1. Florida Politics

For a Better Florida: Romano says welcome back to the lamest show on earth

Except for the big floppy shoes and red noses there are many similarities between the world-famous Clown Alley of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Florida House.
Except for the big floppy shoes and red noses there are many similarities between the world-famous Clown Alley of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Florida House.
Published Mar. 3, 2017

In these, the final days of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it is helpful to point out that you need not wear a bright orange wig and a red nose to have the heart of a clown.

You need only be elected to the Florida House of Representatives.

Yes, in this case, it is the sideshow that never ends. How many clowns can you squeeze into a Volkswagen? Not as many as you can get to sponsor a gun bill in the Florida House.

So when your Northern relatives tease you about living in Florida among the nation's largest tribe of whack jobs, just explain it to them thusly:

We come by it honestly.

It's true, we're a top-down organization here in Florida. The House speaker sets the agenda, his 119 henchmen follow in their big, floppy shoes and the rest of us stare in wide-eyed amazement.

And it is not a question of conservative principles versus progressive ideals. That's just personal philosophies. This is a matter of extraneous bills. Pandering. Lobbyist- and special interest-generated legislation. And just plain zany ideas.

For instance:

• It was bad enough Florida passed a law prohibiting doctors from inquiring about gun safety — a law recently overturned by a federal appeals court — but the original House version called for physicians to be jailed and fined up to $5 million for expressing concern about children and psychiatric patients.

• When Publix was sued because a dry cleaner in one of its shopping centers had contaminated neighboring properties with deadly chemicals, the grocer got a state representative to write a bill that would forbid future lawsuits. The legislator, by the way, worked for a law firm representing Publix.

• A bill written by insurance lobbyists would have allowed employers to offer health coverage with $25,000 lifetime limits that wouldn't cover mammograms, vasectomies and emergency care, among other things, and wouldn't have to specify what was covered. Insurance lobbyists spoke in support of the bill during a House committee, but ordinary citizens were told there was no time left for them to speak.

• Passing a law that would allow Pop Tarts to be eaten into the shape of guns, repealing a dwarf-tossing ban, forcing Bright Futures scholarship recipients to remain in Florida after graduation, a Bill of Rights for conservative college students, teacher bonuses based on decades-old SAT scores and a bill packing the state Supreme Court are just a handful of other recent bright ideas.

Again, these are not partisan issues. They're not a philosophical debate about the best way to expand health coverage. These are usually selfish issues. Ideas that are important only to a select few with the political willpower to put them in motion.

And it's not like the House has a monopoly on nonsense. The Senate has its moments, as well. But, more often than not, it's the Senate we count on to rescue us from the House's extremes.

Even House members recognize this. They pass some absurd bill knowing that it will be killed or watered down in the Senate, but it provides them political cover for their constituents or donors.

It is partly the nature of the institution (120 seats lead to more partisan districts) and the huge disparity in numbers (Republicans have a 79-41 advantage this session) that leads to more reckless legislation.

Because he controls everything from campaign purse strings to parking spaces, and since he's in no danger of losing any floor votes, the House speaker wields an enormous amount of power.

"When I was pushing for the Senate plan for Medicaid expansion, I had a lot of Republican House members coming up to me saying they wished they could support it, but they just couldn't,'' said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who served 10 years in the Senate and eight in the House as a Republican. "They didn't want to get on the wrong side of leadership.''

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, spent eight years in the House before joining the Senate for this session. He said the differences are already evident, from smaller committee numbers to a greater willingness to listen to alternative views.

"Leadership in the House is untouchable,'' Rouson said. "It can make you jaded pretty quickly.''

Still, Rouson said many House members truly believe they are representing the conservative values of their districts. For that reason, he said, they do not deserve ridicule.

I disagree.

There's a difference between philosophical disagreements and the kind of ridiculous, grandstanding and unnecessary bills we've seen for years. So is it offensive to compare the House to a circus act? I hope so.

Because nothing else seems to embarrass them.