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Road back to Tallahassee hasn't changed much

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© St. Petersburg Times, published June 11, 2000

I was covering the Pinellas County courthouse when the editors said I would go to Tallahassee for the 1967 session of the Legislature. Though the assignment was intended only for one season, I felt as if I had made the big league.

Florida was enjoying a peaceful revolution of earthquake proportions. The Supreme Court's reapportionment decisions had put an end to rural rule, replacing "Pork Chop" legislators with energetic newcomers from the suburbs and cities and giving rise to the two-party system. Coincidentally, voters had elected the first Republican governor since Reconstruction. He was Claude R. Kirk Jr., who saw himself as a cross between George S. Patton and Fiorello LaGuardia but gave people more reasons to think of Huey Long. "Kirk, as in quirk," it was said, and yet the next few years produced a new constitution, executive branch reorganization and Florida's first strong conservation laws. The Legislature, whose Democratic and Republican leaders were of like mind on modernizing the Cabinet, the judiciary and public ethics, swiftly earned recognition as one of the nation's best.

I was as nervous as any rookie before that 1967 session, but I needn't have been. Two-thirds of the legislators were rookies, too.

I left Tallahassee in 1968, in the employ of a Jacksonville television station, returning six months later when this newspaper invited me back to the best of all possible jobs: chief of its Tallahassee bureau. I departed again in 1976 for a Washington assignment, but my heart remained in Tallahassee. Regular readers may have deduced that.

So have my editors. By their consent, the Tallahassee dateline on next Sunday's column will mark its new -- and last -- permanent home. It will publish once a week, rather than three, as more of my time will be put into editorials that express the editorial board's collective view of the doings, or undoings, of our state government. Though even politicians often confuse the two, the difference is simple. A signed column speaks only for the author. From either perspective, it helps to be on the scene if you're trying to explain why things happen or don't happen in state government, and what it all means.

Both the state government and the city have changed in many ways, some for the good and some not, since I was last stationed there. Developers haven't ruined Tallahassee's Southern charm and natural beauty yet, though it's not for want of trying. At the moment, our new neighborhood is fighting a monstrous apartment complex that would be named for the trees it would replace. They tell me that the neighborhood where I used to live, though the houses are now very old, is surging in price because it's near the Capitol complex. Farther out, there are traffic jams. But you can still get in your car and be in the country in 15 minutes.

The state government has changed profoundly, and not just by the necessity to serve nearly twice as many Floridians. On the positive side, Internet access does much to make up for the airline industry's indifference to the civic welfare of the nation's fourth largest state. You can watch Supreme Court arguments, Public Service Commission meetings, and sessions of the Legislature from your home or office computer in Miami or St. Petersburg or Yeehaw Junction, and you can read the same bills and committee staff reports that the legislature and governor see. Thanks to former Secretary of State Sandra Mortham, who should have a medal for it, you can track campaign contributions and spending in far greater detail than the press has time or space to provide.

What one can't see without being there is how oppressive the lobbying has become. It's not just that there are now more lobbyists -- 1,919, nearly 12 for each legislator -- but how they're deployed. Where each used to represent one or at most a handful of clients full-time, many now register for dozens of clients and specialize in cultivating specific legislators. This "team lobbying," as they call it, is one of the more dubious consequences of the revolution in cell-phone technology.

Legislators are more susceptible because the Supreme Court threw out the reform era laws limiting a candidate's total campaign spending, well-intended restrictions on individual contributions forced candidates to be nice to everyone in sight, and the loopholes for raising and spending soft money left leaders deeply in hock to the special interests that provide it. One Republican leader publicly acknowledged the bill to limit lawsuits as a pay-back for the business community's "campaign contributions and sweat equity."

I am almost convinced that we'd be better off if the politicians offered themselves this deal: Take as much as you want from any contributor so long as you abide by a specified limit on total spending and report it all the moment it's collected or spent.

Little of the money is put to good use. Too much is spent on negative advertising whose only apparent purpose is to turn off the other side's voters. The Pepper-Smathers Senate race of 1950, long fabled as the dirtiest campaign ever, was a cotillion compared to what's routine today.

Factor in term limits and single-member districts and it's probably for the better that they no longer identify and honor the "most outstanding" members of the House and Senate. The competition would be embarrassingly thin.

No change has been more for the worse than the prevailing philosophy. In 1967, most Florida politicians saw government as a basic good that could -- and should -- be made better. Today, the game is to take it apart and take it down. Instead of a healthy skepticism, there's a morbid cynicism from which no one benefits but the special interests. Their money is the root of that evil. If we don't do something about that eventually, democracy will be only a fond and fast-fading memory.

But I refuse to accept that inevitable. Nearly half the House will be rookies next year, and maybe we'll get lucky. Once upon a time, we did.

In that respect, at least, it will be as almost as it was when I came in 33 years ago. However it comes out, it should be fun.

My e-mail remains the same: The new telephone number is (850) 224-6394.

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