Monday, May 22, 2017

Is the Florida Legislature broken? (Miami Herald)

What do you reckon? Does anyone believe that the corrupt crew in Tallahassee gives a fig what we think?

Posted May 22, 2017 04:09 am
By MARY ELLEN KLAS The Miami Herald
Is the Florida Legislature broken?

TALLAHASSEE | It was 9 p.m. on the night after the Legislative session was supposed to have ended and Sen. Tom Lee got a phone call.

“What have you done?” asked a former chairman of the board of governors for the University of South Florida.

The Republican from Thonotosassa and former Senate president who had helped broker negotiations with the House over a K-12 education reform was perplexed by what he heard. He had no idea that Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had consented the day before to making it harder for USF, Lee’s hometown school, to become the state’s third “preeminent” university by imposing strict new graduation standards.

The changes were part of a budget deal Negron had reached with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the day before, and, while it was pivotal to resolving the impasse that had sent the session into overtime, it could cost USF millions of new dollars each year.

But for Lee, worse than being blindsided was the way he got the news about the end run the presiding officers had done around the other 158 legislators.

“Just like nobody should read about the death of their loved one in a newspaper, we should never learn about what we did from the people that we’re impacting,” an angry Lee told his Senate colleagues. “I was embarrassed. … I was flat embarrassed.”

So began the fallout over what has become another controversial ending to a legislative session in which the House speaker and Senate president exploited a loophole in the rules and dictated the terms of 15 take-it or leave-it policy bills that would be subject to no amendments. As legislative leaders lurched from representative democracy to autocratic control, the strategy raises questions about whether the system on which the Florida Legislature is built is flawed or broken.

“I feel like much of my time was wasted, and my constituents were really without a voice,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, a freshman Democrat from Fort Lauderdale. He spent the last weeks of session working out a compromise of the controversial K-12 reform bill (SB 1552) only to have Negron and Corcoran jettison the compromise to replace it with a plan more in line with the House’s priorities.

“Everything that was negotiated out of the bill early in session was put back in. How do you think people felt about a bill that undoes everything you did?” asked Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens. “We were being forced to vote for the same things we had spent our hard-earned time negotiating and refining all session.”

Determined to push through a long list of priority bills, Negron and Corcoran abandoned the difficult and often hard-to-manage job of achieving bipartisan and ideological consensus on education, economic development and state worker bills and instead employed a rule that allowed them to attach their policy bills to the budget package. The strategy allowed them to force the passage of sweeping policy changes in a way that avoided having to water them down with consensus-driven amendments.

“The way the legislature functions is outdated and arcane,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat and former House member elected to the Senate last year. “It is designed for a small agricultural state with a seasonal Legislature that is very centralized. But we are now the third biggest state in the nation and it’s a disservice to a state as diverse as ours.”

When Florida’s Constitution was ratified in 1968, the Legislature met for 60 days once every two years “and people thought it should be the other way around — meet for two days every 60 years,” joked Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida.

In 1968, Florida had 6.6 million people. Today, each of the Senate’s 40 members represent about 470,000 people in ethnically and economically diverse districts. The 120 members of the Florida House have the luxury of representing only about 157,000 people, and their districts are more homogenous and more conservative.

“We’re trying to cram too much into a small funnel and it’s become difficult to get our work done in a timely fashion with adequate amounts of public input,” said Lee.

The bill that rankled Lee, SB 374, was one of a series of 15 “conforming” bills that set policy to align with the budget but were not subject to amendment. Negron and Corcoran agreed to them behind closed doors, in the final hours of the last day of session, with no opportunity for public testimony.

“The agreement with the House is we would take their bill and they would take our bill,” explained Sen. Jack Latvala before the Senate voted on the package. “Perhaps they got a little carried away.”

This time, in the interest of “reaching closure” on the budget, lawmakers approved all the conforming bill.

Each of the controversial conforming bills included new provisions that had not been debated in both chambers and they added elements that had been rejected in Senate committees.

The same kinds of things that people consider broken about Washington are happening in Tallahassee and legislatures across the country,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who studies Florida government, noting that political polarization and one-party control have made “compromise a dirty word.”

“This is exactly what drives people crazy about Congress — these omnibus bills where they include everything but the kitchen sink and the leadership controls everything,” she said.

No comments: