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Legislators have little to fear

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Perspective Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 26, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- By the way Florida legislators voted this year, one could think they didn't care about coming back. In fact, most do. The truth is that they thought they had nothing to fear.

TALLAHASSEE -- By the way Florida legislators voted this year, one could think they didn't care about coming back. In fact, most do. The truth is that they thought they had nothing to fear.

How did they show their love for the people? Let us count just a few of the ways.

They gave corporations a $262-million tax break knowing that they were not going to re-enact the popular pre-school sales tax holiday for Florida families. When they finally grasped how that would look, the House tried to cover its tracks by passing the sales-tax bill anyway. They amended it, however, to set the tax holiday just before the November election.

Only 21 (out of 160) voted against the bill to let local telephone companies charge more to all households and small businesses. Customers who make many long-distance calls supposedly would break even or come out ahead, but the bill did not guarantee that.

They passed a multisubject health bill allowing a 50 percent premium increase to self-employed policyholders. To protect that part of the deal, the bill came to the House floor with a ban on amendments. Only 38 members, all of them Democrats, voted against the gag rule. On final passage, only 27 House members (and no senators) voted against the bill.

Reversing a historic reform of 30 years ago, they voted to make it more difficult for environmental organizations and neighborhood groups to challenge development permits. Knowing that this couldn't survive on its own, they put it into the Everglades restoration bill. Sure enough, Gov. Jeb Bush signed it.

This collective mischief entailed at least six key roll call votes. Only two legislators swam against the tide all six times. They were House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, the minority leader pro tem.

The telephone "rebalancing" bill was a bipartisan scandal. There reportedly was an understanding that neither party would exploit the other's rate-gouging record in attack ads this fall. State Democratic headquarters tacitly confirmed that by explaining awkwardly that the bill "wasn't our issue." Obviously it wasn't. The real question: Why not?

The answer, as everyone knows, is that for the telecommunications industry, politics is an investment. Since 1996, companies interested in the bill have contributed more than $5-million to campaign accounts. Though the lion's share, some $2.7-million, has gone to the Republican Party in the form of soft money, the Democratic Party's share, some $944,000, is hardly negligible. Few individual legislators have been left out. Of the 180 currently serving, only 50 have reported no money that could be linked to this bill.

Meanwhile, more than 100 telephone lobbyists were doing what lobbyists do to bewitch their prey. As they do not have to report who wines and dines whom, one can only guess how much steak, lobster and liquor greased the way.

The clincher, though, was the widespread belief that Bush would not veto the bill. He vetoed it nonetheless, leaving the legislators and lobbyists to mutter ever so softly about being double crossed.

But of course whatever deal the parties may have made is not binding on individual candidates, and especially not in the primaries. A challenger who doesn't denounce the phone bill should be presumed to support it. So should any candidate, incumbent or not, who doesn't sign a pledge to sustain the veto.

Even so, most of the incumbents will be back. When they voted as if they had nothing to fear from the people, it was because they really didn't feel that they did.

They have few reasons to think otherwise. Ninety-nine of the 120 House members were elected in November 2000 either without opposition or in blowouts; that is, by margins of 10 percent or more. A few of those had meaningful primaries but for most it was easy sailing all the way. The incumbency advantage, especially in lobbyist campaign dollars, accounts for only part of that. The real story was in the design of the districts, 10 years ago, when a byzantine set of schemes and circumstances packed huge numbers of Democrats into a few safe districts, leaving Republicans to romp in most of the rest.

Democrats have 43.5 percent of the voter registration to 39.4 for the Republicans and 17.1 percent for everyone else. Yet 17 districts have Democratic majorities of 60 percent or more, far beyond what they need to be competitive. That "packing" accounts for why the Republicans were able to win nearly two-thirds of the House despite their lesser numbers. (Lee Hinkle, a government consultant in Tallahassee, has calculated that because Democratic voters hew less to the party line than Republicans do, the Democrats need 50 percent to be viable and 55 percent to have an edge.)

There will be even less real two-party competition in the grotesquely gerrymandered new plan, over which our Supreme Court emulated the famous three-monkey act. Democratic candidates are only nominally the losers. The real victims are all the people of Florida, whose legislators will continue to feel they have nothing to fear and will vote accordingly.

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