By BRUCE COLLIER
District 5 Representative Don Brown’s term expires in November, but barring a special session, the legislator’s work is over. Brown has served four terms, first taking office in 2000 and winning re-election every two years since then. Like most elected officials, Brown had some ideas in mind when he first took office. “There was a broad class of issues I wanted to pay attention to,” he says.
A self-described “fiscal conservative,” Brown set himself against raising taxes, and in favor of creating a friendly atmosphere for small businesses, “the backbone of Florida’s economy.” Brown called the power to over-tax “one of the most sinister things a government can do.” Still more sinister, he adds, is over-regulation, “Because you cannot easily count the cost” of goods and services driven up by too much regulation. Brown feels this is particularly important to northwest Florida, a far less-populated area made up of small counties.
Brown pointed to “plenty of examples” of businesses hampered by over-regulation. He first cited the process of pulling construction permits, which he characterized as “just unbelievable,” adding that “it’s just human nature to respond [to situations] with more control. It makes us feel good.” This is symptomatic, he thinks, of a lack of appreciation of a capitalistic economy, and of a lack of faith in the market. “Markets tend to work.”
Though an eight-year veteran of the Florida Legislature, Brown insists that “the collective wisdom of 18 million people has to be superior to any assembly of experts from government.” Nevertheless, “incrementally,” Floridians have been “reprogrammed” away from faith in a free market. “I wish we could expose young people to the positive aspects of the free market. Incrementally, we could go in either direction.”
One positive step in the right direction, says Brown, was Rep. Ray Sansom’s bill, passed two years ago, requiring mandatory review and, when warranted, sunsetting of all state agencies every seven years. The process, operating perpetually on a staggered schedule, gives at least an opportunity to ask questions about an agency’s existence.
Agencies and their handmaiden, administrative law, are of particular interest to Brown. “In the beginning, a law was a law,” he says. “Now, the Legislature passes policy, giving agencies authority to implement it. Such administrative laws and regulations are “stacked to the ceiling.”
“The Legislature has granted far too much lawmaking authority to administrative agencies, which are hard to reach” for citizens, including members of the businesses and professions regulated by them. “The legislature has gotten a little lazy.” This isn’t helped by the public’s apathy. “The more participation we have, the better we are.” The public’s apathy, on the other hand, is reinforced by its repeated disappointment with public officials, and the perception that “politicians are crooks.” Brown says, “I wanted to dispel that myth. I wanted to retain my reputation.”
Recently, Brown’s colleagues expressed their doubt that Brown was a “team player.” Brown told them, “I am a team player. I’m on a different team, my constituents.” Brown reflected on the dwindling of citizen legislators and the increase of professional politicians, some of whom are “ideologically driven.” This, he says, is part of the problem in Florida.
Brown suggests that if every member of the state’s Legislature was administered “truth serum” and “pressed to state what they truly believe, they couldn’t tell you.” This can be attributed to either ignorance, or stupidity, he says.
As far as his own record, Brown lists several accomplishments of which he is especially proud. First is the “significant role” he played in the reform of state Workers Compensation, by which rates have decreased 50 percent since 2003.
Brown also sponsored the repeal of joint and several liability in 2006, a bit of tort reform that placed Brown in the company of “some of the best lawyers in the state.” With joint and several liability, a tort defendant who paid the full judgment to a plaintiff could seek reimbursement from other parties defendant who are at fault. Brown also points with satisfaction to “multiple opportunities to do things for local communities,” including funding for important projects.
There were disappointments as well. Having been in the vanguard of the charge for hurricane insurance reform, Brown says “it’s hard to imagine how anyone in northwest Florida could have voted for what was passed.” Of Gov. Charlie Crist’s role, Brown says, “The demagoguery on the part of the governor was absolutely incredible.”
Brown admits that it is easy to dislike insurance companies, which can be “arbitrary and impersonal,” but adds that the real issue was “misunderstood and mismanaged.” Florida’s high insurance rates are “the symptom, not the problem.” The problem, he says, is that 79 percent of the state’s total wind risk exposure lies in the coastal counties, and that other states “aren’t even close” to Florida in this respect. Brown likes to reinforce this by noting that Florida’s total financial exposure – $2 trillion – is equal to the world’s total amount of venture capital. Though the figures are unrelated, Brown finds the comparative amounts impressive and staggering. He also attributes the lack of true reform to the “big storm” mentality that followed in the wake of the catastrophic 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, a change from the previous multiple-storm philosophy. As long as coastal building continues, the large number will continue to subsidize the small, he says.
Brown was also “disappointed” that more progress was not made in widening U.S. 331. Though most of the right-of-way has been secured, and some widening has taken place, the U.S. 331 bridge (Clyde B. Wells) remains a significant impediment. Environmental concerns for the north-of-Bay area remain, and cost estimates for building a bridge are “ridiculous.”
For his successors in the statehouse, Brown cautions them not to be tempted to raise taxes, and to focus on controlling government growth in the current economic slowdown. “Pay attention to your constituents…even at the risk of being misunderstood.”
For himself, Brown recently took a vacation. A life-long constituent has also presented him with a “honey-do” list.