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Longboat Key Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020 4 months ago

How not to make law

Although the idea of merging FSU and New College came as a shock, it is worth exploring. That should have been done before drafting a bill. Lawmakers often forget they are the servants, not kings.
by: Matt Walsh Editor & CEO

“Many forms of government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” — Winston S Churchill, Nov. 11, 1947


Winston Churchill sure had that right.

If you ever have the misfortune of observing the Legislature in action in Tallahassee, it can convince you quite easily and unequivocally that democracy stinks.

It can turn your stomach to see what goes on and how “the people” are treated. If you think they are servants of the people, and we are their bosses, hahaha! Dream on.

Every year, thousands of Floridians travel hundreds of miles to Tallahassee to plead their cases in committee meetings for or against a bill, only to be told by a committee chairperson:

“Ms. So-and-so, you are recognized to speak, and you have 30 seconds.”

Thirty seconds to convince a closed-minded legislator to change his or her mind.

Rarely, if ever, does it matter what a taxpayer says to a dais of legislators, many of whom don’t even listen to what you have to say. Fact is, in Tallahassee, all the deals are done, and votes are cast before the meetings occur.

If, say, you think it would be appropriate and courteous for a lawmaker to call you up before filing a bill that would put you out of business or, say, merge your university with another one, forget it. Who do you think you are?

Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, demonstrated that practice last week when he nonchalantly flipped a surprising molotov cocktail into the House Education Committee meeting. As chairman of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, he presented a disparate, five-part bill that included proposing that New College of Florida merge with Florida State University and Florida Polytechnic University merge with the University of Florida.

Since his first election in 2016, Fine has developed a reputation as a freight train you can’t stop. When he gets an idea, step aside, or you’ll be roadkill.

He is known for not talking with those who might be affected by proposed legislation. When he has a belief, he goes for it. One of those beliefs — and it’s to his credit — is that he sees a big part of his job to save taxpayers’ money.

We absolutely need lawmakers like that, to be sure.

But the New College-FSU merger bill (PCB ECD 20-03) appeared on the House Education Committee’s agenda Feb. 12 without any forewarning to anyone at New College and Florida Polytech.

When Fine presented the bill to the House Education Committee, he told committee members it was “a culmination of months” of work among the members of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

Asked last week by a fellow committee member if he had spoken with representatives of New College or Florida Poly ahead of time, he said no.

Fine responded: “However, anyone who watched our presentations [and] paid attention to the work we did over the past five months should have been able to see what was likely going to come.”

Who watches presession appropriations subcommittee meetings?

Certainly not New College President Donal O’Shea. You can imagine being O’Shea now and receiving last week a phone call, email or text, saying, “Donal, what do you think of the bill that would merge New College with FSU?”

The what?!

There’s a universal maxim in business that entrepreneurs and CEOs like Fine, a former software company owner, know: Avoid surprises. Especially don’t surprise the CEO.

Fine’s bill, of course, became more than a molotov cocktail. In Sarasota and Manatee counties, and especially among New College administrators, the board of trustees, students and legislators representing this area, Fine’s bill burst into a five-alarm fire.

Everyone was surprised.

That brings to mind a key point often lost and ignored in the halls of the Capitol: Lawmakers need to remember they are the servants, not the kings. Courtesy matters.

But when you’re a lawmaker, the unwashed taxpayers and voters become pests and nuisances to power.

To be expected, the merger bill triggered a full-force response from the Sarasota-Manatee legislative delegation. Spearheaded by Sen. Joe Gruters, they are marshaling efforts to derail Fine’s train (See My View, Page 9A).

They make the point in the editorial what lawmakers should have initiated well before the bill made it to the Education Committee: the need for workshops and allowing “all institutions and stakeholders to voice their opinions and concerns” — before the deal is done.

Fine says he is willing to listen to all ideas. Ask other lawmakers. His idea of compromise is simple: one way only.

What should happen is the House speaker and Senate president should jointly take this part of the bill out and do what the House Higher Education Subcommittee should have done from the start: Explore the merger and other ideas in a rational, businesslike manner.

Here’s the dilemma, particularly in the case of New College: Yes, its cost per student is high. (Fine: “On average, we pay $28,208 per degree” issued from the state’s other colleges and universities. “At New College, we spend $197,681 per degree.”) But the results are extraordinary (see My View, page 9A).

This reminds us of what happens when two CEOs start talking about merging their companies. Each side begins to think: Perhaps 1 + 1 can indeed equal 3. What are the economic benefits? Can the two cultures coexist? Will the customers (e.g., students, taxpayers) win or lose? How can it work?

As a CEO told us: “This is not a political question. It’s a question of leadership and leading to reach the best outcome.”

The best outcome for this legislation is twofold: for politicians to be reminded to be more political (tactful and courteous) and less imperial and for the House speaker and Senate president to do what the Higher Education Subcommittee should have done from the start, convene a team of lawmakers and representatives from the affected colleges.

Together, they should take the necessary time to explore as rationally and as dispassionately as possible what both sides — Fine and his committee aside the colleges’ boards of trustees — could hope to achieve: ways to save on cost and still offer the education that has made New College the nationally acclaimed honors college that it is.

To continue on the make-law-discuss-later path would prove Churchill’s point: Democracy — as often practiced in Tallahassee — is indeed a lousy form of government.

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