Bob Graham: Still Committed

Bob GrahamStill Committed
to Florida’s Issues

Two years after retiring from the U.S. Senate, Bob Graham still is active on the national scene. As former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and author of “Intelligence Matters,” which raised the alarm about national security in 2004, he continues to command a platform as an elder statesman.

Graham just finished a year as a fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and is working to establish the Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, his alma mater, which awarded him an honorary doctorate last year. Now he and former U.S. Rep. Lou Frey have conducted a study showing that Floridians’ civic engagement is in dismal condition. During the 2007 legislative session, they backed a successful measure to require civics education and test it on the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test.

Graham never lost an election, including two for governor and three for senator; he also ran briefly for president in 2003. Asked about the legislative proposal to move up the state’s presidential primary to Jan. 29, he said “the argument for it is strong,” but that Florida will be taken seriously whenever its primary is held.

In an exclusive interview, Bob Graham talked with Emerald Coast Magazine writer Margie Menzel when he was in Tallahassee to present the Rotary Club’s 2007 Ethics in Business Award.

EC: Is it an accident that so few citizens participate meaningfully in the democratic process?

BG: No, it’s not. We had a very strong commitment to civic education in America from the beginning of public education. In many ways, it was the teaching of civics that was the stimulus to public education in our country. It began to wane in the 1960s and 1970s … Both people from the right and left came to the conclusion that civics was being taught in a way to propagandize students against their interest … Their coalition was strong enough to cause civics to drop from an average of three courses in civics from the seventh to the 12th grade to today, in many schools, zero, and in most schools in Florida, a semester.

Not only did it drop in quantity, it dropped in quality. The former civics had a major emphasis on encouraging people and giving them the skills to be participants in democracy. The current teaching, in my judgment, is largely a spectator preparation.

EC: What would you do about Florida’s property tax crisis?

BG: Focus on the area of property taxes over which the state has the most control and responsibility: those that go for our schools. Since the late 1940s, Florida has had a school financing system which was a mixture of state funds and local property taxes. Traditionally, that relationship had been about 60 to 65 percent on the state level, and the balance, local property taxes. Now, that balance has shifted so that I understand the state is paying less than 50 percent of the cost of schools … The most direct way to provide property tax relief is to move back to that 60- to 65-percent level of state support – that would amount to billions of dollars in property tax relief.

EC: You’ve said that Florida should recommit to education as the fundamental responsibility of state government.

BG: I’m concerned that one of the ways our failure to support education is that we’ve seen a rather sharp decline in the per capita income of Floridians in relation to the rest of the country. During the 1980s, Florida was at the national average of per capita income. By 2000, we had dropped to about 96 percent … The difference per Florida family of four people is about $4,000. So I think that we need to reevaluate and recommit to support for quality education, because it is fundamental to the future and prosperity of our state.