Florida’s Legislative Payload is Too Big for its Own Good.

Appeared in Tallahassee Democrat under title “Huge Workload Makes for Bad Legislation.”

Florida’s Legislature is bursting at the seams.  In 2011 and again in 2012, members of the Florida Senate and House of Representatives filed more than 2,000 pieces of legislation.  Last year’s session was relatively light, with only 1,898 bills being filed. 

Florida’s legislative session is just 60 days long.  Common sense dictates that no Senator or Representative could get through the 900-1,000+ bills filed in his or her chamber well enough to understand, much less vote on them.  It is true that many bills get filed early and that not every bill makes it through the committee process.  But remember that most members are juggling fulltime jobs, in addition to their legislative responsibilities.  Despite the assistance of hard working and very talented legislative staff, Florida’s legislative workload is larger than our elected officials can handle.

That puts us all at risk.  The legislature is where our laws get made, the laws by which we agree to live as a society.  The process needs to be deliberate and thoughtful.  But with those numbers, it’s impossible to meet that mark.

Working over capacity makes us vulnerable.  Legislation is hard to write and hard to analyze.  Drafting errors can have major consequences.  For example, I’m not entirely sure whether the computer I’m using to type this column is legal.  That’s because in last year’s legislative session, a broadly written slot machine bill may accidentally have made computers illegal in Florida.  Smart phones, too.

But that was an accident.  Unfortunately, the fast paced, high volume nature of the Florida legislature also makes it susceptible to exploitation.  Unscrupulous interests, wise to how things operate can manipulate the situation by offering seemingly harmless, innocuous sounding language that gets put into bills.  This is risky business.  You may as well be inviting Bernie Madoff to a cocktail hour for eager new investors.

To be clear, I’m not pessimistic about lobbyists as a class.  Not everyone plays that game.  But there are good people in this world, and there are bad people.  And when bad people get into positions of power…  Besides, no one hires a lobbyist without a reason.  They are expensive.  And some intentionally downplay the significance of their proposed language, which should be a red flag to anyone paying attention.

Which again, is my point – you can’t find a leak when it’s raining.

The rushing torrent of session makes legislative review a hard lift.  This reality puts members in a tough spot.  There must be an inherent pressure to vote yea or nay, regardless of whether or not that official possesses a sufficient understanding of the legislation.  Frankly, I’d rather see members abstain from voting altogether than see them vote on bills about which they cannot possibly have had the time to adequately consider.

I suspect many members often end up triaging to focus on the bills they find most important.  It’s an open question what they base their votes on the rest of the time.  Mind you, Florida isn’t alone on this.  Other states do it, too – not to mention Congress.  (You may recall the recent passage of that massive omnibus spending bill that came just days after the final text was released.  Did congressional members actually read that? Yeah, right.)

But just because everyone does something, doesn’t make it right.  We all know this.  If we identify a problem, we have an obligation to fix it.  This is particularly the case when dealing with something as sacred as the laws that govern our society.

Perhaps bills should be work-shopped longer prior to filing.  Maybe the total number of amendments and bills filed needs to be made more restrictive.  Review could be made easier by preventing multiple companion and placeholder bills.  There are lots of ways the system could be improved.  Reform just needs to be made a priority.

Follow me on Twitter at Patience Burke@TameTheGorilla.

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