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The New Pork Choppers

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2002

Florida voters have been acting of late like the Iowa farmers who were advised in the 1890s to "raise less corn and more hell." We may not raise much corn here, but we have been raising a fair crop of hell. I am referring to the ballot initiatives we voted for last month despite -- or more likely because of -- the prospect that several of them would make the governor and the bosses of the Legislature hold their breath and turn blue.

But now we are told that's the wrong kind of hell.

Instead of putting so much time, money and energy into initiatives, we should invest it all in electing a more representative, more responsive legislature.

What a splendid idea. If only it were possible.

The proposal comes from a fellow Times columnist, who wrote Monday that "petitions have made us spoiled and lazy in Florida . . ."

"Anybody with a gripe or a pet peeve can get up a petition," he reasoned. "As a result, we short-circuit our democracy."

What we ought to be doing instead is to get rid of the deadwood in Tallahassee who won't vote for the better schools, cleaner air and higher education reforms that the initiative outcomes say we want.

The trouble with this is in carrying it out. You see, we don't elect our Legislature so much as it elects us. More precisely, the leadership does.

It's another matter in the statewide races for governor, U.S. senator or Cabinet. In those, our votes do matter. The fight is fair. It's the one district the bosses can't rig.

They prearranged everything else when they redrew all the lines last spring.

They did it simply by providing for a few districts with huge Democratic majorities. That left the rest to the Republicans.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans in Florida, but the GOP contrived to give itself both new congressional seats. Among the other 23, there was only one close race. As planned, Democratic incumbent Karen Thurman lost it.

All 40 seats in the Senate and all 120 in the House were at stake. But when filing ended, 19 of the senators were unopposed except (in some cases) by write-in candidates. No names would appear opposite theirs on the ballot.

So nearly half the voters had no choice of senators.

Fifty-six House members were either entirely unopposed or faced only only nuisance opposition from write-ins or Libertarians. Once again, nearly half the voters had no effective choice. Another 20 representatives were elected with landslides of 60 percent or more.

In the entire Legislature, only 14 races were decided by less than 10 percent, the standard benchmark for competitiveness. As predicted -- and intended -- Republicans padded their House margin to 81 seats, which cut the Democrats to less than a third. They can no longer use the rules even to slow down the trains that are about to run them over.

Departing Speaker Tom Feeney, whose farewell present to himself was a new U.S. House seat, told a triumphant Republican caucus on Nov. 18 that nothing but their conscience could protect the Democrats now. In the next breath, he told them to ignore that conscience whenever the leadership tells them to.

Florida used to be bossed by the so-called Pork Chop Gang -- rural legislators who were elected by less than 20 percent of the voters but held more than half the seats. They would be in power still if the U.S. Supreme Court hadn't decided that the right to vote was meaningless without population equality in districting.

But that right can be mocked in other ways, as the Florida Legislature has shown us.

These new Pork Choppers are worse than the old. The old gang, at least, didn't pretend to be what they weren't.

So there is nothing the people can do except to support initiatives. Historically, the abuses of the old Pork Chop Gang led to that power for the people. In the brief golden moment between mass malapportionment and mass gerrymandering, the Legislature proposed a new constitution allowing the people to act on their own behalf when the Legislature would not.

But, yes, we could do without initiatives. First, however, we need just two more. One would create an independent redistricting commission, so that we would select our legislators again rather than have them continue to select us. The other initiative, even more important, would forbid political gerrymandering in terms that our currently gutless courts would have to respect and enforce.

There are active initiative petitions for fair districting, but they aren't going anywhere because the sponsors have been unable to raise much money. There is always the chance, of course, that someday they might.

Meanwhile, Senate President Jim King is saying he wants to make it harder to pass initiatives. In particular, he wants to prohibit professional signature solicitors.

That would be too late for the pig farmers. But just in time to perpetuate the New Pork Chop Gang in Tallahassee.

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