November 28, 2014

Why Florida's Governor Gets No Respect

In January 1995, Republican Senator Mario Diaz-Balart, chair of the Florida Senate Committee on Ways and Means, unilaterally ordered state executive agencies to reduce their budget requests for the next fiscal year by 25%. Some observers dismissed the act as mere grandstanding. Others feared it would lead to mindless and destructive cuts. University of South Florida President Betty Castor predicted, for example, that it would cause the "dismantlement" of her institution. But the most remarkable reaction was that of the governor, who did not react publicly. As the chief executive of the state, the governor saw his prerogatives, indeed his constitutional responsibility, usurped by a 33-year-old upstart who had held his seat in the Senate for less than three years. And yet Chiles kept silent.

In August, Diaz-Balart issued a second order demanding that agencies reduce their already-approved budgets by 3%. Later the senator followed up with a demand for another 25% cut in agency budget requests for the coming fiscal year. The governor's name appears on a routing list on the bottom of these memos, as a kind of afterthought.

What accounts for this state of affairs? How is it that a single legislator is able to bypass the governor and command his agencies to make radical changes in their priorities? We wish to argue here that it isn't just a problem of one overblown ego. Instead, the very structure of our government has become unsound and unsuited to the modern realities faced by Florida.

In its basic features, the organization of Florida state government is a throwback to Reconstruction, when defeated Confederates worried about too much executive power winding up in the hands of blacks and carpetbaggers. Today, the system is outmoded and ill-equipped to deal with the problems of a fast-growing, increasingly urban and continually changing community. The structure generates stalemates, stifles dramatic change and prevents the emergence of a strong executive leadership that is accountable to citizens as well as able to act in the interest of all Floridians. In effect, the governor is rendered powerless to meet his obligations and loses accountability to the electorate. Instead, he has to engage in endless games of appeasement and pacification with legislators, aggressive Cabinet officers and the powerful special interests behind them.

In comparison with governors of other large states such as New York, California or Pennsylvania (indeed with all governors in the Union), Florida's governor stands out as one of the weakest. When the governor of Florida sits down with his Cabinet, for example, he is surrounded by political entrepreneurs he never hired and cannot fire. They include the nation's only elected state banking regulator as well as elected insurance, education and agriculture commissioners, each of whom has his or her own constituencies and agendas. The Florida governor must also share power with a state Legislature that commands a much larger staff than his own and that has inordinate control over the state's budget process.

What are the consequences for Florida? In today's world, the capacity of a state's political and administrative systems to function with vision and boldness is critical to attracting and retaining business. Yet potential new investors in Florida are discouraged by a political process that is plagued by ineptitude, dispersed power and gridlock. Meanwhile, weak and divided leadership continues to erode the legitimacy of state government among Floridians themselves.

These and other concerns were already on the minds of the reformers in the late 1960s.Democratic legislators such as Richard Pettigrew, Richard Hodes, Terrell Sessums, Lou de la Parte and Reubin Askew, with Republican Governor Claude Kirk, sought to fix the anomalies of Florida government. But the reformers lacked the political power to do the job right. To be sure, significant improvements were made, but the basic peculiarity of the structure remained. The reformers succeeded in incrementally expanding the governor's staff and duties. But fragmentation continues at the Cabinet level while legislative and special interest encroachment remains a cause of gridlock and inaction on major policy issues.

For example, Florida still lacks a budget system that reflects an integrated executive program and shows strategic priorities. Agencies submit their estimates to legislators and the governor simultaneously. Then they suffer through a process of confusing and contradictory signals and directions. The legislators and the governor compete for the appearance of being effective but each blames the other for the frequent failures. Who is responsible here for managing public policies? How can we establish accountability when neither branch has clear mandate over policy formulation and implementation?

Underscoring the need for reforming governmental structure is the ongoing devolution of power from Washington. In policy areas such as welfare, transportation, health, job training and the environment, the federal government will be handing more responsibilities to the states - and less money. That will make the price of a poorly managed state government all the higher.

Florida, in short, cannot continue to operate with a governor who is little more than a chief clerk. Instead, the need is for a chief executive, a leader. Recognizing this issue, the governor appointed a bipartisan commission, chaired by former Governor Reubin Askew, to review the issue. But unfortunately, the commission's mandate is limited; the larger issues of government structure apparently won't be addressed.

What should be done? We propose that the governor be given the right of appointment and dismissal of all Cabinet officers. This would not only help rationalize decision making in government, but would also eliminate the recurring problems created when elected Cabinet officials attempt to raise money from the industries and interests they regulate. Just as with the president of the United States, the governor's appointments to the Cabinet would be subject to Senate confirmation with statutory guidelines that emphasize the professional and ethical standing of persons nominated to these jobs.

To further strengthen the executive, we also suggest an end to the practice of dual submission of agency budget requests to legislators and the governor. Instead, the governor should be allowed to submit a unified statewide budget for legislative approval. The budget must be viewed as the governor's program and the legislators may approve, modify or reject the governor's request.

Will the Legislature and Cabinet ever go along with sharing more power with the executive? It's inevitable. Increasingly, officials and citizens are recognizing the limits of past organizational reforms and tinkering with personnel matters. These measures are useful and necessary but insufficient as remedies to fundamental problems facing Florida government. For these reasons, we think that reform may be delayed but not prevented.

Jamil E. Jreisat is Professor of Public Administration and Political Science, and Alvin W. Wolfe is Distinguished Service Professor of Anthropology, at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Tags: Florida Small Business, Politics & Law, Business Florida

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