Life, Ethics, Courage
Glimpses of the good, the bad and the ugly on Florida's lawmaking scene in 2005
As the 2005 session moves toward its final day on May 6, some random snapshots help us reflect on the performance of this class of legislators.
Terri Schiavo: A remarkable episode in this session was the political courage of the nine Republican senators who were part of the 21-to-16 vote against the legislation to keep Terri Schiavo alive. This was no easy decision morally or politically. House Speaker Allan Bense referred to right-to-life protesters who were "a little too far out there." There were even death threats.
The easy political calculation for Republicans was to support the bill. There is little political disadvantage for Republicans in playing to a base of true believers on the right. But these nine senators resisted the temptation: J.D. Alexander, Nancy Argenziano, Michael Bennett, Fran Carlton, Paula Dockery, Dennis Jones, Jim King, Evelyn Lynn and Bert Saunders.
A couple of other acts of political courage, while not in Tallahassee, are worth noting:
George Greer, a longtime Pinellas County judge who has had the Schiavo case for seven years, was drummed out of his Southern Baptist church.
U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, a second-term Republican in Congress, declined to join the Republican mob led by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas in arrogating this issue to the federal government.
DeLay, who governs largely on the basis of his own political ambitions, symbolizes ruthless politics. DeLay even got House rules changed so he wouldn't have to step down from his party leadership after his citation for violating campaign-finance ethics rules. Republicans who voted to admonish DeLay three times last year for ethical violations were removed from the Ethics Committee.
The Florida state senators who stood for the constitutional separation of powers and an independent judiciary were bolstered by the confidence that Senate President Tom Lee (who voted for the bill prohibiting doctors from withholding water and nutrition from anyone who didn't have a written living will) was not going to act vindictively about their votes of conscience. Even Gov. Jeb Bush avoided the retaliatory threats that characterized his crusade for malpractice "reform" in 2003.
There were no Tom DeLays in the Florida Legislature this year, and we can take comfort in that.
DNA Evidence: Here's a life the Legislature doesn't value: He's a hard worker, working a construction job in hurricane-torn Brevard County and trying to put his life back together after 22 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit.
DNA evidence proved his innocence, but for 10 years state prosecutors fiercely resisted producing the DNA evidence for a test. The test would have been almost as easy as inserting a feeding tube. But state prosecutors didn't value this life. So Wilton Dedge sat in prison while his parents drained their retirement funds and remortgaged their home to press for a DNA test.
Now Dedge, with free legal help from former American Bar Association President Sandy D'Alemberte, is asking the Legislature to pass a $4.8-million claims bill to pay back his parents and compensate him for lost wages and 8,000 days in prison. D'Alemberte says some legislators have countered with a suggestion of half a million dollars, which barely covers the parents' expenses.
There is also no interest in an ongoing state commission with adequate legal support to evaluate claims of innocence. Other states, including nearby North Carolina, have one. But unlike in the Schiavo case, Florida's inclination is to cut off court proceedings over claims of innocence.
Public Health: Rep. Susan Goldstein, a freshman Republican from Broward County and the mother of an autistic teen-ager, wants Florida to prohibit the inoculation of a pregnant woman or a child under 3 years old with any vaccine containing mercury. Mercury may cause autism, Alzheimer's and other nerve and brain damage. It appears to be particularly harmful to fetuses and infants, but the elderly who take frequent vaccines (including flu) could be affected as well.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opposes the use of mercury and thimerosal, which contains mercury. Goldstein says mercury-free versions of vaccines are available, but people have to ask for them. She also says 16,000 people in Florida have been diagnosed with autism -- eight times as many as in 1997.
But drug companies oppose the legislation. At mid-session, Goldstein still couldn't get even a committee hearing on her bill in the House.
Education: The governor's entry into the Schiavo case during the legislative session of 2004 is one of several examples of Bush's arriving a day late and a dollar short on issues that he suddenly deems critical.
The Schiavo case had been dragging on for years before Bush jumped in last year. Bush opposed, but didn't exert himself against, the statewide voter initiatives to keep the bullet train, reduce class sizes and permit gambling in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Only after the initiatives passed did he try to undo the results. He recently persuaded Miami-Dade (but not Broward) voters to reject gambling. Last fall he got the voters to derail the bullet train.
Now he is pushing a less restrictive class-size amendment that offers a (paltry) minimum pay to teachers instead. Conceptually, the governor is right. Better teachers are a far more cost-effective way to improve education than smaller class sizes, and Florida's pay for veteran teachers lags both Georgia and Alabama. Florida gets more student performance for each dollar of spending than most other comparable states. So imagine what this cost-effectiveness could produce if we weren't in the bottom five of the country in school spending and if we paid our teachers better.
The question is whether the initiative the Legislature proposes will be not only late but many dollars short.
Ethics: Just before the session opened on March 8, Democratic Sen. Mandy Dawson of Broward County put out a news release calling for the resignation of Anthony J. Schembri, head of the Department of Juvenile Justice. Schembri, who is white, had shown a Chris Rock comedy video with a segment on police brutality as part of a training for detention staff. Dawson, who is black, thought the use of the video was racist.
Schembri, an unconventional leader who inspired the TV show "The Commish" in the 1990s, was appointed last year to clean up an agency that had abused and neglected juveniles. Among a series of management and policy changes, Schembri had "time-out" rooms painted Pepto-Bismol pink because of research showing the color is soothing. "I'll try anything to avoid physical restraint," he explained.
Meanwhile, a few days after her press release, newspapers reported that Dawson had asked lobbyists to help her pay for a junket to South Africa. Dawson's solicitation violated Senate rules, but she told donors they could get around the rules by making checks payable to the Black Caucus.
Dawson apparently thinks she's due more latitude than she's willing to extend to Schembri. Would a little time in Schembri's pink time-out room suffice as punishment?