Carl Ramey: A new tone in Tallahassee?
Published: Sunday, February 24, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 at 10:58 p.m.
The curtain goes up on a new session of the Florida Legislature on March 5. Recent performances dictate holding our applause.
Early reports do hint, however, that bipartisanship might even be part of the plot this year.
One can only hope — because the last two sessions have been virtually bipartisan free. Like kids in a candy store, entrenched Republicans in the House and Senate (bolstered by a tea party favorite in the governor's mansion) rushed to take up almost everything on an arch-conservative's checklist.
Like other Republican-controlled legislatures around the country, Tallahassee lawmakers put women's reproductive health front and center. Scores of anti-abortion bills overflowed legislative hoppers, eventually leading to a mandatory ultrasound law and a ballot proposal under which Florida's constitutional right to privacy would no longer be applicable to abortion cases (rejected by voters in November).
On guns, they passed one law prohibiting private doctors from even asking patients about gun ownership (later ruled unconstitutional) and another stripping all local governments of any right to regulate firearms (a preemptive action favoring more permissive, National Rifle Association-sponsored state laws).
On religion, they proposed a constitutional amendment that would have given religious-based organizations non-discriminatory access to public funds (rejected by voters in November and passed a law allowing students to address their peers with "inspirational messages" (prayers) at school events (almost certainly unconstitutional). The House even voted overwhelmingly to crack down on Sharia (Islamic) law, a xenophobic crusade to stamp out a non-existent threat.
This unabashed social-issues agenda was complemented by an even more blatant political agenda. It started with a vindictive, unprincipled campaign to rein in the independence of Florida's Supreme Court (including efforts to dilute its membership and hamper its role) and ended with a disgraceful effort to disenfranchise Florida voters historically more aligned with the Democratic Party.
By dramatically curtailing early voting, toughening voter registration and conducting an ill-informed, largely phony, voter purge on the eve of a national election — leading to confusion, intimidation, voter hardships, and inexcusable delays in reporting results — Florida's Legislature and governor added another ignominious chapter to the state's already shameful election history.
So, the recent record is not promising. But the past doesn't have to forecast the future. Which is why one can take some encouragement from Gov. Rick Scott's announced reversal of course on issues like school budget cuts and election laws (even if motivated by his upcoming reelection campaign), and a promised change in tone by legislative leaders.
New Senate President Don Gaetz and new House Speaker Will Weatherford have already signaled their willingness to tackle election reform (if only to rectify past wrongs ), and to strengthen campaign finance and ethics laws. More importantly, they have pledged to work across the aisle with Democrats.
As the Tampa Bay Times recently observed, both leaders appear "serious, thoughtful and engaged", trumpeting a "vision for Florida that stretches beyond next year." If true, that's a good start— because modern Florida deserves better.
Whatever its history, Florida is not now a stereotypical old-South, unwavering red state. Yes, it's tightly controlled by Republicans, whose position has been solidified by creative gerrymandering of state election districts. But, statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans, and, like the rest of the nation, more people reside in large urban or suburban areas than in small town, rural areas.
Florida is, in fact, widely regarded as a microcosm of the entire country. Historian Richard Norton Smith even calls Florida a "nation-state," a mega state so diverse that it mirrors the nation's moods, trends and demographic makeup.
Given this mix and population distribution, we might expect to see a more representative legislature with a more progressive (diverse) agenda. That we don't is wrapped up in Florida's unique history and years of complicated political maneuvering.
It would be foolhardy to expect GOP legislators or Scott to forsake core conservative positions. Still, less emphasis on divisive issues tinged with religion or partisan politics would be a big improvement. Equally helpful would be more time spent on issues impacting all Floridians — like education, the environment, health care and repairing infrastructure.
But crafting workable solutions to universal problems requires more than a ceremonial reaching across the aisle. It requires real deal-making. To be sure, a new tone in Tallahassee is welcome, but don't expect better results until pragmatists not ideologists are driving the agenda.
Carl R. Ramey, a former Washington, D.C., communications attorney, lives in Gainesville.