Tom Lee is right.
OK, it was more than a bit of hyperbole Friday when Lee, a Republican state Senator from Thonotosassa, said leadership in both chambers is running the Legislature “like a third world country” but he was right on point when his frustration with how bills are presented and passed became headline news.
“I’ve never seen this place get so transactional, where people are getting locked down on votes, and we’re just getting going here,” Lee told reporters after a terse on-floor exchange with Senate President Joe Negron – who was not amused.
In this case, Lee was trying to soften a blatant attempt by the House to bust the state public school teachers union.
The attack on public education by the Legislature has been going on for a while now, and rather than roll over while more money is re-directed to charter schools, the union had the audacity to fight back. Obviously, top Tallahassee lawmakers consider that a high crime from those uppity teachers.
That’s how we got HB 7055, a bullying tactic on teachers union disguised as a sweeping public-sector bill. It includes a requirement that applies only to teachers unions. If their dues-paying membership falls below half of those eligible, it could force them to be re-certified. You can almost hear House leaders laughing as the bill was being put together.
During Senate debate, Lee called the amendment “mean spirited” and offered an amendment that would have lowered that bar to 40 percent.
When Negron told him to hurry things along, Lee responded from the floor, “I didn’t come to Tallahassee to be intimidated.”
The amendment didn’t pass, but the real story was that a well-known Republican senator – more than a bit of a maverick, sure – had publicly bucked the leadership of his party in a way that hasn’t been seen in a while.
I’ve known Tom Lee for a long time and two things come quickly to mind: He doesn’t always play the go-along-to-get-along game, and when he gets riled he doesn’t hold back.
Remember, this is his second stint in the Senate; he was president there from 2004-06. He knows how the sausage gets made, which means he also knows political independence for lawmakers is the most endangered species in the state these days.
With Republicans controlling both chambers plus the governor’s mansion, laws now are filtered through the narrow ideology of House and Senate leadership.
Junior members who ran for office promising the home folks to make a difference quickly learn that if the party boss tells you how to vote on certain issues, you’d better play along.
Failure to do so can mean the legislator’s proposals will die in committee, if they get that far. The merit of bills matters far less than being willing to fall in line with the agenda of the Senate President or House Speaker.
A free-thinker like Tom Lee can find this exasperating.
He told reporters after Friday’s eruption that members from rural districts find themselves in a “headlock” on gun legislation working through the Legislature “because they’re being instructed to vote for it.”
Florida has 20 million people and the Legislature is supposed to represent them all, but that’s a joke. Even obvious bills of revenge like the one against the teachers union have almost no chance of being stopped if a leader wants it badly enough.
“I’ve just had enough … I’ve struggled to get things out of this institution … and it’s petty and I am fed up,” he told reporters Friday. “I didn’t come up here to get bullied; I didn’t come up here to ‘follow directions.’ I came to represent my constituents.”
That’s the problem.
Constituent needs always take a back seat because lawmakers in Tallahassee are expected to follow directions set by a small core of party leaders, something Lee has never been good at doing.
Too bad, because the Legislature needs more of that.