Former governors offer critique of Florida’s future

Five of Florida’s former governors met at the University of Florida Friday and offered up a stern bi-partisan warning about the future direction of the state.

The governors — Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Buddy MacKay and Charlie Crist — lamented the loss of environmental protections, the dismantling of guided growth management, and the recent partisan assault on the Florida Supreme Court.

Absent from the panel was former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. The “Conversation with Florida Governors” was sponsored by the UF law school’s Law Review as part of the Allen L. Poucher Legal Education Series.

Askew, who as a Democratic governor (1971-79) ushered in judicial reform and the non-partisan merit retention elections for the Supreme Court, said he was disappointed that the Republican Party had joined in the push to oppose the three justices up for merit retention. He chided critics who claim that the justices should not be judged by their records.

“The Republican Party is, I think, making a serious mistake when it injects a partisan view on what should be a non-partisan system,’’ he said. But, “an election is an election” and “people can’t get told what they can consider.”

MacKay, the former Democratic legislator and congressman who served as lieutenant governor under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles from 1991-97, chided the Republican-led legislature as having forgotten the state’s past.

He recalled how the Legislature in the 1970s was controlled by a tight-knit group of conservative leaders who “were facing the wrong direction.”

“We were the fastest growing state and they were fighting change,’’ MacKay recalled. “The state didn’t have any plan, we were growing 1,000 net new residents a day and a lot of people said let the market take care of it.”

Today’s legislative leadership “is basically faced in the wrong direction” again, he said, “ blaming things on the federal government and basically saying we don’t need a plan: let the hidden hand of the market take care of it.”

He drew chuckles and applause from the crowd when he said Gov. Rick Scott also “believes in the hidden hand of the marketplace — which some people think is a fist clenched. Others believe it’s a hand with the middle finger sticking up.’’

Graham, a Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years after he was as governor from 1979-87, said he set a series of goals. Among them: bringing Florida’s higher education system into the top quartile of the nation and making environmental protection a policy embraced by every generation.

“Florida has a very rich but fragile environment and it requires each generation making a commitment that we will leave it better,’’ he said.

They also accomplished the education goal and, along the way, the state’s per capita income rose above the national average, a distinction that has since faded as the per capita income of Florida residents is now less than in most other states.

Martinez, a Republican who served from 1987-91, noted the environmental and growth management reforms put in place when he was governor prompted critics calling them communists. Over time, he said, local governments layered on their own rules and regulations, leading to delays and complexities.

“Instead of killing growth management, in my view, they should have looked at what was redundant and what was causing the added costs and the delay,’’ he said. “The easy way was to get rid of it. The more sensible way would have been to fix it.’’

Crist, governor from 2007-11, famously left his party and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as an independent. He noted attending a fundraiser Thursday night in Miami on behalf of President Barack Obama, whom he has endorsed.

He was asked about the oil spill during his term and said he “will be forever grateful to the Obama administration in holding BPs feet to the fire.”

That bi-partisan approach “is what we desperately need in Washington today and I think most people realize if you don’t work together, you can’t get stuff done,’’ he said.

Crist was received warmly by the other governor’s, including MacKay and Graham who each sparred with him politically in the past. After the event, Askew pulled him aside to offer a word of consolation for being the brunt of criticism from his former party.

“Charlie Crist got pushed out of the Republican Party for reaching across the aisle — which is what the people want,’’ Askew later told reporters. “Charlie Crist advertised himself as the people’s governor. I’m not endorsing him, but he’s a friend, a very good friend, and I regretted he had to bear the brunt of excessive partisanship.’’