Legislators think they can trump all others
By HOWARD TROXLER
Published March 20, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - In most hands during a game of bridge, one of the suits - spades, hearts, diamonds, clubs - is chosen as "trump" and outranks the others. Many a player has proudly plopped down an ace of another suit, only to lose it to the lowly deuce of trumps.
After spending a few days watching our Legislature up close, I think this is the dominant theme of the 2005 session so far. On a variety of issues, our lawmakers are attempting to trump the court system, the citizens and the Constitution itself.
The most publicized examples have been the Terri Schiavo case, which sought once again to negate a judicial ruling, and the Legislature's attempt to discourage new citizen petitions or to water down the ones that have passed already.
The citizens wrote a minimum wage increase into the Constitution. The Legislature has a bill to weaken it. The citizens voted for a "three strikes" malpractice amendment for doctors. The Legislature has a bill sharply limiting its effect.
The citizens voted for a patients' "right to know" amendment about past incidents involving doctors and hospitals. A bill in the Legislature limits it to certain incidents, within a specific time frame.
The citizens voted to let South Florida vote on slot machines, and the voters of Broward County said yes. The Legislature is trying to limit the kinds of machines and to tax them at up to 50 percent.
The citizens voted for a universal prekindergarten program. The Legislature's version fell short of what they wanted. The citizens voted for an independent state university system. A pending bill tries to make sure the Legislature keeps control over tuition and other matters.
The state Department of Environmental Protection lost a lawsuit accusing it of not cracking down on polluting dairy farms. A bill would gut that ruling.
The Public Service Commission is considering how much money electric companies can charge customers for hurricane damage. There is a bill to ease it along by letting companies borrow the dough up front and then bill its customers over time.
Although our Legislature often criticizes "activist judges" for limiting the Legislature's power, it shows the same desire to infringe on the judicial branch, seeking more power over court rules now controlled by the Florida Supreme Court.
Oh, and the eight-year term limits approved by 77 percent of the citizens back in 1992 are too short - they want 12.
At committee meetings last week dealing with citizen constitutional amendments, the hostility of lawmakers was evident. Committees in both the House and Senate passed bills saying future petitions should need 60 percent of the vote to pass, and should be limited to certain subjects.
At a Senate committee meeting, senators treated witnesses from the League of Woman Voters and Common Cause as if they were some species of bug for defending citizen petitions. "Common Cause is a special interest also," said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River.
Now, it so happens that I think some of the ideas passed by citizens were terrible ideas, too. The "three strikes" amendment is an unjust monkey wrench. But it is in the Constitution, and instead of talking about how stupid the citizens are, the Legislature has no choice but to obey it.
For all the criticism people like me throw at our legislators, they are not one-dimensional good guys or bad guys. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, sponsor of the Schiavo bill, is a man of obvious sincerity and deep belief. Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and a critic of citizen petitions, seems impressive and runs a fine meeting to boot.
I had a good talk with Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, author of the university bill; he has intelligent constitutional concerns. As for Argenziano, she is one of my favorite gutsy legislators ever.
So it is too simple to say, "They are all power mad." For the most part they are well motivated. But the cumulative impression is of a Legislature that believes it knows better than the courts, better than the citizens, better that the Constitution, better than a family's private decisions, better than everybody, and which intends to trump them all.
[Last modified March 20, 2005, 01:06:08]
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