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Friday, April 29, 2011

Zealots in the House

Sometimes I really wonder if there should be a Florida House. Usually, those moments are brought on by the passage of such bills as the recent abortion restrictions which got passed out of the chamber.

Of course, it is no surprise these bills passed, considering the fact the onerous ultrasound bill was thrown at Charlie Crist last year purely out of the potential to politically embarrass the governor for using common sense in the wielding of his veto pen.

Politicians in Tallahassee are raising the rhetoric on the bill, with even a few pro-life Democrats citing the 10 commandments as a good arguing for legislating the morality of women in Florida. (Thank you, Daphne Campbell, for not only breaking ranks but just spitting on the entire principle of church-state separation as you voted in support of this disgusting attack on a woman's right to choose.)

But while I am disgusted, I am not surprised. The Florida House, made up of members representing relatively small districts that seem perfectly shaped to protect incumbents in nearly every part of this state. The chamber has been a bastion of extremism for as long as anyone can remember. Even when Democrats controlled the chamber, it ran to the fringes on the left compared to the deliberative state Senate.

If anything makes this House something to fear with more caution than normal, it is that we have a governor as crazy as the looniest of members. He practically promised to challenge Roe v. Wade on the trail in his quest to buy the governor's mansion.

And so we are left with this nonsensical legislation bearing a stronger-than-usual possibility of becoming actual statute.

Many people have suggested the House, elected every two years, better reflects the current attitudes of the state as a whole. I would say the Florida House has never done that and always gets dominated by extremists, and right now has a chance to ram legislation written by zealots and make Florida live under draconian laws.

The only bright side is that the extraordinary national embarrassment being delivered to the Sunshine State by the Scott administration and his far-right chronies will inspire a response from voters in 2012.

Sadly, that seems a very slim prospect.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

100 Days of Madness

It has been 100 days now since the Dark Lord Voldemort took over the governor's mansion, and since he arrival, we have seen nothing but the smugness, arrogance and generally evil stance that almost enough of us predicted before his election.

Today, unions in the state came out to give him failing marks on everything. No surprise. Only the state constitution stops him from going the full Scott Walker and trying to ruin the employment of every government officials on his quest to get Florida to work. It seems the entire polling public in Florida has also caught on the his wicked ways.

I wish I could say I was surprised at what a bad job he has been doing. I also wish I was surprised how long it has taken the general public to catch on. But this is pretty status quo for Florida. Democrats hurt when the crazies in Tallahassee take over, but never enough to do anything about it. Then again, maybe that is starting to change.

That is why today I want to offer an unusual bit of celebration on this 100th day of madness in Florida. The reason? Not because I think Rick Scott is now or ever will do anything that results in positives for the state of Florida. I don't believe that will ever happen. But there just may be method to Scott's madness. Not method to his own ends, mind you, but a method which may finally result in an awakening of state progressives.

For too long, this has been a state that was 50-50 when it came to votes on national politics but which has reliably and inexplicably sent just one party to Tallahassee with enough power to truly govern. It is no wonder Rick Scott thinks he has a mandate to gut public good and ignore the law with executive whim. Even if he came in by an historically-slim margin, the man is surrounded by GOP compatriots.

But even in a Capital where Republicans can't lose, there is resistance to Scott. Lawmakers don't like his budget. Law Enforcement officials don't like his plans for the prisons. And nobody seems to like his tendency to act more as a king than a single person within a single branch of government.

Yet, this man is the face of the Republican party. Heck, he has become a national figure even as he has met only resistance among those he must work with in Tallahassee. Politically speaking, this man is a godsend for progressives. He represents the worst of the no-government branch of the GOP. He makes Ayn Rand look a bleeding heart Huey Long seem like a model for good government practices.

There will likely be a primary challenge of Scott in four years, but it won't work. The man feeds red meat to the base, and until their heart explodes because of it, they will keep him around. But general election voters likely will have far less taste for what he is serving. And without a Republican tide inching him across the finish line in four years, it will be a hard fight.

In the short term, though, the man is going to weigh down every Republican running in two years who has to face a legitimate Democratic challenger. Even if they fight Scott at every turn, GOP lawmakers will be branded with his policies. That means we need to contest the GOP in as many places as possible. Even districts which will be handdrawn by this legislature and which look unwinnable could turn blue in 2012 if Obama performs well again and the voters maintain a distaste for Rick Scott's politics.

