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'We Have Reached a Point Where We Talk Past Each Other'

January 19, 2011 - 6:00pm

Over the last two weeks since the tragic events in Tucson there has been a great deal of commentary at the national level on the scope and nature of our public discourse.

Some of it has been insightful and worth considering, and some of it falls in the category of exploitation of a tragedy to further a political agenda. But the conversation set me to thinking about the status of the dialogue that exists here in Florida between those who make the news and those who report that news.

I fully acknowledge and embrace the role of the press in a free society. Institutions only succeed when accountability exists, and accountability exists only when there is scrutiny. I could stand here and tell you that I learned that lesson as a journalism major at the University of Florida or during my time in radio, but the truth is that I really only learned that lesson as a member of the Florida House.

Sometimes, as in the case of Ray Sansom, the press exposes things we did not realize were true and would have preferred our institution not to have had to face.

Sometimes, as in the case of the 1st DCA courthouse, you say out loud what everyone intuitively understood. In fact, over the past few months, I have been fascinated to watch politicians falling over themselves with shock and outrage over a courthouse that anyone with a pair of eyes could see over the last two years was the construction of an edifice of arrogance.

Given the dynamics of accountability and scrutiny, a healthy tension should always exist between a legislature and the editors and reporters of Floridas news outlets. But I will admit that over the last few years, I have watched that tension become strained and then that strain grow into outright hostility.

It manifests itself in sometimes amusing ways.

For example, every single recommendation for legislative or public records reform is enthusiastically endorsed by every editorial board in the state without regard to its practicality, its efficacy, or its motive.

Conversely, I deliver six lines in my organization session speech about the Supreme Courts handling of legislatively proposed constitutional amendments, and I send those same editorial boards into a frenzy.

When you manage to get an enterprise that is founded on the basic idea that criticism of government is healthy and necessary to say how dare you criticize a branch of government, then you know something has gone very wrong.

However, I am not here today to diagnose what went wrong or to lay blame. Maybe we stopped talking because you stopped listening, or maybe you stopped listening because we stopped talking.

But either way, we have reached a point where we talk past each other, and that is a problem for the Legislature, for the press, and most importantly for the people who rely on lawmakers to properly represent them and trust the press to accurately and fairly tell the story.

I am committed to working through this problem and to maintaining an open relationship between the Florida House and members of the press corps.One of the ways I hope to address this problem is by confronting the frequent critique of government and lack of transparency. Over the last several years, and through the improved use of technology, I have seen the Florida House go to great lengths to improve transparency; yet for many, the legislative process remains complex and difficult to understand.

What I have found is that while lack of transparency bears the brunt of criticism, the real culprit is lack of clarity and failure to utilize plain language.

Additionally, over the past several years, many communications from the House have been sent purely by the two partisan offices. While these offices play an important role in the legislative process, many of the issues addressed by the Florida House are not partisan in nature. So to address this problem, we have expanded the Houses Office of Public Information and Appointments.

The office was originally created under Speaker (Larry) Cretul to facilitate public records requests, appointments and correspondence.

The Office of Public Information will maintain those functions and will also serve as a nonpartisan, external affairs arm of the Florida House, tasked with providing plain language explanations of complex legislation and public policy options much like the information posted online summarizing the issues that came before the House during the special session last fall.

The office also houses our leadership team press secretary, who serves as a single media point of contact for the committee chairmen. Our overall goal is to streamline our communications to ensure that we swiftly provide the best person and the most complete information to answer the various media requests the House receives on a daily basis.

Additionally, tomorrow from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., the House will host a pre-session information session, during which members of the media will have access to the top substantive experts among the senior members of the House staff. We hope you will find the session useful and that it will provide an additional opportunity to receive information on issues that will come before the House over the next several months.

One of those issues is the 2011-2012 budget. As you know, we currently face a significant budget shortfall. We have a constitutional obligation to balance that budget and I believe a strong responsibility to do so without raising taxes.

As you know, our state is facing record unemployment. As a result, many of the policy and budget choices before the Legislature this session will be rooted in our desire to foster an economy that allows businesses to locate and expand in our state, creating the jobs and resulting economic activity that will rekindle our real-estate market and revitalize our small businesses.

Additionally, this year we must work to curb the exponential growth of entitlement programs, specifically the Medicaid program, while facing an unprecedented mandate by the federal government.

