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Legislature is out of touch with the people it represents

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- If polls are to be believed, Floridians are likely to vote Tuesday for an initiative that will require the state to spend significantly more money on the public schools. Simultaneously, they will elect a Legislature that just might refuse to do it.

TALLAHASSEE -- If polls are to be believed, Floridians are likely to vote Tuesday for an initiative that will require the state to spend significantly more money on the public schools. Simultaneously, they will elect a Legislature that just might refuse to do it.

That would be quite a paradox. But it wouldn't be the first time the Legislature was so far out of touch.

The story begins in 1955, when Gov. LeRoy Collins demanded the Legislature reapportion itself as required by the Constitution. He fought unavailingly for four years, but was vindicated in the 1960s when the U.S. Supreme Court decreed "one man, one vote."

The real problem was in the state Constitution itself: a districting formula adopted in 1923 -- when Florida was still two-thirds rural -- that effectively locked in the power of the smallest counties. Three decades later, the state was two-thirds urban, but rural counties retained so many seats that it took less than 19 percent of the people to elect a majority of the House and barely 17 percent to control the Senate.

Closely watching the death struggle in Tallahassee were political scientists William C. Havard and Loren P. Beth. Describing it in a book they published in 1962, they wrote:

"If there is one thing that has impressed (or depressed us) in this study, above anything else, it is the certainty that any correspondence between legislative action in Florida and the majority will is largely accidental except on noncontroversial matters. This is the basic fault of Florida's legislative system. It leads to a host of other evils . . . not the least of which is the forced abdication of the individual from his rightful and honored place as the responsible citizen of a self-governing state."'

One item of proof was the "interposition" resolution the Legislature adopted in 1957, outlandishly declaring the Supreme Court's school desegregation decisions to be null and void. Senators who voted to kill it by sending it back to committee spoke for nearly 70 percent of the people but were outnumbered on the floor, 20 to 18.

If there is one constant in Florida politics, it's that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Though the Legislature today boasts voting districts that are scrupulously equal in population, they are as effectively malapportioned (albeit in a different way) as the Pork Chop Gang of the 1950s.

Democrats still narrowly lead in voter registration, 42.5 percent to 38.7 for Republicans, but Republicans vastly outnumber Democrats in the Legislature: 25-15 in the Senate, 77-43 in the House. The margins are likely to be even wider after Tuesday.

Yes, another Florida phenomenon is that a lot of registered Democrats are Republicans at heart. But not that many.

Consider: In the 11 Senate races where Republicans and Democrats went head to head two years ago, Democratic candidates actually polled about 12 percent more votes. But they won only five of the 11 seats. In comparable House races, Republicans took only 53 percent of the total votes but won 70 percent of the contested seats.

At that, the elections were little more than a formality. Most seats were either uncontested or noncompetitive. All of this was the result of the 1992 redistricting when the Democrats, still nominally in charge, were undercut by a strategy to create new safe seats for black candidates -- and in the process, even more safe Republican seats. The Republicans carried that off with key help from African-American Democrats, the Justice Department and the courts. Ironically, the U.S. Supreme Court has since backed off from race as the guiding rule of redistricting, but the consequences remain.

One of them is that the House is even more conservative than the sum of its parts. This is because its leaders tend to come from the safest seats, and thus to hold more extreme views than those who have to win in competitive districts.

The Democrats can blame themselves for this. In 1993, when still in control of the House, they passed up the chance to create an independent redistricting commission.

Interestingly, that idea first surfaced amid Collins' long struggle with the Pork Chop Legislature. Though nothing more was heard of that for a long time, the reapportionment saga was also the inspiration for the initiative process that empowers the voters to do for themselves what the Legislature refuses.

And so we come to the election of 2002, in which the incumbent governor seems to fear Amendment 9, the class size initiative, more than the Democratic nominee himself.

There's a good case that such details don't belong in a constitution.

The other side of the argument is this: Amendment 9 would not be on the ballot if the Legislature had given even a slight sign that it cares as much about the schools as about appeasing special interests that don't want to be taxed.

It is what you get when you have a Legislature that's so unrepresentative that it simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing.

Many lawmakers are concerned, rightly so, over abuse of the initiative process. If they really want to fix it, let them clean their own house first.

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