It's Unanimous: Florida Legislature Flunked
Scene of the crime: the state capitol in Tallahassee
Flickr User: MonteCristo
Sure, it's unfair to focus entirely on what did not happen in a legislative session, and with all the economic troubles, this one was going to be grueling no matter what. But even grading against a curve of extremely low expectations this past session was a disgrace. Again and again, petty politics won out over crisis management. You'd be hard-pressed to find a newspaper in the state that can find a silver lining. The St. Petersburg Times kicked things off Friday with a withering editorial that ended on this sour note:
The few victories for Floridians have involved killing of bad ideas rather than approving good ones. At this point, the less lawmakers do today -- and the sooner they go home -- the better.
The House Republicans were singled out for their egregiously irresponsible leadership, but the Tampa Tribune pointed out that Crist could have whipped them into shape if he hadn't spent the session grinning like a fool:
With the state desperately needing direction, Crist said he preferred not to interfere with the legislative process. He governed with a sunny attitude but no substantive victories.
Political cowardice on his part. Someone had to make tough decisions during a time of crisis, and Crist didn't want the job, because he didn't want to be blamed for raising taxes and other necessary but politically unpopular moves. He had a Senate campaign to think about.
The Miami Herald actually congratulates this motley crew for passing a balanced budget -- which is a job requirement. No points for courage or skill, however:
In good times, political shenanigans and partisan politics are less noticeable. However, tough times require that lawmakers set aside ideology in favor of negotiation and statesmanship. The 2009 Legislature blew this test.
The Orlando Sentinel's outrage was for missed opportunities, like the SunRail that would have brought $35.5 million in federal funds and thousands of jobs. But mostly on the opportunity to use the economy as a legitimate excuse for not giving special interests the usual cart blanche. Instead:
Lawmakers used the economy as justification for killing measures they didn't like, regardless of the benefit to the public. Lawmakers then used the economy to prop up other measures that for years they wanted to embrace but couldn't without a scapegoat -- like the weak economy.
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And just because Republicans were in charge doesn't mean Democrats are absolved. The party backed by a popular new president who won the state in November and is liked by the governor had more political capital to spend than it seemed to know. Members could have been more creative and more forceful in persuading Republicans to do the right thing.
We can go on and on. For me, the hardest part to swallow was the Legislature's willingness to leave countless millions of dollars on the table. Besides SunRail, there was the $444 million in federal stimulus dollars earmarked for Florida's unemployed. Then there's the money the state could have gained from Seminole gambling. It's hardly an ideal revenue source, but this was not the time to be choosy. State legislators came back this week for the sole purpose of hammering out some deal that would result in annual payments by the Tribe of $150 million to $200 million. But now that deal's a wreck too.
If you'll indulge yet another movie analogy, imagine Three Amigos trekking across a desert, which stands for the Florida economy in this analogy. Martin Short and Steve Martin are the people of Florida, nearly perishing with financial thirst. The legislature is Chevy Chase, water rolling carelessly off his chin; he gargles it and spits it out, then tosses the half-full canteen to the dry earth, where it empties.
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