So today, I revel in the madness, only because the madness may hold the promise of a better tomorrow

Monday, April 11, 2011

Eliminate Term Limits

It is no secret in Tallahassee that term limits have not been what they were cracked up to be. Imposed by voters in the late 90s, the idea had its appeal to voters across the spectrum. Since then, though, we have seen only a growth in the influence of lobbyists, a steady drum beat of corruption and a sad state of affairs where no decent lawmaker can make a difference before getting escorted into retirement.

I covered the Legislature in 2000, the first year the true effects of term limits were felt. Back then, so many new lawmakers were coming to town that Tom Feeney had them all where name tags with pictures. The House at the time still had its share of long-timers waiting to be wiped out by the full effects of the law in 2002, but already the problems were making themselves known. Rookie lawmakers were won over by big ideas that had shallow supporting facts. I know one lawmaker who voted for a bill that would allow dirty water to be injected into the aquifer, and within days had turned his position around as he got new facts. How did this happen? It was just too easy for lobbyists to convince lawmakers of anything just long enough for them to cast a vote.

In the coming decade, the Senate would increasingly become frustrated with terms. This body will always have the most experience just because so many House members move from one Chamber to the other, but the fact Senators with less than a decade of experience can seem long in the tooth in Tallahassee shows an enormous problem.

Rick Kriseman in St. Pete is trying to improve the situation by lengthening the terms of lawmakers and making their stays in Tallahassee a little bit longer. But with all due respect, this isn't enough.

For any change to happen, there must be a voter-approved amendment to the Constitution. And if you are going through the expense of a campaign convincing voters term limits are bad, you may as well fix the problem entirely.

We need to eliminate term limits entirely.

I know this is a touch sell. And I realize pointing at chambers full of incompetent or outright corrupt lawmakers is not something which instinctively makes people desire career politicians. But it is important people understand the fundamental reasons why Tallahassee is broken.

Most legislators in Tallahassee are generally good people. Even the ones whose agendas are bad are there with good intentions. But they simply don't know what they are doing. The incompetence is a byproduct of ignorance, not stupidity. Perhaps lawmakers would be less inclined to believe glossy PowerPoint presentations by high-priced lobbyists if they had the savvy to tell basic facts from bullshit slides. That comes with time, not training.

It also comes with years of communicating with constituents, which is where I think Kriseman might have something wrong. There are problems with the year-round campaign cycle, but a good thing about having House members up for vote every two years is that they have to face the music back home for good and bad choices. I don't really want to lose that, especially when I see potential for Democrats in the coming campaign cycle to make real inroads for the first time in years.

But I also don't want to see good lawmakers lost. If a public servant, regardless of their political philosophies, is representing his or her constituency well and delivering good government practice, then they shouldn't get tossed after eight or 12 years just for getting re-elected too many times.

Our problem is that lawmakers stick around too short a time, not too long. We have a Senate President right now who never served in Tallahassee before 2000, when that first heavy freshman class I was talking about first arrived at the Capitol. But Mike Haridopolos is an old-timer compares to House Speaker Dean Cannon, who just arrived in Tallahassee in 2004. Mix that in with a new Governor and a Cabinet full of folks in their first years at their current jobs and you have a mess of inexperience and brash reactionaries.

So I am sorry Rep. Kriseman. Your intentions are correct, but your solution is short-sighted. Maybe if you had a little more experience...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wasserman Schultz Running DNC

Any doubts about Florida's importance in 2012 just got erased. Debbie Wasserman Schultz just got tapped to head to Democratic National Committee. Via Politico:

The committee announced the choice in an email to members from Vice President Joe Biden.

“In selecting Debbie to lead our party, President Obama noted her tenacity, her strength, her fighting spirit and her ability to overcome adversity,” Biden wrote.

“President Obama expressed great admiration for her as a leader, and he was honored that she accepted this important challenge on behalf of the Democratic Party.”

Of course, I have fawned over the Congresswoman before, and believe she is probably the strongest progressive voice to come out of this state in years.

I do hope with this role she doesn't get skittish about challenging incumbent Republican congressmen. Personally, I think the pact that Florida House members maintained for years to stay out of challenges to incumbents has been a great thing, but she cannot live by that now that she has taken on this national role, and when so many important races in Florida will be in play next year.

But I am ecstatic about this choice and offer my congratulations.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

My Condescending Defense of Terry Jones' Free Speech

I'm having trouble swallowing the notion that violence has been introduced to Afghanistan thanks to the actions of Florida Pastor Terry Jones. Never mind the fact warlords have been clashing in the country for generations and the United States has been engaged in a major war there for the past decade.

