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Colleen Burton: Decentralizing power in the Florida House

Lakeland, FL – 

My first year in the Florida House has been has been so much more than I anticipated.

I have been presented with incredible opportunities to connect with and help citizens. I have been honored to work with my fellow legislators to find solutions for some of Florida’s most pressing issues and empower Floridians to create a bright future for themselves and their loved ones.

However, I have also learned that the speaker, over the years, has become the center of all power in the Florida House — with the power to reward, and perhaps more importantly, the power to punish when a member disagrees with him.

Recently, an unprecedented event occurred when Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando, unveiled a plan to decentralize power in the Florida House of Representatives.

Any system that concentrates power with one person is a bad system — plain and simple. That is why I wholeheartedly support Rep. Eisnaugle’s plan to decentralize power in the Florida House, and return it to the people of Florida through their elected representatives.

Eisnaugle’s plan presents a structure wherein the speaker’s role as leader of the House is strengthened by his or her ability to work cooperatively with an elected leadership team.

To me, however, one of the most compelling things about Eisnaugle’s plan is that he himself is expected to be speaker for the 2020-22 term. That means we have a leader, who under our current system could have unfettered control, proposing to disperse the power of the very position he seeks. But that is no surprise to me, because Eisnaugle has talked about decentralizing power in the Florida House for as long as I have known him.

The plan has five key components: the independent election of the speaker pro tempore and majority leader; meaningful institutional authority vested in the speaker pro tempore and majority leader; the formation of a House Oversight Committee; empowered committee chairmen; and a more meaningful role for the minority party.

Of these components, I believe the independent election and vested authority of both the speaker pro tempore and majority leader offer the greatest potential for the decentralization of power and, therefore, influence in the Florida House. Under this structure, the speaker pro tempore and majority leader would counter-balance the influence of the speaker. Policy positions equally held amongst these elected leaders would more closely reflect the positions of the majority of members.

This may all sound highly technical, and you may wonder how this will ever impact your everyday life. Let me ask you a simple question: Do we care, as voters, whether or not the representatives we elect have the ability to truly represent us in the legislative process?

If the answer is yes, then we should all care deeply, Republicans and Democrats alike, about decentralizing power in the Florida House, and we should all support these transformative reforms.

The best time to seek reform of our leadership structure in the Florida House is now. Indeed, these unprecedented reforms are proposed at a time when constituents everywhere are demanding greater accountability from their elected officials.

We have many rising leaders in the House who are eager to engage in real debate about an entire spectrum of new ideas. Let’s empower them to do just that by crafting a system which incorporates checks and balances. After all, that was the vision of our Founding Fathers.

Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, represents House District 40 in the Florida Legislature.

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