GAINESVILLE _ Five of Florida’s living former governors met at the University of Florida Friday and offered up bi-partisan cautions about the future direction of the state.
The governors, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Buddy MacKay and Charlie Crist, lamented the loss of environmental protections, the dismantling of guided growth management, and the recent partisan assault on the Florida Supreme Court.
Absent from the panel was former Govs. Jeb Bush and Wayne Mixon, who was governor for three days after Graham. The “Conversation with Florida Governors” was sponsored by the UF law school’s Law Review as part of the Allen L. Poucher Legal Education Series.
Askew, a Democrat who as governor from 1971-79 ushered in judicial reform and the non-partisan merit retention elections for the Supreme Court, said he was disappointed that the Republican Party has joined in the push to oppose the three justices up for merit retention. But he also chided critics who claim that the justices should not be judged by their records.
“The Republican Party is, I think, making a serious mistake when it injects a partisan view on what should be a non-partisan system,’’ he said. But, “an election is an election” and “people can’t get told what they can consider.”
MacKay, the former Democratic legislator and congressman who served as lieutenant governor under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles from 1991-1997, chided the Republican-led legislature as having forgot the state’s past.
He recalled how when he came to the legislature in the 1970s, it was controlled by a tight-knit group of conservative leaders who “were facing the wrong direction.”
“We were the fastest growing state and they were fighting change,’’ MacKay recalled. “The state didn’t have any plan, we were growing 1,000 net new residents a day and a lot of people said let the market take care of it.”
Today’s legislative leadership “is basically faced in the wrong direction again,’’ he said, “ blaming things on the federal government and basically saying we don’t need a plan: let the hidden hand of the market take care of it.”
He drew chuckles and applause from the crowd when he said Gov. Rick Scott also “believes in the hidden hand of the marketplace. “Some people think it’s a fist, clenched. Others believe it’s a hand with the middle finger sticking up.’’
UPDATE: Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers released a statement saying that the governor came into office "to turn around Florida’s economy and create jobs" and touted the drop in unemployment and the job creation record. "Until every Floridian who wants a job can find one, there is still more work to be done, but we are making incredible progress,” she said.
Graham, a Democrat who served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years after he was governor from 1979-1987, said that during his term he set a series of goals, including bringing Florida’s higher education system into the top quartile of the nation and establishing a system of protecting the environment for future generations.
They accomplished the goal and, along the way, the state’s per capita income rose above the national average, a distinction that has since faded as Florida residents now make less than most other states.
“Florida has a very rich but fragile environment and it requires each generation making a commitment that we will leave it better,’’ he said.
Martinez, the only Republican in the group who was governor from 1987-91, noted the environmental and growth management reforms put in place when he was governor that prompted critics to call them communists. Overtime, he said, local governments layered on their own rules and regulations, leading to delays and complexities.
“Instead of killing growth management, in my view, they should have looked at what was redundant and what as causing the added costs and the delay,’’ he sadi. “The easy way was the get rid of it. The more sensible way would have been to fix it.’’
He predicts the pendulum will swing back as growth resumes in Florida and there will be a demand more new growth management rules.
Each of the governors warned that one of the biggest challenges ahead for the state will be to manage its water use.
MacKay recalled how lawmakers attempted in the 1970s to put in place a system of minimum flows and water levels that would sustain both the demand from growth and the needs of the state’s fragile ecosystems.
Since then, however, the goals of those policies have long been abandoned and the state’s springs and lakes are going dry.
In the future, he said, the law students in the audience, will have job security as water wars become the focus of litigation and Florida residents are asked to shoulder the burden of building desalination plants to accommodate growth.
“The next 40 years there's going to be a law that says E Pluribus sue ‘em,’’ he joked.
Crist, who famously left his party and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010 as an independent, was governor from 2007-11. He noted that he just returned from a fundraiser Thursday night in Miami on behalf of President Barack Obama, whom he has endorsed.
He was asked about the oil spill during his term and said he “will be forever grateful to the Obama administration in holding BPs feet to the fire.”
That bi-partisan approach “is what we desperately need in Washington today and I think most people realize if you don’t work together, you can’t get stuff done,’’ Crist said.
Crist was received warmly by the other governor’s, including MacKay and Graham who each sparred with him politically at some point in their careers and Askew pulled him aside after the event to offer a word of consolation for being the brunt of criticism from his former party.
“Charlie Crist got pushed out of the Republican Party for reaching across the aisle -- which is what the people want,’’ Askew told reporters later. “Charlie Crist advertised himself as the people’s governor. He was the people’s governor. I’m not endorsing him, but he’s a friend, a very good friend, and I regretted he had to bear the brunt of excessive partisanship.’’