But I digress. Headlines around the world proclaim that Jones is, indeed, responsible for riots and deaths, so it must be so. The Senate may hold hearings on the matter. Hamid Karzai is now demanding the U.S. take action. Quite a stir for a looney-toon minister with a handlebar mustache to cause all by himself.

So with 20 people dead, apparently as a direct result of this stunt in Gainesville, do I still feel it was vital for Jones to go forward with this vile and hateful act?

In a word: Yes!

Just so nobody misinterprets, I will say again burning the Quran is hateful and wrong. But that doesn't mean it isn't constitutionally-protected free speech. And it doesn't mean it doesn't provide something extremely valuable to the marketplace of ideas.

Indeed, if this single act was in fact responsible for the riots across the words, that demonstrates something remarkable. Americans cannot continue to believe this is not a small world, or that we are not all interconnected. In one of the least advanced sections of Planet Earth, there is widespread knowledge about an event attended by a handful of people in Alachua County. Cling to isolationism if you insist, but the belief we live in a different universe than the denizens of Afghanistan is simply wrong. Oceans cannot separate us anymore. Communications technology puts us all on the same block.

But this also shows that rhetorical assaults upon the Islamic faith do create national security concerns. I have long argued that attacking the faith of Muslims is the way to make enemies, and that our targeted military intervention upon a single religious group creates additional friction and danger. That is on display right now, and for once, people from across political spectrums are attacking the source of hate for sowing this incredible discord.

Keep in mind we live in a nation where the nastiest thing critics of President Obama can hurl is the false assertion he is a Muslim. Those rational enough not to cling to such lies still suggest it problematic that he even grew up around a large number of Muslims.

Such hateful attacks may help draw more base voters to the polls during midterms, but it also has the consequence of putting innocent people in danger. But somehow when cable pundits make these disparaging assertions, they get a pass. Jones does not. It is an interesting dynamic, but one that is deniably at play.

The truth is Jones has done a tremendous service for this nation by showing what bigotry can wrought even on the opposite side of the world. That is why this sort of hateful speech is constitutionally protected. Even when it is born of evil, its exposure can serve a greater good.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Is Rhee the Answer? Or Did Someone Fill the Bubble In Later

When Gov. Rick Scott began his transition to Tallahassee, everyone wondered what sort of government experts this private sector leader would seek out for guidance. I doubt any of his choices got as much attention as Michelle Rhee, the controversial education reformer who had made significant waves in Washington, D.C., and become a bit of a darling for conservatives in the education arena.

Since Scott just pushed Education Commissioner Eric Smith out of Tally, this connection is especially important to consider.

But anyone who thinks Rhee needs to play a leadership role in Florida's education system better pay close attention to what is happening in D.C right now where an erasure scandal threatens to undermine every bit of success there. Read the entire USA Today article. You will understand why "holding teachers accountable" makes for much better bumper sticker debate than public policy. And you will understand why Rick Scott cannot turn to Rhee right now if anything positive is to happen with Florida's school system.

From USA Today:
In 2007-08, six classrooms out of the eight taking tests at Noyes were flagged by McGraw-Hill because of high wrong-to-right erasure rates. The pattern was repeated in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, when 80% of Noyes classrooms were flagged by McGraw-Hill.

On the 2009 reading test, for example, seventh-graders in one Noyes classroom averaged 12.7 wrong-to-right erasures per student on answer sheets; the average for seventh-graders in all D.C. schools on that test was less than 1. The odds are better for winning the Powerball grand prize than having that many erasures by chance, according to statisticians consulted by USA TODAY.

"This is an abnormal pattern," says Thomas Haladyna, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who has studied testing for 20 years.

Basically, there is strong evidence indicating someone at the "most improved" schools in D.C. benefiting because somebody was scrubbing bad answers off tests and replacing them with correct ones. This shows why standardized testing is not only a bad single measure for grading scales, but an extremely corruptible one as well. One must truly wonder why a newspaper investigation is what has prompted more investigation.

After Rhee initially bristled at the investigation, calling it work by the "enemies of school reform," she has gotten behind a criminal investigation.

I would be surprised if we learned Rhee had any direct involvement in the erasures, but make no mistake, without "reforms" which valued test scores above all else and which punished teachers for the performance of students on said tests, there would be no incentive for cheating on these tests. This is a direct result of the right's idea of reform.

If Scott decides right now to put Rhee, or a Rhee surrogate, in charge of Florida's statewide education system, and to follow further in D.C.'s footsteps, it will mean only further national embarrassment for a much-maligned school system and an administration which is already becoming a national joke.