An unusually tense atmosphere hovers over Tuesday's opening of the Florida legislative session, and one former leader might be able to calm everyone down. But former House Speaker Allan Bense is home in Panama City, tending to his businesses and mostly watching from a safe distance.
Like many, he's interested in how the political dynamics will play out among Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and Speaker Richard Corcoran, who wants to dismantle a system that Bense was a big part of more than a decade ago.
"There's clearly room for improvement in Tallahassee," Bense said. "He (Corcoran) has unveiled things that really weren't working very well ... Clearly he's aggressive, and I respect him for that." He said Corcoran is right to call for a stricter six-year revolving-door restriction before ex-lawmakers can become lobbyists.
It's hard to believe Bense was eight speakers ago (followed by Marco Rubio, Ray Sansom/Larry Cretul, Dean Cannon, Will Weatherford, Steve Crisafulli and Corcoran).
"Remember, I'm a has-been. A nobody," Bense said over coffee at a Panama City diner. "I was, at best, a C as speaker. Probably a C-minus."
On that, few would agree. Bense was viewed as evenhanded and unpretentious. With his small-town sensibility, he got along with just about everybody. He didn't use procedural tricks to run over opponents and didn't exploit a public trust to run for higher office. He was accessible to the members and to the media, and if he didn't know the answer to a question, he said so with no spin.
His advice to Scott, Corcoran and Negron is to keep the line of communication open, which at the moment is not the case.
"Communicate," Bense said. "It's like a marriage. The more you talk, the more you learn."
Bense has good reason to hope for a budget deal: He chair a five-member board that will distribute proceeds of the settlement in the BP oil spill case to eight counties in Northwest Florida. The Legislature must include that money in the next budget.
"I think it's really early in the game," Bense said of the caustic mood. "Everybody's staking out their positions. Hopefully, we'll see some kind of a great ending."