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  1. Florida Politics

Painful lessons for a troubled Florida Legislature

Reps. Richard Corcoran, R- Land O Lakes, and Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, huddle on the floor of the Florida House before the House left for the regular session in 2015. The body declared Sine Die for the session without agreeing on a state budget. (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
Reps. Richard Corcoran, R- Land O Lakes, and Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, huddle on the floor of the Florida House before the House left for the regular session in 2015. The body declared Sine Die for the session without agreeing on a state budget. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Jan. 8, 2016

TALLAHASSEE

The Florida Legislature made history in 2015 for all the wrong reasons.

In a year that was defined by dysfunction at the state Capitol, the House violated the state Constitution by shutting its doors prematurely. Senators later admitted they defied the will of the people by drawing districts to save their own careers at the expense of fair districts that the Constitution demands.

Sharply divided over whether to expand health care, lawmakers nearly failed to execute their one prescribed duty, passing a budget. When they did, it was bloated with hometown spending that Gov. Rick Scott swiftly rejected.

Environmental groups filed lawsuits, accusing the Legislature of thumbing its nose at voters over how to enact the wildly popular land and water initiative, Amendment 1.

Three special sessions later, as unresolved legal skirmishes over redistricting still reverberated in the courts, lawmakers were vilified as arrogant and out of touch, and some said they deserved it.

"A good old-fashioned ass-whipping," says Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

They start fresh Tuesday in an unusually early election-year session. We'll soon find out if the debacle of 2015 was an aberration or the new normal in Tallahassee.

Lawmakers, lobbyists and observers see systemic problems that are bad for Florida democracy. What follows are five areas of concern: term limits, redistricting, special interest money, the lobbyist gift ban and the use of a public office as a springboard to private wealth.

Reforming any one of the five would make a difference, but change in Tallahassee comes very slowly, if at all.

TERM LIMITS

Republicans led the charge to reduce political power by limiting terms of legislators to eight years in the same office, but many call it a disaster. They say it has empowered seasoned staffers and lobbyists, while creating an assembly line of shortsighted politicians filled with ambition but lacking real-world wisdom and insight.

"If I could change one thing, it would be term limits," says Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, "But it will never happen, and the reality is, most people think we should be here only for about six months."

Six months is all it takes for a young and restless House member to start chasing a Senate seat. The House is a farm system for future senators, and rookie House members facing the eight-year clock become locked in distracting, time-wasting fights for future power, before casting a single vote.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, are sponsoring legislation to extend term limits from eight to 12 years, subject to voter approval. But it stands little chance, especially in an election year, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, a future House speaker, demands that the eight-year limit be kept as is.

"Term limits has been a drastic improvement over the old system," Corcoran says. He wants to extend term limits to appeals court judges, too.

The real problem in Corcoran's view is that too few legislators have specific policy agendas, so they take marching orders from lobbyists instead.

REDISTRICTING REFORM

Political power in Tallahassee is linked to reapportionment, the once-a-decade changes to congressional and legislative districts to reflect changes in the population.

In Florida, as in most states, legislators have zealously defended their self-interest in creating districts, even as Florida voters see fewer competitive legislative races every two years.

Democrats did it that way for more than a century. Republicans followed suit, but ran afoul of two "fair districts" provisions that voters added to the Constitution in 2010 making it illegal to create districts tilted to favor parties or incumbents.

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, is the latest champion of taking redistricting from lawmakers and giving it to an outside group — an idea that Democrats embraced soon after they fell out of power two decades ago.

"That's the key," Dudley says. "Without it, people's votes become diluted. They become very cynical and angry."

Adding to the cynicism, Dudley says, is that voters see illegal behavior by the Legislature that violates the Constitution, but "there are no repercussions. No penalties."

Under Dudley's bill (HB 993), the state auditor general would appoint private citizens to a panel to draw congressional and legislative districts every decade after a new census. His proposal would require changing the Florida Constitution, subject to approval of 60 percent of voters in a general election.

