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Destroying past solutions for no good

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- The Tallahassee Taleban yields nothing to its Afghan counterpart in its passion to destroy old things that transgress some new version of holy writ. As one lobbyist said of them recently, "Time began two years ago."

Most of the politicians who are eager to be rid of such institutions as the Board of Regents, the Career Service System and the Florida Bar aren't old enough to remember when they were created, let alone why.

Here is what someone wiser once said:

"I so anxiously want the people of Florida to understand that progress in business, industry and human welfare can only go so far with a ward-heeling, back-scratching, self-promoting political system. Our progress is sure to run into a dead end if our citizens can accept the philosophy that votes can be traded for a road, or for a job for an incompetent relative, or for a favor for a friend, or for a handout through a state purchase order. The state cannot raise enough money by fair taxation of its people to finance a government of that sort very long."

That was Gov. LeRoy Collins, speaking at his inauguration in January 1955.

Collins is remembered everywhere -- except, perhaps, in the rat holes of the Ku Klux Klan -- as the best governor Florida ever had. But it also bears remembering that Collins wouldn't have been elected without the runoff primary that some people here are suddenly hot to be rid of. We would have had the racist, ward-heeling, red-baiting, favor-trading Charley Johns, instead.

The supervisors of election object to the runoff because it makes the election calendar too tight, but that could be fixed simply enough by scheduling the first primary before Labor Day. Most schools are in session by then anyhow, so an August primary wouldn't spoil many vacations.

But that wouldn't satisfy the people whose real motive for abolishing the runoff is to nominate and elect more extremists to the Legislature. More people who'll vote as if they want to privatize everything and keep just enough state employees to cut the checks.

One of the most remarkable things about these true believers is their fundamental inconsistency. For years they've been saying that government isn't to be trusted. Yet now they want us to trust government as we haven't trusted it since LeRoy Collins' day: with the power to fire state workers for no good reason.

The governor's bill says no one could be fired for the sake of patronage. But it would be the worker's burden to prove that was the reason. That's an impossible burden, and you don't have to take my word for it.

This is from the report by Mark R. Sherman, the special master both sides accepted as a fact-finder in the frozen contract negotiations between the Jeb Bush administration and the state's largest public employee union. The proposed contract the employees won't sign is essentially what Bush is having the Legislature cram down their throats.

"This would be analogous," Sherman wrote, "to asking accused criminals to defend themselves before the state laid out charges against them. From the standpoint of procedural fairness, it would be heresy. From the standpoint of practical application, it would be unworkable."

Sherman also blasted the notion that we can trust bureaucrats with the "sound discretion" to fire employees.

"This belies an understanding of the historical significance of the 'just cause' standard to civil service protections," he wrote. "A fundamental component in the state's ability to prove that a personnel action is not motivated by patronage is its responsibility to demonstrate that it had just cause for its actions."

It's impossible to read Sherman's report without concluding that the state has been bargaining in grotesquely bad faith.

"No evidence was brought forth to indicate that the current system of career service protections resulted in an exorbitant expense or the retention of unqualified individuals," he wrote. "In other words, there was no factual evidence brought forward to show that the system was broken or dysfunctional."

Florida can't "eviscerate the benefits" of career service and hope to have a quality staff, he warned. "Quality workers will leave and the result will eventually be 'Service: Worst' instead of 'Service First.' "

Trouble is, no one is bound by Sherman's findings. At the end, the law leaves it to the Legislature to decide who's right.

Heads, the Taleban wins; tails, Florida loses.

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