The House will propose a comprehensive reform of Medicaid consistent with the principles and approach developed by the Select Council in 2010, and the language included in the Joint Medicaid Memorial passed by the House and Senate last fall.

A series of public workshops will be held by the Health and Human Services Committee and its subcommittees to hear testimony before the legislation is revised and introduced for consideration in the 2011 session.

We must also work to modernize our education system while dealing with the challenges of the class-size amendment and an education adequacy lawsuit.

We are taking a hard look at merit pay, school choice and teacher tenure, and looking at ways we can reward our best teachers for their commitment to excellence in the classroom and what we can do to provide parents a greater stake in their childrens education.

It is also important that we take a serious look at the way the Florida Retirement System currently works, and that we remain open to ideas that will provide benefits that are within our budgetary means, without compromising the long-term solvency of the program.

We as a Legislature need to ensure that those who are vested in the current state pension system receive the benefits that theyve earned and that future benefits are awarded fairly, but at the same time we need to make sure we are doing that in a fiscally responsible manner.

We are also taking a hard look at business regulations and examining areas where we can streamline or eliminate regulations.

We are continuing to review the Scott transition teams proposals for consolidation of state functions and as we receive more information we look forward to weighing in on various options.

There is no doubt that the road ahead is difficult. We know that there is no secret stash of money; no hidden account, and no politically easy, pain-free magic bullet. Governing in 2011 is not about choosing between programs that you like and those you dont like. With our current budget, all levels of government must responsibly make difficult choices between worthwhile ideas.

As you can see, there are many important issues I plan to address as speaker. However, my time here today is limited, so in conclusion I would like to spend a few minutes discussing an issue that many of you know is very near to my heart.

I believe that government functions best when each level and branch operates within its proper domain, respecting the others' various roles and fostering a sense of collaboration and mutual respect that our unique form of government anticipates.

As I mentioned earlier, following the Organization Session last fall, many of you strongly criticized my remarks regarding separation of powers and the authority constitutionally delegated to the Legislature to propose amendments directly to the people.

As we move forward into the 2011 legislation session, I urge you to consider the following: The Legislatures authority to place questions on the ballot is unique to the Legislature. It is unshared. And, it is self-executing. And, there are very good reasons that the Florida Constitution intentionally omits the authority for either the executive or the judicial branch to stop amendments proposed by the peoples elected representatives from being considered for adoption by the electorate.

For those of you covering this issue, I urge you to consider that just because the Supreme Court gave itself jurisdiction over a piece of legislation does not necessarily mean that the court has the proper authority to remove that legislation.

I firmly believe that allowing the court to remove legislatively proposed amendments from the ballot denies the people their right to amend their Constitution.

I believe that the need for ballot summary reform is critical.

But, I also believe it is one of many components of comprehensive court reform that we can and should explore over the next two years.

Floridas judicial system has the authority to take away not only a persons liberty, but also a persons life. Understanding the severity and irreversible nature of that penalty, we have a responsibly to ensure that justice is administered not only fairly, but also efficiently.

Criminal cases are complex in nature and in recent years weve seen cases overturned, and there have been errors. The number of inmates since 2000 on death row dying of natural causes has now surpassed the number of inmates executed. Significant and unreasonable delays plague the current process of conducting state post-conviction review in these cases and it appears that there is little the Supreme Court can do to improve or streamline the process.

Though the Supreme Court does not publish the amount of time spent hearing and deciding different types of cases, testimony suggests that death-penalty cases constitute about 50 percent of their workload, though only 12 percent of their caseload.

I believe this imbalance could be corrected through court reform that would capitalize on the expertise of judges specialized in the field of criminal law, while at the same time improve efficiency in the Supreme Courts handling of civil matters by better utilizing judges with an expertise in noncriminal matters.

We need to provide the court a better opportunity to decide and resolve cases correctly and expeditiously, and we need to address the longstanding criticism that the courts are underfunded and judicial dockets are overcrowded.

I believe the Legislature can and should work with the judicial branch to significantly improve the administration of justice in death-penalty cases. I am hopeful that reform could lead to a more equitable judicial system for all Floridians, and as we move forward toward the 2011 legislative session we will continue to explore this issue to determine when and what the right course of action for Florida may be.

Thank you for your time, and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, is 2011-2012 speaker of the Florida House of Representatives.

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