Earlier this year, state lawmakers decided that Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez should have an office in Miami, allowing her to work outside of Tallahassee and closer to home from time to time. Florida’s Supreme Court justices are allowed to have remote offices as well.
The developments are a notable trend because they’re a tacit admission that Tallahassee is the center of government in name, but not in geography.
The only way to make Florida’s capital less convenient for the public would be to house it in Pensacola. The drive from Miami — where Nunez lives, and one of the nation’s biggest metro areas — to Tallahassee is more than 480 miles. That’s like driving from Orlando to Georgia’s capital of Atlanta, except about 50 miles shorter.
Tallahassee as the center of government made good sense in 1824, when it was established as the capital between population centers in Pensacola and St. Augustine.
Nearly two centuries later — need we say it? — Florida has changed.
That’s why state Sen. Kevin Rader of Boca Raton wants to pass a law next year that would study moving the capital to Central Florida.
It’s just a study, but Tallahassee traditionalists are likely to smugly ignore Rader’s proposal, just as they did when he introduced the same bill during the last lawmaking session.
We’re not sure why people are so afraid of simply examining the cost of moving the capital, along with the impact on the public that’s forced to travel to Tallahassee to participate in government. Rader’s bill wouldn’t commit the Legislature to doing anything beyond that.
Maybe opponents are concerned a study might find the cost of relocating isn’t as astronomical as everyone supposes, and that the benefits of a more convenient capital for millions of Floridians might outweigh the costs.
In any event, where’s the harm in taking a look?
By doing so, the Legislature could at least give the appearance that it cares about people having to drive nine or 10 hours to be heard at a committee hearing in Tallahassee.
A shorter drive might also lessen the sting when those same people, after driving a full day to have their voices heard, are turned away. That’s what happened in March when a Senate committee halted testimony from the public on a law banning sanctuary cities after hearing from just five speakers.
Public be damned is one thing, but the state’s distant capital also means more time on the road for lawmakers, keeping them from families and constituents. The state might get better candidates for office — and candidates less tethered to powerful special interests — if it didn’t require months far away from home in exchange for the princely sum of less than $30,000 a year.
On the other hand, you can imagine that Tallahassee’s remoteness works pretty well for lobbyists, whose full-time jobs revolve around cozying up to lawmakers. For them, the farther from prying eyes the better.
The idea of moving Florida’s capital is a well-worn argument, we know that. The last serious attempt in 1967 prompted the Legislature to build a 22-story government office building, which was completed 10 years later.
In a 1970s version of trolling, a plaque was installed in the new tower commemorating the South Florida legislator who dared to suggest moving the capital closer to his constituents. That’s what you get when you challenge the Tallahassee status quo — public humiliation.
If the Legislature isn’t willing to even consider the notion of gathering some facts, as Rader’s bill does, lawmakers should at least be open to exploring new ways to bring government closer to the people.
Is there no way for the public to testify at committee hearings through Skype or similar technology? Could lawmakers use similar means to participate in certain types of hearings? When the Legislature isn’t in session, why not hold more committee meetings throughout the state?
Can more records be placed online so people can see what their government is up to? How about instantly posting lawmakers’ emails and texts?
Is it possible to relocate certain government functions out of Tallahassee when it makes geographic sense?
Lawmakers also could change secretive practices that isolate the public and make it all the more urgent to watch their every move in real time.
Practices like loading 20 hours of bills into two hours of meeting time and then racing through each one with no substantive input or debate. They could conduct budget negotiations in public, rather than making those decisions in secret.
They could add stronger rules to prevent legislators and special interests from introducing eleventh-hour ideas, amending one unrelated bill onto another so they can sidestep objections, or cramming controversial policies together with broadly supported ones to force all-or-nothing votes.
What we have right now is a failure of imagination, and a status quo that works just dandy for powerful interests but less so for the people government is supposed to serve.
Maybe that accounts for why the idea of moving the capital closer to the people won’t go away.
An editorial from the Orlando Sentinel.