Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Michael Bennett legacy: Florida Fractured (Part III) … by gimleteye

On his Wikipedia website, former state senator Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) stops in motion. The website isn't updated to reflect that he was term-limited out of the state legislature. It isn't updated to show that from a top position in the state legislature -- in 2010 he was the # 2 wingman for the radical right -- he then became the supervisor of elections in Manatee County. It doesn't show that recently, at former senator Bennett's urging, the board of county commissioners voted a strictly party line vote to drastically reduce the number of polling stations in prominently Democratic areas of  the county, attracting national condemnation. A search of the web provides no information about "Alladin Wand Electric", its ownership, or what he did exactly as president of the company. The Wikipedia record that is available for viewing, either created by Bennett himself or more likely by a staffer while in the state senate, is a bland, uninformative recitation -- disinformation, is the best way to put it --  by a Jeb Bush lieutenant. 

Bennett was a state Republican leader unafraid to walk point for Florida's aristocracy, The Great Destroyers, and walked their pinnacle achievement forward: destroying growth management in Florida. It took a long time to accomplish in a crucial decade that largely coincided with Jeb Bush's tenure as governor.

Here is one of the Wikipedia entries: "Bennett was the author of Senate Bill 360, a complex growth management bill that passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Charlie Crist on June 1, 2009. The bill essentially changed how local governments in some parts of the state could charge impact fees, eliminating developments of regional impact—where large-scale residential or commercial developments were responsible for upgrading transportation around the project—in high-density population areas. The bill passed the Senate 32-8 on April 2, 2009, and later passed the House 76-41. Tallahassee Circuit Judge Charles Francis, however, declared the law unconstitutional in August 2010, claiming it was an "unfunded mandate."[8] The Florida Constitution generally prohibits lawmakers from forcing municipalities to spend more than 10 cents per Floridian."

In fact, the bill signed into law in 2009 was hardly a failure. It was a signal accomplishment. The efforts to dismantle community planning at the state level had started nearly as soon as the landmark state legislation was passed with a strong bipartisan consensus in 1985. As the regulatory structure began forming, to ensure that Florida's growth would take place in a sensible way and not harm irreplaceable natural assets, a core of opponents from homebuilders to real estate and construction interests began forming. They put continuous pressure on the executive branch -- the Governor's office -- and legislators to reign in the bureaucrats who made their lives more difficult by requiring expensive studies and applications for large scale developments to meet standards like protecting wetlands or ensuring that highway capacity or schools existed to serve new residents. They wanted to build as cheaply and as quickly as possible. When Jeb Bush was elected to Governor in 1998, after a surprise defeat to Democrat Lawton Chiles in an earlier election, they had their man. 

But Jeb needed lieutenants, and Michael Bennett was his man. The 2009 "defeat" of Bennett's plan by a Florida circuit court judge is 100 percent inaccurate. In fact, Bennett is quoted saying so. “Looks like we’re going to court,” Bennett said. “But I’ll get the last laugh because [the Legislature] will be back in session before they get a court date. Now that I know what their objections are, we’ll fix it. And I still contend we’ll get growth going again in this state.”   (GROWTH MANAGEMENT: Weston leads challenge to new law that favors developers, July 2, 2009, South Florida Daily Business Review)

There are several parts to this quote that bear comment, more than four years after the fact. First of all, "getting the last laugh" is exactly how Bennett and his co-horts, including some of the most secretive and wealthy campaign financiers in Florida and the United States, thought about their job of dismantling growth management: it was a game of checkers and because of the GOP's lock grip on the legislature, they won out of the box. It was a matter of formalities. By 2012, growth management in Florida was dead. The 2009 effort was simply another step along the way; another hill taken, another target identified. There is nothing illegal about using the legislature to circumvent the judiciary, but it is misleading and inaccurate to characterize -- as Bennett does in his historical record -- the 2009 setback as a "defeat". Moreover, what was to come had already been planned: that is how things are done in Florida.

Bennett's Wikipedia entry makes an interesting note of Charlie Crist, who "signed" his bill into law in 2009. A year earlier, Crist had taken a severe political beating -- with Bennett leading the charge -- for trying to set the stage for real Everglades restoration through the purchase of 180,000 acres of land in the Everglades Agricultural Area  owned by US Sugar Corporation. Bennett lead the campaign to push back against the Crist plan. By 2009, Crist had committed to run for US Senate and had his reasons for making peace with Bennett and the wealthy forces he (Bennett) represented. Of course, Marco Rubio would defeat Crist in the 2010 election -- counting Big Sugar among his strongest backers. In 2010, Michael Bennett was promoted to the number two slot in the state senate, president pro-tem.

On his Wikipedia website, Bennett lists his occupation as president of the Aladdin Wand Electric  Company. Although there is no information on the internet about the electric company, there is something magical about the way that Bennett represented a movement to do away with Growth Management; first hobbling the beast, then spiking its knees, and finally decapitating the state agency that reflected nearly forty years of bipartisan consensus.

The attack led by Bennett was entirely partisan, emerging out of a Republican stranglehold on the state legislature with an ineffective Democratic minority hamstrung in the chase for the same campaign money from developers and development interests who gave primarily to GOP candidates. The irony is that 40 years of growth management policies -- that Bennett did his level best to destroy as part of a strike team -- was a signature bipartisan achievement, featuring a generation of GOP leadership who both mourned the loss of natural habitats and the unique attributes of the state and knew that sprawl, construction and Big Agriculture could turn the state into a chaotic mess. Some of those Republicans, like the late Congressmen Porter Goss and Clay Shaw, would emerge in 2003 to rebuke the Jeb Bush administration and the key players in the legislature, like Bennett, for tampering with the federal state agreement to rescue the Everglades that was also decades in the making through bipartisan consensus. Had they still been alive and in office, the old guard who forged agreement in the Florida legislature to create growth management policies that were the most forward-looking in the nation would have taken Bennett to the wood shed. But there was no one to do it, although the state's newspaper editorial boards tried their best with one broadside after another.

A Republican who had been involved in the struggle to tame the worst impulses of the development industries, Former DCA secretary Tom Pelham also tried to push back against the presumption that Republican legislators were following the sober, conservative principles of accountability or job creation.

Florida's right wing radicals wrap themselves in the American flag and virtues of the "free market". Free from the interference of regulatory authority, the law of supply and demand will better protect the public interest. Industries and shareholders would use self-interest to price the appropriate costs -- from roadways, to schools, and quality of life concerns like the environment -- because otherwise their business portfolios would suffer. It is an easy sell to Republican voters but masks the damage done to the public interest.

"As a result of these statutory changes," Pelham wrote of the 2009 law, "local (growth) plans are no longer required to financially feasible (even though the Legislature strengthened this critical requirement as recently as 2005). Now local governments can adopt plans without regard for their ability to pay for them. Although Florida is plagued by ovelr development and huge unoccupied housing inventory of more than one million units, need has been effectively abolished as a state mandatory planning factor. Now local governments can plan for greed and excess rather than need."

“Sometimes it just takes years for an idea to come to fruition," state senator Michael Bennett told the Sarasota Herald Tribune in June 2013 ("Move over law gives Bennett belated victory", Herald Tribune, June 13, 2013) http://politics.heraldtribune.com/2013/06/13/forcing-slow-pokes-out-of-the-left-lane-bennett-scores-belated-legislative-victory/

And that is exactly the way to read the 2014 plan to sharply reduce polling places in Manatee County, Florida, where the supervisor of elections is a term-limited state senator, Michael Bennett. (to be continued)

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