As a lifelong Republican and a legislator for many years, I have seen a disturbing change in the Republican Party of Florida, its policies and its tone. I’m particularly troubled by the willingness, if not deliberate strategy, to twist the truth.
A defining moment in politics came to me when Floridians kept asking me the same question: How do we know what to believe or who to trust?
How sad that voters feel so powerless to make smart decisions because they’re getting so much misleading or conflicting information.
We all understand that the role of political parties is to elect candidates and that they’ll do or say whatever they need to in order to accomplish that goal. That’s supposed to be good politics. Both major political parties do that. And the Republican Party of Florida (RPOF) does it exceptionally well.
The result, however, is to create a low-information or misguided electorate that splits along party lines and regurgitates talking points that lack any factual basis. That is not good for Florida’s future.
Allow me to offer a few examples that I find particularly galling as both a Republican and a former legislator.
The RPOF has put out various versions of the same theme: “Crist raised your taxes. He’s the wrong choice for Florida.” The message here is, don’t vote for someone who raised your taxes. This message is sure to be very effective among voters who don’t understand how our state government functions.
It’s a strange strategy. Let me explain why.
It is the Florida Legislature and not the governor who writes the budget, passes bills and determines policy. So when the RPOF says former Gov. Charlie Crist raised taxes, what it is really saying is the Legislature passed a bill that raised taxes and fashioned a budget that determined how the money would be spent.
What they don’t say is that it was a Republican-controlled Legislature that did it. During the recession, legislative leaders were pushing the increases in license and tag fees and fines to generate close to $2 billion to cover a revenue shortfall to balance the budget.
What they also didn’t say is that legislators were pressured to do so, not by the governor, but by Republican legislative leaders. At the time they insisted it was a fee increase and definitely not a tax hike.
How do I know? I was there and very reluctantly voted Yes, as did all my colleagues in the Florida Senate, on a 40-0 vote. And in the Florida House, the vote was 74-43, with most of the No votes coming from the Democratic representatives.
It was a difficult vote, but during the height of the recession in 2009, we had already made most of the tough cuts and had few options.
Why would the RPOF now throw the Republican-dominated Legislature under the bus for doing what was necessary at the time? Many of those legislators are still in office and running for re-election. Is the party saying they shouldn’t be re-elected?
And why reverse course on calling it a tax increase now when they insisted it was just adjusting fee rates then? And why blame Crist when it was the Legislature that crafted the legislation and the Florida budget?
I know the answer. It’s because it might work. But that doesn’t make it right.
Another similar RPOF claim is that Gov. Rick Scott cut taxes 40 times, Charlie Crist raised them. Again, besides the fact that it is the Legislature and not the governor that raises or cuts taxes, it’s important to note that Republicans controlled the Legislature under both governors and cut taxes under both governors. In fact, the sales-tax holidays on both school clothes and hurricane supplies go back to the Jeb Bush years. Whenever the revenue projections allowed, the Republican-led Legislature granted these tax cuts and more.
One last example: Under Charlie Crist, unemployment was 11.1 percent and 832,000 jobs were lost. Once again, the RPOF seems to be blaming the Republican-led Legislature, as it is responsible for policy. But interestingly, most Republicans believe that government doesn’t create jobs — the private sector does. Also omitted is this crucial fact: Florida’s economy, which relies on housing, tourism and agriculture, was particularly hard hit by the recession and quicker to recover as the national economy started to strengthen.
So, please, RPOF, change your strategy and focus on the good the party has done without misleading voters and without implicating the Legislature in the sins you attribute to the former Republican governor. An informed electorate is better for our state.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.