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Byrd merely symptom of a diseased Legislature

Published May 4, 2004

Now, hold on. The way that folks in our state House are talking, they all think it's the greatest thing in the world that Johnnie Byrd has finished his last session in charge as speaker.

Everybody is tripping over each other to trash Byrd all of a sudden. How heavy-handed he was! How mean and bossy! Now that he is gone, the rest of the House can get back to providing good, public-spirited government.

To which the citizens of Florida should reply to their legislators:

The heck with you, Jack and Jill. You are the ones who made Johnnie Byrd speaker. You inflicted him on the state of Florida for these past two years. You shined his shoes. You kissed his ring. You passed what he told you to pass.

Over the past two years, the same members of this House debated how many arms and legs a worker would have to lose before being considered "catastrophically" disabled. (Hint: It was more than one.)

The same members of this House voted to raise the limits on pollution in the Everglades, passing a bill written by sugar lobbyists so that Florida's most important natural resource would continue to disappear.

The same members of this House voted to cut off aid to the medically needy, voted to allow dry cleaners to pollute without being sued, voted to jack up everybody's telephone rates (that bill was written by lobbyists, too).

Oh, but there's so much more.

You did this, boys and girls of the House.

Not Johnnie Byrd alone. Do not try to pretend that you were under some kind of evil spell that has just been broken.

Let's go back in time to Nov. 19, 2002.

That was the day that the Florida House elected Byrd speaker by acclamation. The speeches were sickeningly sycophantic.

As just one example, there was a speech by our very own state Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole. She spoke of the "tidal waves" that Byrd would bring to the House: waves of "principled ideals," waves of "Southern charm," waves of "loyalty toward his colleagues," and waves of, I am not making this part up, "the memory we all have of a stern father with that look that says it all."

Waters finished her speech by inviting the House to perform the "Waters Wave" in honor of the new speaker: "One, two, three - WOW!" The House burst into applause.

Is it unfair to pick on Leslie Waters? Nah. Her words are in the record. But every member of the House, and especially every Republican member who chose Byrd as the leader of the Republican majority, is responsible.

For instance, nobody from our area did more to sustain Byrd and carry out his regime than state Reps. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, and Sandra Murman, R-Tampa. They enabled him. They enforced his will.

With Byrd on the way out now, everybody in Tallahassee is talking about how the next speaker, Allan Bense of Panama City, is a great guy, and we all should be reassured.

Maybe Bense is a great guy. Who knows? But is that the way to govern a great state - for the rest of us to have to hope and pray that the second most powerful person in Florida, chosen by no one except the members of the House, also happens to be a nice guy?

There is a sickness at the core of the Florida Legislature. It is an unhealthy body that no longer represents the true interest of the people of Florida - not Republicans, not Democrats, not independents.

There are two reasons.

The first reason is that the Legislature draws its own districts, to guarantee the re-election of its members. They are immune to defeat. They cannot be held to account by the voters for their bad acts.

The second reason is that the leaders of the Legislature, the speaker and president of the Senate, control pots of money for legislative campaigns, money given without limit by interest groups.

That is really weird, when you step back and look at it fresh. The same people presiding over which laws get passed in Florida are raising money from the interests that will be governed by those laws.

Competitive voting districts.

Divorcing the speakership from money.

There's your solution. Otherwise, new Byrds will come to power again and again, and most of our legislators will keep choosing power over principle.

[Last modified May 4, 2004, 01:00:24]

Times columns today
Howard Troxler: Byrd merely symptom of a diseased Legislature
Gary Shelton: Unknown architect
Ernest Hooper: Bring on the young leaders; a life of zest

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