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Beer and pizza for everyone, Mr. Governor

June 5, 1987

The Mole People finally adjourned in Tallahassee, emerging squinty-eyed into the sunshine where they are now posing, partying and nearly wrenching their arms patting themselves on the back.

Having committed their largest deeds behind closed doors, the legislators of the great state of Florida would now like you to know what a valiant effort they've made on your behalf.

They passed the biggest tax increase in state history, set up a lottery, and agreed to spend millions more on prisons, indigent health care and water cleanup.

They also passed laws that will legally put handguns into the fists of more drunks, half-wits and fruitcakes than ever before. Despite so-called "safeguards," the Legislature will have no more success keeping licensed pistols from lunatics than it does keeping bad drivers off the highways.

In other ways it was a progressive session because—like them or not—new taxes are the only way to start paying for Florida's explosive growth. The scary part is that the average voter has practically no say in how these revenues will be spent, or who'll get their paws on the money.

Years ago Florida passed its famous Sunshine Laws, ostensibly to take the business of government out of the cloakrooms and corridors. At the time a reform-minded Legislature boldly voted that all meetings of public bodies be held in the open—except, naturally, those of the Legislature itself.

The law that makes it illegal for members of a city council or a school board or a county commission to meet secretly doesn't apply to your faithful representatives in Tallahassee, who this year had their way with $18.7 billion of your money.

How did they do it? We're not exactly sure, since they wouldn't let us in.

True, floor sessions and regular committee meeting are wide open to the press and public, but the real lawmaking doesn't happen there. It happens in private.

Take the controversial new sales tax on services, for instance. It wasn't negotiated on the floor in view of the gallery. It was drafted over beer and pizza at the Tallahassee townhouse of Bob Coker, a lobbyist for a Big Sugar firm. Among those joining the House and Senate leaders in the late-night festivities were key aides to Gov. Bob Martinez.

You remember Bob Martinez, that fellow who campaigned vigorously on a promise of no secret meetings? Remember his indignant TV ads, showing arrogant cracker legislators slamming the door in the public's face? Apparently the governor is not so indignant now.

For a brief moment this session a few senators rebelled. They proposed an amendment that would have required legislators to meet in the open at all times, even when jawboning with the governor.

You can imagine the rapture with which this idea was greeted. Senate Rules Chairman Dempsey Barren and Senate President John Vogt (the King and Crown Prince of the Mole People) snuffed the Sunshine amendment as quickly as possible.

Later Sen. Larry Plummer of South Miami pointedly offered a new version that would have opened all governmental sessions, including "midnight meetings over pepperoni pizza or anything else."

This, too, was flattened by Vogt's gavel.

Think about what it means. These are people who work for you, and whose salaries you pay—yet they won't let you watch what they're doing. It's like having the Maytag repairman lock you out of your own house until he's finished fiddling with your appliances.

Admittedly, cutting deals is a part of the legislative process that's easier done in a tunnel than on TV But if nothing sleazy is going on, then what's the harm in letting the public see?

Martinez says gee whiz, he'd just love to open all the meetings, really he would—but those darn legislators just won't go along.

It sounds like the governor's eyes have already adjusted to the dark.


Why not study the brains of top Florida officials? October 9, 1985 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Foul odors get worse in legislature December 12, 1990







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