It wasn’t a banner year for transparency in Florida government.
Gov. Rick Scott went to California courts to fight releasing emails from private accounts while his re-election was underway. We learned how Republican political consultants conspired to thwart the 2010 Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering reforms. They got caught thanks to a legal challenge from voting-rights groups, but the maps drawn still ensure GOP majorities for at least another decade.
Former co-workers of the late Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew lost a court challenge to force greater financial disclosure of the wealth of public officials — an attempt to get Scott to provide more financial details from his blind trust.
The GOP bore the brunt here only because it’s the party in power. There’s shared blame for the current retreat from speaking truth to power.
The public can only speak truth if someone is trying to find it. News-media organizations continued cutting back and prioritizing other types of information. Down the hill from the Capitol, the Florida Press Association sold off the building where the state’s dwindling political media keep offices. Some policymakers cognizant that they aren’t being watched as closely continued to push the envelope to see what they can get away with. It’s been that way for years.
But the public also contributes to the problem with inattention and apathy. Thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to observe and uncover the activities of government. Yet the Sunshine State appears to be sleeping through its wake-up call.
Two Princeton University political scientists published research last fall challenging the notion that the United States remains a democracy where majority rules, given the appearance of special-interest and economic-elite dominance over government decision-making.
Their analysis of federal policymaking under both parties found evidence that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy.”
The gist: Governing is a messy business, people have a wide cacophony of divergent views, and insular, more organized business interests have far greater sway over policymaking than consensus views of the public, particularly among the less affluent.
“When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero … impact upon public policy,” wrote political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page in the journal Perspectives on Politics.
Florida has its own problems with oligarchy. Just more than half of its eligible residents are registered to vote, and just 31 percent cast ballots last fall. Scott won re-election without even a majority of voters who did turn out. Lower-income and younger people are perennially poor at voting.
The problem isn’t just voting. Tallahassee’s cutoff location and the massive amounts of interest-group cash fortify the partition between regular people and policymakers.
Citizens are disconnecting from both state and local governments. When they do participate — as they did during redistricting in 2012 — it seems the crowd gets used as camouflage to shield the insular designers.
This is an odd way to say goodbye.
I am leaving the Orlando Sentinel after more than a decade covering Florida government.
But I am leaving as an optimist. Someone will soon take my place. And you need to keep reading and engaging in some way to make your preferences felt by the powerful.
Don’t let them forget you are here.