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Is there a doctor in the House?


New College political science professor Keith Fitzgerald understands the sickness afflicting our body politic.


State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald
State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald

"The system is corrupt," said Fitzgerald, a state representative for District 69, which covers southern Manatee County and northern Sarasota County. "I can't stand it. We need election reform which increases the number of people voting, not increasing the power of special interests."


Fitzgerald spoke at the Anna Maria Democratic Party luncheon on May 18 and revealed his diagnosis of the Florida Legislature's ailments.


"The session was truly a failure," Fitzgerald told 75 attentive Democrats. "Our current financial crisis in Florida was a chance to judge the quality of leadership. We failed to meet that challenge."


The session's efforts was such an unmitigated failure that he has asked Gov. Charlie Crist, who Fitzgerald charged with being AWOL during the entire session, to veto the $66.5 billion budget bill and require legislators to return for a special session to negotiate a new budget.


"Crist was completely absent to legislative matters," Fitzgerald said. "Where was Gov. Crist in the middle of this crisis? He was nowhere."


Fitzgerald criticized the systemic corruption in Tallahassee. "Meeting secretly, the leaders of both Houses decided to allocate billions for health, education, transportation and prisons," he said. "But then these same leaders agreed in secret to hold back more than $100 million for their own pet projects. And that's when the Speaker of the House, Ray Sansom, got into hot water by specifying $30 million to a state college in his district. Now there's something very corrupt when the budget is decided in private. And rather than Sansom being a bad man, it was the corrupt process that brought him down."


Last month, the recently ousted Sansom was indicted by a grand jury on a felony charge that he falsified Florida's 2007 budget to land a $6 million building project for Northwest Florida State College. The money was supposed to be used for a first responders training facility; however, a grand jury concluded it was to benefit a developer who was building a jet business at that same Destin airport site. And for his efforts Sansom received a $110,000-a-year job at the college.


Since 1994, Fitzgerald has taught New College freshmen and advanced political science students that good government is only possible when government is transparent and responsible. To his chagrin, Fitzgerald discovered in Tallahassee that instead of open debates on critical issues, there were secret deals being made in marble hallways, plush restaurants and weekend retreats.


Elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2006, Fitzgerald, a Democrat, won in a district that is 50 percent Republican and only 31 percent Democrat. Fitzgerald won by appealing to the 15 percent of people who were independent voters and disgruntled Republicans. With his academic and people skills, Fitzgerald was elected the Democratic Caucus Policy Chairman, putting him in a leadership role of the House.


A cherubic smile spreads across his face when Fitzgerald recounts his successful efforts to stop the Republican attempts to revise the state voting rules. "There wasn't any single issue that was more important than stopping that bill," Fitzgerald recalled. "It was such a grab-bag of horrors."


The attentive audience seemed stunned to hear Fitzgerald list some of these "horrors," such as requiring voters who recently moved to use a provisional ballot, eliminating some forms of currently acceptable ID, and preventing anyone from offering advice to someone waiting in line outside a polling site.


However, Fitzgerald told the audience that it was only by threatening to introduce 100 amendments to the bill, requiring debate, that the Republicans gave up and withdrew the anti-voting bill. Several in the luncheon audience applauded Fitzgerald's efforts to defeat the Republican venture to disenfranchise thousands of Florida voters.


Former Bradenton Beach Mayor Katie Pierola, a lifelong Republican, recounted her experience in last year's Manatee County Commission elections, where PACs led by Florida State Sen. Mike Bennett, a developer, have inordinate power because of secrecy and money, in successfully smearing candidates he did not like.


"I was shocked and dismayed by what candidates, supported by developers and other private interest groups, can do to distort their opponent's record," Pierola said. "I'm going to switch to the Democratic Party because of the dirty tricks used by developers."


Angela and Keith Fitzgerald are the parents of 9-year-old twins, Bridget and Conor. In the last session, Fitzgerald sponsored a "Teens Act" bill, requiring schools presently offering some form of sex education to teach sixth-grade students and above what it means scientifically as well as religiously to be sexually active.


Jim Greer, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the "Teens Act" should really be called the "Sex, Drugs and School of Rock Act." The "Teens Act" died on the floor on May 2. Manatee County in 2007 had 37 births per 1,000 students, compared to the state average of 22 teen births per 1,000 students.


Perhaps the most galling abuse by special interest groups is the corporate welfare paid for by citizens to wealthy corporations in the form of tax loopholes. In the year 2008-09 there were more than $12 billion in total selected exemptions. There are 239 special exemptions to special interest groups that do not have to pay taxes on such items as:

  • Cell phone towers: $3 million

  • Movie theater concession rent: $2 million

  • Sales of boats or airplanes removed from the state: $113 million

  • Newspaper and magazine inserts: $41 million

  • Groceries purchased for human consumption: $2 billion

  • Prescription drugs: $906 million

  • Farm equipment: $34 million

  • Bottled water: $43 million

  • Agricultural pesticides, seeds and fertilizer: $72 million

  • Power and heating fuels by residents' households: $2 billion

  • Charter fishing boats: $71 million


In spite of Fitzgerald's attempt to convince his colleagues to support his Renewable Energy Initiative, Florida defiantly is still one of 22 states that does not have alternative energy quotas.


While other states sought steep reductions in emissions of the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming, Fitzgerald was unsuccessful in persuading the House to pass legislation requiring a percentage of an electrical provider's energy sales to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind.


So far, 28 states have established quotas mandating renewable energy quotas from electrical providers. Fitzgerald's bill would have allowed small businesses and residents to produce their own energy and sell it back to the utility company.


One of the best ways to reform how business is done in Tallahassee, Fitzgerald said, is to lengthen the time legislators are in session and pay them better.


Presently, Florida legislators are paid $30,000 a year. The most-populous state, California, pays its legislators $110,000 per year, while New York, the third-most populous state, pays its lawmakers $80,000 per year. Critics argue that low salaries make legislators vulnerable to special interests and also keep qualified people from running for public office.


"We need to treat governing seriously," Fitzgerald said. "We are the fourth-most populous state, while we are still in the middle of the 19th century. Are we going to get the best legislators when it's a part-time job? We need a full-time legislative body, which meets not just for 60 days."


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