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The Golden Age of the Florida Legislature

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- Brooklyn had the Boys of Summer, Notre Dame the Four Horsemen. Ancient Britain, so the legends go, had Camelot. The Florida Legislature had its Golden Age.

It was a time when the people could be as proud of their Legislature as it was of itself.

This would be hard to believe by the sights and sounds of contemporary Tallahassee, where special interests or partisan politics drive everything. But in the decade after federal courts broke up the malapportioned Pork Chop Gang, Florida's legislators compiled a constructive record unmatched in Florida's history.

Among other things, they passed a genuine tax reform bill, lessening the burden on ordinary folk at the expense of those who could better afford it. That had not happened before and has not happened in the 30 years since. It taxed corporate profits and ended the sales tax on household utilities and rent.

The Golden Age generated a new constitution, brought mental health out of the dark ages, modernized the judiciary and made it nonpartisan, and rallied behind the environment. One of those landmark bills empowered citizens to intervene with agencies on behalf of the environment. The developer lobbies have just now managed to weaken that.

There was also reform of the Legislature itself, creating a professional staff structure so that lobbyists and agencies would not have a monopoly on institutional memory.

Before that time, to behold Florida's Legislature was only to laugh or to cry. But in short order, it became one of the nation's best.

It was my privilege to cover them then and again, last weekend, to share in the memories that some 40 veterans of the Golden Age brought to a reunion here.

Those attending were members of the House under Speakers Dick Pettigrew of Miami (1971-72) and Terrell Sessums of Tampa (1973-74). Just the House, though some became senators later. The rivalry with the Senate was as intense then as now, except that in those days it was the House that charged mountains and it was the Senate where moss grew.

Pettigrew spoke for them all when he described those years as "the greatest time in my life . . . the greatest time of (all) our lives as far as I'm concerned."

He spoke for them all too, conservatives and liberals alike, when he decried the "antigovernment attitude" that characterizes the leadership of the House today.

"I have a little difficulty remembering which of you were Republicans and Democrats," said Sessums. "They don't have that problem any longer."

The lineup in his term: 77 Democrats, 43 Republicans, precisely the opposite of what it is now. But those were the early days of the two-party system, which had come late to Florida, and leaders of both factions cooperated so that relatively few issues would be party-line votes. As they saw it, there were times to be partisan and times not to be.

"As a member of the minority, it was fun," said Joel Gustafson of Fort Lauderdale. "You could always vote no. The Republicans have done themselves a disservice by becoming the majority party. They don't know what they missed."

Don Nichols of Jacksonville, who was the Democratic floor leader then, recalled with good humor the day he baited the minority leader, the late Don Reed, a little too much.

"Now I know how the Philistines felt," Reed replied, "slain by the jawbone of an ass."

But Reed did not expect as much of party loyalty as is routine today. Don Hazelton, who represented Broward and Palm Beach, told how as a freshman he asked his minority leader whether a certain bill was good or not. "Good," Reed said. Hazelton voted for it, and was puzzled when Reed voted no.

"You didn't ask the right question," Reed explained.

Among the nearly 170 people who served in the House those two terms, approximately 40 have died and only one -- Rep. Jerry Melvin of Fort Walton Beach -- is still a member. He left in 1978, returned in 1994. Term-limited this year, he ran for the Senate and lost. A Democrat then, a Republican now, Melvin agreed the place has changed for the worse. Back then, he said, "I don't think it was directed to be partisan, like it is now."

"The fellowship is gone," said Elvin Martinez, a Democrat from Tampa who is now a judge. "There's no more confidence that you can take a person's word."

What has changed for the better is that there are many more women and minorities in the House. That came at high price, however: the single-member districting system that has contributed to making the Legislature more partisan and parochial. It needs to give way to some form of proportional representation, but even tax reform probably has a better shot.

Politics is cyclical, they say, so perhaps there will eventually be another Golden Age. I just hope Florida doesn't have to wait another 30 years.


Last week's column erred in saying Gov. Jeb Bush served on the 2000 election canvassing board. Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford took his place.

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