St. Petersburg Times Online: Opinion

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

'Oh God, the Legislature is coming'

By MARTIN DYCKMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- One could tell the old reporters from the young ones just by the way they talked this time of year.

"Oh good, the Legislature is coming," said the young ones.

"Oh God, the Legislature is coming," said the veterans.

This year, even us crusty old souls may have to confess some warm and fuzzy feelings. Of the 160 lawmakers who convene today, term limits are forcing 63 to pack up or run for other offices. There hasn't been such havoc since the U.S. Supreme Court turned out the Pork Chop gang 34 years ago. Some will be missed more than others.

Legislative sessions are always fascinating, but they are rarely pretty. That of the next 60 days may be uglier than most and should call to mind more than once Robert E. Lee's pronouncement on the Fredericksburg battlefield: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it." In theory, those on whom term limits are tolling should be free, free at last, of their thralldom to campaign contributors. But the leadership offices, which set the agendas, will simply be changing nameplates and will be hustling even more "soft money" to fund the competition for so many open seats. One newspaper noted this week that at least 35 legislators are running for something else, including 16 House members running for the Senate. Other lawmakers are angling for job offers from the special interests that are lobbying them or from the governor and other agency heads upon whose budgets they are voting. Many have unfulfilled personal agendas or political debts to be repaid.

As environmental lobbyist David Gluckman puts it, "What extremes are we seeing this session because of term limits?" When there's no tomorrow, nothing is sacred.

Should people who don't care enough to vote on a constitutional amendment be empowered to cancel out the votes of those who do?

Yes, says Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville. Under an amendment he's proposing, future amendments would be ratified only on receiving a majority "of those electors voting in the election." Currently, approval requires only a majority of those voting on the issue.

This has a pungent odor of Republican sour grapes. GOP House leaders, including King at the time, called for the defeat of all nine amendments proposed by the Constitution Revision Commission in 1998. To their chagrin, all but one of the amendments passed, and all but three of those would have met even King's higher threshold. The amendments that would have failed, however, were the ones requiring the Legislature to pick up more court costs from the counties and cutting the elected Cabinet from six members to three.

King, whose measure will be heard by the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee today, said it isn't aimed at a proposed initiative calling for an independent commission to redistrict the Legislature after each census. He said he didn't know about it. (Sponsors will be gathering petitions at the polls during the March 14 presidential primary.)

King was also surprised to hear that Florida still might be laboring under its antique 1885 Constitution if his formula had been in place. When the Legislature proposed a new Constitution in 1968, nearly 2.2-million people voted for president, but only 1.1-million voted on the Constitution despite years of debate and publicity. Of those who did inform themselves and vote on it, 55 percent said yes, but under King's terms the proposition would have needed something like 95 percent to pass.

Changing the Constitution "shouldn't be easy," King says. Surely not. But it shouldn't be impossible, either. Why do proposals like his seem to pop up only when the people have approved something the Legislature didn't want?

Us vs. Them: Remember that session-ending "snooker" last year that let water and sewer companies keep rate increases that were supposed to expire? The senators who did it, Burt Saunders and Ron Klein, said they didn't know what they were doing. Now that they do, Saunders, R-Naples, says he likes it. Klein, D-Boca Raton, says his mind is open to repealing it. Rep. Nancy Argenziano's bill to do that is snagged on a 6-6 tie in the House Utilities and Communications Committee, which is supposed to take it up again today.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.