‘We could save a lot of money if we got rid of the FL House and Senate altogether’

February 10, 2023 9:08 am

House Speaker Ralph Haben, (center) huddles with ERA proponents and opponents during debate in the chamber. (l to r) Rep. Elaine Gordon, Rep. Sam Bell III, Haben, Rep. Tom Bush and Rep. Bill Sadowski (background). 1980. Donn Dughi collection. Florida Memory, State Library and Archives of Florida.

I’m wondering what happened to the Florida Legislature.

I’ve kept up on happenings in the state Capitol over the years, and usually, lawmakers seemed to have brains and the guts to take action and solve the state’s problems.

Now they merely bow down to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and do his bidding.

We could save a lot of money if we got rid of the House and Senate altogether.

Our Florida Constitution never anticipated the creation of a state totally governed by one branch of government. But that seems to be the case in Tallahassee these days.

Years ago, things were different.

The House and Senate had many independent members who came up with good government ideas.

Senate Rules chairman Dempsey Barron, (D)-Panama City, unveils T-shirt given to him as a gag gift, saying: “Have you Hugged The Rules Chairman Lately.” April 6, 1983. Dughi, Donn (Donald Gregory), 1932-2005. Florida Memory. State Library and Archives of Florida.

I cannot help but think of people like former Florida Rep. Sam Bell, former Sen. Dempsey Barron, former House Speaker Ralph Haben and lawmakers of old who were willing to challenge a bad idea proposed by a governor.

Asylum-seeker airlifts and Disney controversy

DeSantis got a lot of bad ink when he authorized up to $12 million or so in state funds to transport an airplane full of immigrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard last year.

A couple of criminal investigations and lawsuits were proposed after the airplane made a brief stop in the Florida Panhandle because the budget money was designed to take immigrants from Florida to other states.

This week legislators are moving fast to pass bills that would allow more of these hideous transports.

And they have completely forgotten what Disney World has meant for tourism and millions of Floridians who have long enjoyed their entertainment.

Now lawmakers seem willing to let the governor take over Disney World’s special taxing district — with five board members all appointed by DeSantis — and dictate what happens there.

A view of the entrance of Walt Disney World March 22, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. Employees staging  walkout to protest Walt Disney Co.’s response to controversial legislation passed in Florida known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

The governor didn’t like comments made earlier by Disney officials who questioned DeSantis’ plans to limit the freedom of Floridians who choose lives that are a little different.

When the governor barks, the Republican controlled Legislature just plays dead.

It is embarrassing to watch.

The Legislature as a co-equal branch of government no longer exists.

“Anything that DeSantis enacts, he gets,’’ notes J.M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a longtime lobbyist and former chief of staff for Republican Gov. Bob Martinez.

“The legislators are afraid of him – he picks nominees in Republican primaries and doesn’t hesitate to attack or punish a legislator in public. They all want to remain in office,’’ he added.  “They do things that are patently unconstitutional.’’

The only time a legislator can weigh in on issues involve things that are of no interest to the governor, Stipanovich added.

Back in the days when the Legislature was controlled by Democrats, lawmakers didn’t just rubber stamp the governor.

But that was a time when the Legislature mattered.

The disease that seems to have crippled the Legislature is spreading into the state courts now.

The federal courts don’t hesitate to rule against the governor, but many of the state courts are catching the disease that has killed the Legislature.

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Lucy Morgan
Lucy Morgan

Pulitzer Prize-winner Lucy Morgan was chief of the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times capital bureau in Tallahassee for 20 years, retiring in 2006 and serving as senior correspondent until 2013. She was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame and the Florida Newspaper Hall of Fame. The Florida Senate named its press gallery after Morgan, in honor of her two decades covering the Legislature.