Groucho Marx Ruled Freedonia With More Grace

DANIEL RUTH Published: Nov 4, 2001, Tampa Tripune

F or a more cogent, thoughtful, erudite analysis of the recent special session of the Florida Legislature, it is best to turn to the seasoned, policy-wonk, thumb-sucking punditocracy. At the risk of being accused of superficiality with respect to the arcane process of legislating, I can't rid myself of the nagging conclusion this state is governed by complete, unmitigated morons.

I'll plead guilty. In spite of spending a lifetime of watching these legislative colonoscopies, I continue to believe that when tough times call for difficult decisions, elected officials will at least TRY to do the right thing.

As CBS golf analyst David Feherty would say, ``Well slap me silly, and call me Sally.'' Once more I've been proved naive.

For roughly two weeks during a rotten, stinking special session in Tallahassee, the Florida Legislature had one - count 'em, ONE - thing to do.

Any Adults?

One thing: Find a way to trim the state's budget by $1.3 billion, a shortfall brought about by the Legislature's and Gov. Jeb Bush's financial mismanagement and then exacerbated by draconian shortfalls in revenues stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks.

Did reason and compromise and statesmanship prevail? Was there an actual adult to be found anywhere within the shadow of the Capitol?

Dear reader, this is the Florida Legislature we're talking about. You'd probably find more intelligent life in an anthrax spore.

The Legislature did, however, approve two more specialty license plates. Now there's a buffet line of pols hard at work.

How abysmal was the special session? The Legislature did almost nothing - and what little they did was probably illegal. And the governor was more missing in action than Bill Clinton during the Vietnam War.

Good grief, Groucho Marx exercised more leadership over Freedonia in ``Duck Soup'' than what passes for governance in Tallahassee.

You would think, with Republicans in full control of the House, Senate and governor's mansion, at least a certain common ideological kismet would prevail in hammering out an agreement on fixing the state's financial woes.

Who Needs Common Sense?

Ah, but that would require, uh, some thought to occur. No such luck.

Instead, Senate President John McKay, R-The Days of Whine and Poses, and House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-War Lord, spent their time comparing the relative size of their ..., er, ... gavels, rather than actually doing their elected jobs.

Here on Earth, if you had to trim a state budget by $1.3 billion, common sense would dictate two principles: (A) Try to spread the pain round as equitably as possible, and (B) proportionally apply the burden of deficit reduction to those who can bear it with broader shoulders.

But on the Planet Apalachee, that's not what happened, of course.

McKay, with all the political acumen of a sack of gerbils, thought he'd attempt some gamesmanship with Feeney. This was like Wile E. Coyote and Elmer Fudd matching wits.

While the governor twiddled his thumbs, being about as involved in the process as Malcolm Glazer is in calling plays, McKay sent a Senate budget-cutting plan to the House to taling $800 million, believing the measure would fail and result in negotiations between the two bodies.

But Feeney, the Cardinal Richelieu of Clyde's & Costello's, happily endorsed the McKay plan since it did not touch his beloved $130 million investment intangibles tax cut, leaving the Senate president frantically lobbying House members to kill his own bill.

In the end, the $800 million deficit-reduction package passed the House without the legally mandated 72-hour waiting period, with the shortfall to be made up with cuts to such areas as the Bright Futures Scholarships, pharmaceutical expenses for the elderly, child support enforcement, substance- abuse initiatives and $118 million in education funding.

But - Feeney's $130 intangibles tax break was protected. Whew!

Now the state still has a $400 million budget shortfall and a deficit-reduction package that in all likelihood was illegally passed, which means another special session will be needed so that the same people can fix the debacle they created.

The governor, more out of public view than Dick Cheney, said he was confused. This probably passes for progress on the Planet Bush. Columnist Daniel Ruth can be reached at (813) 259-7599.