After more than $8 million in legal fees charged to taxpayers and harsh recriminations from Supreme Court justices, the next House speaker, Corcoran, agrees it may be time for the Legislature to surrender control of redistricting to a third party.

As speaker in 2017, Corcoran will have nine appointments to Florida's Constitution Revision Commission, a powerful 37-member panel with the power to propose such changes directly to voters in the 2018 election.

THE POWER OF MONEY

Money dominates the conversation in Tallahassee, and voters' cries of protest can be drowned out by a tidal wave of money from special interests.

Every lawmaker has a re-election campaign, but that's only the beginning, because donations are limited to $1,000, chump change in today's political culture. As a result, many lawmakers also control separate political committees, or PCs — accounts that some use as a piggy bank for meals and travel. PCs can take unlimited donations, making them magnets for supersized special interest donations, and that has increased the allure of big money.

The two combatants in the recently ended Senate power struggle, Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Joe Negron of Stuart, raised a combined $8 million over three years, most of it from interests having a stake in legislation.

With courts equating campaign contributions to protected speech, virtually no one is calling for limits on fundraising. On the contrary, Corcoran wants to lift caps on donations and require immediate disclosure of every dollar raised.

Let a casino give a legislator $1 million, he says, but it has to be disclosed right away.

"People can infer what they want," he says.

Lawmakers can't accept money during the regular 60-day session. As a result, periodic committee meeting weeks have become fundraising marathons and lobbyists and clients are pursued relentlessly for trips to ball games, golf outings and junkets to Disney World.

"You have to solicit dollars and set up times to land those contributions. You have to send thank-you notes. Phone calls, meetings," Lee says. "In a part-time Legislature, that's a real added commitment."

The one thing that can trump money is votes. The most obvious way to limit the reach of money is for a lavishly funded legislator — or two or three — to be crushed by an avalanche of ballots cast for reform-minded opponents, like something from a Frank Capra movie. Not likely.

THE GIFT BAN

New Year's Day marked a decade since the Legislature decreed that its members can't take anything of value from a lobbyist — not even a bottle of water — in response to a widely held perception that legislators were too beholden to lobbyists' credit cards.

The gift ban has survived repeated attempts to weaken or repeal it, but some who voted for it say it made the Capitol a colder and more distant place because a time-honored tradition of the lobbyist-paid lunch is extinct.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, envisioned 20 or 30 lawmakers on a back porch, a pot of chili simmering nearby, and people nurturing friendships that transcend the transactional differences of the moment.

"I could never get that going," Gaetz says. "I think we miss that."

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, recalled "wonderful Wednesdays" of fried chicken and camaraderie shared on picnic tables at a family restaurant near the Capitol.

"You got to know people. It was more collegial," Detert says. "Once you break up that collegiality, it's more of an us-against-them atmosphere."

Lee, who was Senate president when the House made the gift ban a take-it-or-leave-it condition to a lobbyist fee-disclosure bill, says it was the right decision, and that it cleaned up what was a "cesspool" at the Capitol of lobbyists wining and dining elected officials constantly.

"I certainly wouldn't want to go backwards," Lee says.

'MONETIZING' A TRUST

In Tallahassee, "monetizing" refers to the long-accepted practice of legislators emerging from obscurity to parlay a public office into a six-figure salary at a hospital, college, law firm or other entity dependent on legislative goodwill if not state money.

It's common, and it's not illegal. But it breeds cynicism in the halls of the Capitol even among legislators themselves as it blurs the distinction between public trust and private gain.

At the same time, some legislators use the levers of power to forge alliances with lobbyists in hopes of cashing in and becoming lobbyists after they leave office, using the knowledge and expertise gained on the inside to become wealthy on the outside. It happens in Washington all the time, and Tallahassee insiders like the model.

Corcoran has proposed a ban on legislators taking jobs at entities that get state money and from taking appointed government jobs for six years after they leave office, to avoid "padding their pensions."

Referring to the revolving door of influence, Corcoran also wants to extend the existing two-year ban on lobbying by former lawmakers to six years after they leave office.

"Left to our own devices, we will choose self-interest to the detriment of the institution," Corcoran says.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.