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Best of 2013: Lipstick on a Pig


That would be the perfect theme for the wrap party as state lawmakers close out the 2013 legislative session. As they say, you can put liptstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. Our so-called representatives in Tallahassee, however, seem to think that all a bad idea needs is pretty, new packaging and a little bit of re-tuned rhetoric in order to slip by as something less than terrible. The best thing you can say about the last 60 days might be that at least some of the swine failed to pass by undetected. 

I remember the first time I heard the phrase. It was a regional manager at some firm I was working at talking about a financial product that hadn't gone over well. The powers that be were still eager to unload it though. In his Southern accent, he told everyone, “We'll just put some lipstick on that pig and trot her on back out there,” meaning that the same product might slip past clients this time, were we able to sell them on the sizzle, while distracting them from noticing the lack of steak. Most of us winced and tossed the brochures into our circular files. Fortunately, some lawmakers did the same this week.

The so-called parent trigger bill was a bad idea last year when it died in a 20-20 tie on the Senate floor on the last day of session. Failing public schools already have explicit and adequate turnaround options. This is a measure pushed by the for-profit charter school industry in hopes of grabbing up public resources. It was supported by no one outside of the special interests, policy groups and think tanks who push the privatization agenda. In a 60-day session filled with important issues, it should have never made the cut for a floor vote. 

Nonetheless, it was fast-tracked to a quick passage on the House floor and barely died in another 20-20 tie in the Senate. Yes, the ham-fisted measure was one vote and a governor's signature away from becoming law, and were it not again for a few Republicans (led by Sarasota County's Nancy Detert) who stood up to party leaders and broke ranks, we might be stuck with the policy, no matter how few people wanted it.

Even more egregious was the assault on the state employee pension system, another measure that had barely failed previously, despite almost no voter support and a complete absence of evidence that changes were warranted, or even adequate answers to the claim that they might have instead led to disastrous results. Again the bill sailed through the rubber stamp House and came perilously close to passing in the Senate, where once more, a handful of Republicans (passionately led by Senator Jack Latvala of Clearwater) broke ranks and voted their conscience rather than the party line.

The 87 percent-funded, $132 billion program, which has helped countless school teachers, first responders and government administrators with an average monthly benefit of just under $1,600 in their retirement, has been described as a model of stability by the pension management industry. But many interests despise the idea that such a program exists, if only because it reminds private-sector employees who've seen their 401k's wiped out in one bubble-bust after the next that a more stable option was once available to many workers in the private sector. Thankfully, defined-benefit pensions will continue until the next attack on the working class rolls around, which is sure to be soon. 

Lawmakers did find time to pass further assaults on the environment, to weaken home rule and prevent local governments from passing the sort of worker protections that they themselves would never have had the courage to go against special interests like Disney and the Florida Chamber of Commerce to create, and managed to make sure they didn't have to work so hard to hide bundled contributions from wealthy donors by upping the limit on campaign contributions they could accept. They failed to meaningfully rectify voter suppression policies that led to a disastrous 2012 election, and only moved on illegal gambling operations when they got caught with their own hands in the cookie jar.

Despite his man-of-the-people rhetoric, adopted before the session, our campaign-mode governor lacked the stones to put any real pressure on the legislature regarding what he said were important priorities – fixing voter supression, accepting federal funding for health care expansion and across the board rather than merit-based teacher raises. Instead, he used his last minute chips to trade for a tax break for manufacturers. I hope voters will remember that lack of fortitude when he hits the trail asking them to re-elect him.

With term limits having forced two ardent defenders of common sense lawmaking – Republican Senators Paula Dockery and Mike Fassano – from that chamber last year, fans of good government had valid reasons to worry that a little bit of lipstick might go a long way in 2013. But special recognition goes out to Nancy Detert (R-Venice), Charlie Dean (R-Inverness), Miguel Diaz de La Portilla (R-Miami), and Greg Evers (R-Baker) who bucked party bosses on both the FRS and parent-trigger bills, to come down on the side of bipartisan, good governance.

Unfortunately, Manatee County-based legislators showed no such moxie. Rep. Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton) voted the party line in favor of both gutting FRS and implementing the parent-trigger. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Lakewood Ranch) can rest easy knowing that his parents – a Sheriff in the FRS DROP program and a retired teacher – will enjoy a comfortable retirement thanks to the successful pension system, but he nonetheless voted to prevent future state and municipal workers from having the same opportunity, while also voting in favor of the parent-trigger bill. In the Senate, Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) also supported both measures.

So, there it is. Another year and the only thing Floridians can cheer is that it's over and it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Don't worry though, lawmakers will almost immediately go about conferring with special interests and brushing up on ALEC literature to see which sows will be lined up for next year's makeover party. A big charter school bill is set to be designed by the state board of education and come before them in 2014, prison privatization lobbyists are remaining cozy with the party, and there's always casino money floating around. Until then, enjoy the temporary respite.

Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at dennis.maley@thebradentontimes.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.


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