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Shiny shoes with big feet walk heavily in the halls of the Capitol

By PHIL GAILEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- When the subject is the Florida Legislature, I gladly defer to my esteemed editorial colleague Martin Dyckman, who probably knows more about state politics and government than anyone in Florida. So I will stay in the shallow end of the opinion pool, sorting out my impressions from a two-day visit to the state capital.

One of the first things that caught my eye on this visit were the shoes. I don't think I had ever noticed them before. As I wandered the corridors of power in the state Capitol, I couldn't help looking down at the feet of the powerful and the power-brokers. I was struck by the shine on their shoes. Even an Army drill sergeant would be impressed. The Capitol's fourth floor, where the lobbyists wait outside the House and the Senate chambers to pull lawmakers aside or stuff an amendment in their pockets, is the shine capital of Florida. This is not Gucci Alley, as they call the lobbyist hang-out in the U.S. Capitol. Here, it's more like Florsheim Avenue.

The lobbyists are the Big Feet in Tallahassee. They don't mind stepping on the toes of legislators or trampling the public interest on everything from nursing homes to arsenic in the wood we use to build children's playgrounds. It will take more than campaign-finance reform to weaken their grip on lawmakers. The shine of their shoes apparently has a blinding effect on some legislators, who could be charged with prostitution if they did business on the street the way they do it in the Legislature.

We've come to accept the fact that lobbyists are here to protect the special interests. If you want to play this game, you have to have a lobbyist, preferably a former legislator, and nearly everyone with a stake in state government does -- business groups and labor unions, farmers and lumber companies, nursing homes and insurance companies, state prosecutors and state universities, cities and counties.

Maybe that's why the poor and disadvantaged don't fare so well. They don't employ lobbyists and, to the extent they are represented in the power game, it is by "advocates." Most advocates can't afford to pick up a restaurant and bar tab for a group of legislators, or make a campaign donation. They get a polite hearing and a few crumbs.

It's not clear who represents the public interest in this town. In our civic books, that is supposed to be the role of the governor and our elected senators and representatives. But the reality is that our elected officials have their own narrow agendas, which often are at odds with the public interest. Re-election and ideological gratification are what they really care about, which is why the state budget usually contains plenty of pork for their home districts and why their policy decisions are often payoffs to their campaign contributors and interest-group supporters.

For example, the effort to limit the liability of nursing homes in cases of abuse and neglect probably has as much to do with the Republican dislike of trial lawyers, who are one of the Democratic Party's biggest contributors, as it does with preventing a shortage in nursing-home beds. The nursing-home industry claims lawsuits are its ruin, and that unless the Legislature caps punitive-damage awards, Florida's elderly had better start planning to check themselves into nursing homes in other parts of the country. The issue, of course, is much more complex. Lawsuits are only part of the problem. But when the choice is between nursing homes and trial lawyers, the Republicans sock it to the trial lawyers, some of whom are greedy predators who give their profession a bad name.

Perhaps the greatest threat to the public interest comes not from shiny-shoed corporate lobbyists but from the Republican ideologues led by House Speaker Tom Feeney. They seem hell-bent on undermining the integrity and the independence of the state judiciary, weakening the state's open-government laws, politicizing higher education, shifting public money to private schools and, as Tallahassee native and political commentator Diane Roberts writes elsewhere in this section, moving the state in the general direction of its neighbor to the north, Alabama. This Legislature's motto should be: Forward into the past.

The Legislature still has a week to go, and, as in past years, we won't be able to fully assess the damage until after the session is gaveled to a close, hopefully on time Friday evening. The House and the Senate still have to come to terms on a state budget. The size of the budget is less in dispute than is spending priorities. Despite a revenue shortfall, there will be a tax cut -- the third in as many years -- though a smaller one than Gov. Jeb Bush and House Republicans want. What will Republicans do when they run out of state taxes to cut?

When it's all over, I would bet that most of the lobbyists will be pleased and everyone else will sigh, "It could have been worse." It's too bad Florida's future is not as shiny as the shoes walking around this place.

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