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How to get to Hypocrite Street? Follow the Big Byrd

Published May 11, 2003

Who could blame Johnnie Byrd? The man he watched succumb to Alzheimer's disease was hardly the man Byrd knew to call his dad.

Who could blame Johnnie Byrd? From one end of the state to the other, thousands of Floridians know what he knows, have endured what he's endured, have lost what he lost.

The difference between Byrd and everybody else touched by Alzheimer's was that Byrd could do something about it. As speaker of the state House, he could do a lot.

So Byrd, R-Plant City, pushed a law through the Legislature last year to create a center at the University of South Florida that would do nothing but study the disease. He named it for his father. This year, he wants $45-million of your money to get the center up and running.

Funny, how it goes. Johnnie Byrd is an unabashed ideologue of the most conservative stripe. He wants government out of the lives of people. He wants it spending less and less, not more and more.

He wants this so much he has brought the state's budget-making process to a halt. His thinking is so extreme he is often called a libertarian. But by the standards of libertarianism, the Alzheimer's center is a big, fat government-sponsored boondoggle at a government-run university.

I guess I forgot to read the fine print.

There is apparently an exclusion in the Byrd approach to government. If Byrd wants it, it's not a waste.

The Legislature goes into special session Monday. The House and Senate will try to do what it could not do before as Big Byrd - as he is sometimes called in Tallahassee - tromped around chanting his less-government-less-government mantra.

This is how broke Florida is. Even though the Senate is run by Republicans, too, men and women who got elected on a platform of strict fiscal conservativism, the Senate wants new taxes.

But Byrd has the House goose-stepping behind him in the opposite direction. He appears to listen to nobody but the voices in his head, the ones that say no new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes, and that's that.

The chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, compared Byrd to Newt Gingrich, the radical Republican who galvanized his party in the U.S. House of Representatives but who was eventually ousted by his own colleagues. "It didn't work in Congress, and it won't work here," Pruitt said last week.

But it might work for Johnnie Byrd, who is widely believed to be planning a run for Congress or the U.S. Senate next year. I can see the TV campaign commercial already. Byrd will be filmed by the bay's edge or in front of the flag as an announcer intones that he didn't raise your taxes and that he looked out for the sick and the elderly.

What this means is every step Big Byrd takes is not just calculated to fit his narrow ideology but also his ambition.

I thought at first that he might be so extreme in his thinking that he would scare off voters. But voters swallow this less-government, less-taxes swill every time. It's only later, when we open the package, that we see what we bought, that we are overcome by buyer's remorse.

Where were we, we wonder, when the state decides to stop paying the medical bills for thousands who would otherwise die? Where were we when they whacked away at school and university budgets? Where were we when Johnnie Byrd tried to slip through his Alzheimer's project, complete with a board of trustees studded, not with Alzheimer's experts, but his friends?

There's a lesson to be gleaned here. Be careful who you vote for. You might get Big Byrd, narrow-minded, striving and hypocritical, minus only the huge, flopping feet.

- Mary Jo Melone can be reached at or 226-3402.

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