STATE GOVERNMENT

Why the Florida Legislature doesn’t work anymore

 
 
GORDON
GORDON

seth@gdbmiami.com

It’s hard to understand the Florida Legislature when you’re right there. It’s almost impossible to comprehend from a distance. So much is baffling. The issues lawmakers pick to promote — and to ignore. The way they make decisions.

I marinated in the process for years as a legislative aide and lobbyist and exited the process when a state senator became my business partner. But I remain an interested observer.

If you think the Legislature is doing poorly, it’s tempting to fault today’s legislators. But it may be more honest to blame the “reforms” imposed on the process by well-meaning people over the years.

Consider:

Term limits: Designed to inject a flow of new blood into a sometimes-ossified legislative leadership, term limits have instead created a process where leaders are selected, at least informally, earlier and earlier in their tenure — sometimes before they have even been elected to office.

To do this, they must convince others — who also have not yet been elected — to pledge to support to them. With such early leadership selection, based on zero knowledge of how the prospective leader will wield power, members must vote in the dark. But they do know right away what their future holds. And if they know they are not destined to be a legislative leader, they are prone to simply mark time, spend their time plotting their next career move or use their tenure to ingratiate themselves with interests that might employ them in the future.

By comparison, it used to take many years of service to accumulate the knowledge of the process and the issues to earn a leadership position. By the time a member became speaker of the House or Senate president, the lawmaker had likely served on several committees covering a wide range of important subjects, earned the respect of their peers and didn’t need a lobbyist to tell him what was important.

Consolidation of leadership power: There was a time when the political parties were largely irrelevant in the Legislature. Members rose or fell depending on their individual intellect and personality. But when the rules of fund raising changed to allow the political parties to raise and distribute great amounts of campaign money, party control of the process increased. With the Senate president and House speaker asserting far greater control over the lawmaking process and campaign money, rank-and-file members have far less freedom to propose new policies, pass bills or otherwise make a mark.

In fact, since a member’s vote for leader of their party is so critically important and they have so much less to do thereafter, it is suggested they are like the insect that mates once and dies.

And with fewer opportunities to achieve individual legislative results they may be tempted to devote their time to pointless grandstanding, meddling in the affairs of others such as local government and other extraneous activities.

Single-member districts: The idea was twofold: (a) Make it easier for voters to know and connect with the one person who represents them in each chamber of the Legislature, and (b) Enhance the opportunities for minorities to get elected in districts gerrymandered to include significant numbers of such minorities.

While single-member districts may achieve some of the first objective, it has done so at some expense. With larger multimember districts, candidates used to wait to run until they had achieved some record of community and political achievement closer to home so that when they moved to the Legislature they had some experience behind them. Today the Legislature is often the first stop in a political career.

The jury is still out on the second objective because by pulling as many minorities as possible into a single district you limit their numbers in adjoining districts. So the group (Hispanic or African American) may have one solid vote, but little influence on other nearby lawmakers.

It’s hard to measure the effect of this, but members of minority groups are increasingly questioning the wisdom of this approach.

Always remember: There is a rhythm to the “reform” process, and today’s bright new idea often becomes the evil status quo in need of yet more “reform” tomorrow.

Seth Gordon is an adviser to organizations seeking to enter the Miami/South Florida market.

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