Florida's House speaker designate got it right: Lawmakers are the problem, not special interests.
Few Floridians pay close attention to what goes on in Tallahassee, except: 1) maybe, when the Legislature is in regular session; 2) if there's a gubernatorial election on the horizon; or 3) if Florida's governor is doing something stupid.
It would not be a stretch to say most Floridians cannot name the current Senate president or the House speaker, much less the governor. And surely, you would be hard pressed to find anyone, except his family members, who could name the state's lieutenant governor.
But Florida Speaker-to-be Richard Corcoran, a Republican from Pasco County, shook the Tallahassee and media trees last week when he delivered his acceptance speech as the speaker designate.
The mainstream media's Tallahassee watchers went gonzo over it, shooting arrows and spitballs mostly at 254 words in Corcoran's 2,936-word speech — and overlooking what matters most, which is what the Corcoran agenda will be when, presumably, he assumes the speakership.
Instead, and not surprisingly, the media pundits and Tallahassee press corps (e.g. big daily papers) focused on Corcoran's call for the Legislature to adopt new rules and laws that would stop lawmakers from becoming lobbyists the minute their terms end, or from taking jobs at companies that benefit from state tax dollars while they are legislators.
These are good ideas average Floridians would endorse. They are in line with the present climate nationwide that the country's electorate is really, really sick and tired of career politicians — thanks largely to the incompetence emanating from Washington, from the White House to Congress.
Given this climate, it's worth reading some of what Corcoran said:
“We must close the revolving door between the Legislature and the lobby corps ... We do that by passing a constitutional amendment that bans any state elected official from lobbying the legislative or executive branch for a period of six years, not two ...
“We must send a clear signal that public service is not a path to personal financial gain ... We accomplish this by banning elected officials from taking jobs in government, unless elected by the people, for a period of six years after they leave office.
“We must build an absolute firewall between our private lives and the influence of special interests whether real or perceived. We must remove temptation and ban special interests from hiring legislators. Period. No legislator will be able to take a job while in office with any company or group that receives any funding from the state, directly or indirectly.”
Right on, brother.
Although on point, Corcoran's admonitions sound to be more of an “inside baseball” agenda than reforms that actually would make Florida a better place to live.
Nonetheless, Corcoran did hit a nerve with voters. They hate it when politicians go to Tallahassee or Washington poor and come home rich. There's something oily about that.
At the same time, it's worth asking: Are politicians-turned-lobbyists really the big problem in the halls of capitals? Think about this: Every business puts a premium on hiring experience over inexperience. So there could be a significant downside to enacting Corcoran's call for excluding for six years people who might otherwise make valuable contributions to what goes on in the capitals. There is a lot of value in experience and knowledge.
Don't blame the lobbyists-special interests per se. They play a useful role. If you have seen how Tallahassee works, one of the practical functions of lobbying is educating lawmakers.
Sure, every lobbyist is protecting a particular constituency. But it's impossible for any lawmaker to know all of the nuances and consequences of every proposed bill. As a result, lobbyists spend much of their time trying to educate lawmakers so they can make informed votes.
In truth, Corcoran actually defined the real problem. It's not the lobbyists; it's the legislators themselves.
As he put it:
“Every election [voters] go out and vote hoping for better; and every year they see those they entrust with their support say one thing during a campaign and do another thing once elected. They see us desiring higher office from the moment we walk through those hallowed doors. They see us seeking lucrative jobs, jobs which we would never have gotten but for our service. They see us pandering to the press. They see us avoiding tough decisions. They see us caving to the special interests.
“And, members, THAT is the truth. The enemy is not the special interests; the enemy is not the press; the enemy is not any of that stuff. The enemy has always been and will always be... us!
Corcoran went on to urge his House colleagues “to shun self-interest” and “lead with principles.” A few live that way. And to be sure, if more lawmakers had the courage and integrity to do that, there would be no need for Corcoran's suggested reforms.
THE REAL CORCORAN STORY
In the world of politics, it's far too soon to be thinking about a legislative agenda for 2017 — two years away. After all, there are elections to be held in 2016.
And that means you can pretty much count on the Legislature not wanting to take on too many issues that will stir the anti-incumbent emotions of voters.
So let's say once lawmkers wrangle with the usual noise and controversies — Medicaid expansion; post-Amendment 1 charges from environmental groups; school funding, among a few others — lawmakers will find a way to go back home without targets on their back and able to tout tax cuts.
That means when Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran succeeds Steve Crisafulli in the 2017 session, that will be his moment to act.
Who knows what crises and issues will top the public agenda then, but if Corcoran is true to his word, he already has decided his top policy agenda.
That is the real story. It's not how he wants new laws governing legislators and lobbyists — the subject that drew most media attention. The agenda he articulated is the one that will influence Floridians' lives. And the agenda he articulated is a clear indicator of the direction he expects to go.
“If we are going to govern with moral authority, then we must transform Florida into a place of opportunity that lifts everyone — starting with the poorest of the poor. We must build a state where achievement is unencumbered by race, class or ethnicity.
“I am tired of watching conservatives concede the issue of compassion. Entangling people in massive government programs that provide substandard quality is not compassion.
Expecting less from people who are capable of doing so much more is not compassion.
“As conservatives, we understand that individual freedom remains the most compassionate, the most empowering and most uplifting idea in human history.”
After that prelude, Corcoran was more specific about four areas on which he wants to focus — health care, education, the judiciary and criminal justice. He was clearest on what he wants for health care and education:
•HEALTH CARE: “Our one and only priority will be this: a real free-market, patient-driven system that is affordable, accessible and accountable.”
The unspoken message here is Floridians, and more specifically the Senate, should forget about more efforts to try to expand Obamacare and Medicaid in Florida. The House will continue to block it.
But the piece of this agenda that Corcoran or the House has yet to articulate clearly to voters is the free-market approach they envision.
• EDUCATION: “... [T]he single most important way to end income inequality, is to ensure each and every child attends a great school with great teachers. And yet, a decades-long, one-size-fits-all school system run by bureaucrats has failed to deliver on the promise of an opportunity for all ...
“We must fully fund the right of all parents to choose what school best meets their child's needs — regardless of whether it's public or private, religious or secular or home school or virtual school.”
The unspoken message here is bold and dramatic. Corcoran is saying state education dollars should follow students, not be locked in state-run schools. Parents and students should have freedom of choice. They should be able to use the state dollars that would be applied on their behalf at a public school at the school of their choice.
The mechanics of this will be crucial. But no matter what, this idea will generate enormous opposition. The teachers union will see it as a direct threat on their organization and their members' livelihoods. And the public-school, anti-choice defenders will attack the idea as heretical and mixing church and state.
But Corcoran is right on this. The state-controlled, Legislature-controlled public-school system hurts the poor especially and everyone else.
More and more school-choice options are sweeping the nation, in many states driven by low-income parents whose children are stuck in substandard schools. Florida has been a leader in this arena, and Corcoran's agenda would keep it there. But more important, it would do what he says: Allow the freedom not to be entangled in massive government programs of substandard quality.
Corcoran said voters are sick and tired of politicians not delivering on their promises. He has set himself up to live up to not being what he decried. — MW