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Willy-nilly Legislature sells wares in a fire sale


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000

This year's session of the Florida Legislature, scheduled to end on Friday, is the most crass of the 19 that I have seen.

The Democrats who once ran the Legislature were, in fact, tax-and-spend weenies. But now that Republicans run it, it is a pure marketplace. If you are a business or industry group with money, you get your bill heard.

This Legislature, for lobbyists, has become sort of an eBay, or maybe, more of an ATM. "Type in your PIN number and type of transaction desired ..."

The gamut of what has been seriously considered during this session is staggering. (We will not know until the dust settles, over the coming days and weeks, everything that passed, everything that was defeated and what was sneaked through in the final hours.)

But just for starters, this Legislature, on almost a whim, set out to rip up the state university system's governance and hand out new medical and law schools like lollipops.

Each day's news from Tallahassee was filled with outrages and decisions made on the fly. Examples from Tuesday morning's headlines: the House voted to repeal the helmet law for motorcyclists; the Senate obeyed the commands of the beer industry on a bottle size bill; the House passed a "land grab" bill benefiting the cattle, timber and development industries.

Over the past 60 days, this Legislature has considered bills eliminating local "impact fees" on growth. It is still trying to weaken the landmark Growth Management Act of 1985. It has considered measures making it harder for cities to remove billboards, and harder for patients to sue nursing homes. It has kept barriers to suing HMOs that deny care.

It has tried to punish the Supreme Court for making rulings it did not like, both by packing the court with new justices and by cutting much-needed new lower-court judgeships out of the budget. It has toyed with tax breaks for electric utilities. It considered a bill allowing landlords to take all the interest they earn on their tenants' deposits.

More blatantly than ever, lobbyists wrote laws directly, with members of the Legislature apparently ignorant of their content. How often did we see accounts like this:

Lobbyists for South Florida's powerful sugar industry got a surprise amendment passed Wednesday that would eliminate a national wildlife refuge in the Everglades in 2003 unless the Legislature votes to keep it.

Or this:

Agriculture lobbyists have quietly persuaded lawmakers to advance an amendment that would make taxpayers foot the cleanup bill when pesticides poison Florida's ground or water.

Just as disturbing has been the breezy, seat-of-the-pants approach to major structural changes such as abolition of the state Board of Regents and the Florida Parole Commission.

This passage from an April 18 news story pretty much sums it up:

The bill wasn't even filed until April 7, but sailed out of a House committee Monday on a 5-2 vote over the objections of Democrats who say a bill that would make such radical changes in the criminal justice system needs more study.

Some people say this annus horribilis should be blamed on the voters, because we passed term limits in 1992 that take effect this year. Because 63 of the 160 lawmakers are leaving office, there is a "going-out-of-business" mentality.

But blaming the voters is offensive and elitist. The citizens are perfectly entitled to enact term limits and still have public servants who do not behave like airheads and vote sellers.

As the session nears its end, members will stand on the floor of the House and Senate and deliver congratulatory messages to each other about their heroic "public service." They will become weepy and nostalgic. They will leave Tallahassee actually believing it, too. But then they have to come home. What happens after that is up to you.

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