'' Fasano said.

It's also worth considering the idea of safety in numbers. While Scott has been busy changing his views in recent months to reflect public opinion polls, it's much easier for individual legislators to hide in the weeds.

Now I'm obviously generalizing here. There are still some legislators who care deeply about the opinions of their constituents. Those lawmakers are just harder to find.

Instead we have politicians who will say whatever is necessary to get elected, and then do whatever they please once they have a place in Tallahassee.

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