Who speaks for the public interest in Florida?

08/05/2014 4:17 PM

08/05/2014 4:19 PM

There was a time — and not that long ago — when the public interest was well represented in Tallahassee. Acting on its behalf were such lawmakers from South Florida as Dick Pettigrew, Bill Sadowski, Marshall Harris, Jack Gordon, Sandy D’Alemberte, Elaine Gordon, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Bob Butterworth, and Carrie Meek, to mention a few who come easily to mind.

Over the same period, we had governors for whom protecting and advancing the public interest was a top priority. They knew who wrote the big checks, even accepted some, but still acted on behalf of those who couldn’t pay to play — teachers, cops, firefighters and the working poor, immigrants.

I’m thinking of governors like Reubin O’D. Askew, Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush. I’m not suggesting any of them deserve canonization. They often acted in their own self-interest, but in the long run their self-interest lined up squarely with the public interest. These were elected leaders who understood that public service meant serving the public interest. They believed in the commonweal, the greater good.

Oh, where are such leaders now?

Out at the King Ranch in Texas shootin’ themselves some deer, drinking bourbon and branch and sittin’ round the fire of a night feasting on some tasty ’cue. Resting up after a long day on the hunt on Frette linens in a luxurious “bunkhouse.” All courtesy of U.S. Sugar of Clewiston, which operates solely in its self-interest. That includes seeking laws and regulations that make it easier (and cheaper) to farm thousands of acres of sugarcane in and around Lake Okeechobee, whose cultivation requires huge amounts of water and fertilizer, the run-off of which pollutes the Everglades.

You have to ask yourself, how did the governor, current and future House speakers and chairs of important legislative committees justify going on some 20 trips to the King Ranch knowing that U.S. Sugar was picking up all or most of the bill? Did they say to themselves, Nobody will ever know? Or, I can accept this and still be independent? Or, Hey, the governor’s going so why can’t I?

I’m reminded of one of the greatest political aphorisms ever uttered, which I will clean up a bit for a family newspaper. Jesse Unruh, then speaker of the California State Assembly, once said: “If you can’t eat their food, drink their booze, mess around with their women and then vote against them in the morning you don’t belong in politics.”

It appears the top elected leadership of our state doesn’t belong in politics because they did most of what Unruh described and then voted for them in the morning, afternoon and evening. Distressingly, it appears to be legal because a loophole in state ethics laws governing gifts to lawmakers allows such boondoggles as long as they’re paid for through a third party.

In this case, the Republican Party of Florida. U.S. Sugar paid the RPOF $95,000 to be the pass-through for these trips, which are listed in party records as for “fund-raising.” Oh, and Gov. Scott says “no state business” was discussed during these jaunts. I wonder what was.

A month after returning from bagging a deer, which we’re told he mounted at his own expense, Scott appointed a King Ranch executive in charge of their agricultural acreage in Florida to the South Florida Water Management District. He may have been well qualified for the job, but it still doesn’t pass the smell test. And Scott signed a bill into law that lets the sugar industry pay a tiny percentage of the cost of Everglades cleanup, despite a constitutional amendment that says the polluter must pay.

There are good and dedicated men and women of principle who serve in the Legislature, but they are subservient to party leaders who bow before the special interests. Never in my memory has the public interest, the commonweal, been so flagrantly ignored in Florida as it is now in favor of doing the bidding of big, monied special interests.

The energy, insurance, agriculture, manufacturing and medical industries are having a field day in Tallahassee. But none more so than Big Sugar. So far this year, U.S. Sugar has contributed $2.2 million to various Florida politicians and their political action committees. The governor has raked in $534,000 all by himself. This is the same person who four years ago slammed his GOP primary opponent, Bill McCollum, as “bought and paid for” by Big Sugar. This is the same person who vowed to go to Tallahassee and change the culture. Looks like the culture changed him.

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