Here Comes the Czar

Neal R. Peirce

January 07, 1991|By Neal R. Peirce

THIS WEEK Gov. Bob Martinez of Florida heads to Washington to be the nation's drug czar. Florida's loss won't likely be America's gain. Mr. Martinez' governorship ranks among the most severely botched jobs of leading a major state anyone in politics can remember. His good friend, George Bush, knows that. But he still chose to rescue Mr. Martinez from the political scrap heap and make him William Bennett's replacement.

The governor's record in Tallahassee showed more zigs, zags and opportunistic leaps than most politicians register in a lifetime.

He ran in 1986 vowing never to raise taxes. Shortly after taking office he endorsed and signed a new services tax that was desperately needed to pay more of the costs of Florida's rapid population growth. As opposition mounted, Governor Martinez first vacillated, then called for a referendum, and finally fought the tax and killed it. The Florida debacle scared other states away from the services tax, which is arguably the fairest way most now have to raise more revenues.

With the services tax dead and Florida's infrastructure deficit soaring to $60 billion or more, state business leaders started to push for higher gas taxes. Florida's 5.7 cents was one of the nation's lowest. Governor Martinez, reading the polls, said he'd veto any gas-tax hike. He relented only when the legislature agreed to disguise the levy as a local rather than state tax.

Then there was abortion. Within 72 hours of the Supreme Court's 1989 decision upholding Missouri's restrictive abortion laws, Governor Martinez was calling for a special legislative session. This time the polls turned on him; Floridians registered overwhelming opposition to curbs on abortions. The legislature gave the governor the back of its hand, killing four of his anti-abortion bills and adjourning early.

What was Governor Martinez' record on drugs and crime? Tough, tough, tough. He stiffened sentences for drug crimes and nearly doubled Florida's prison-bed count. The year before he took office, Florida imprisoned 2,773 drug offenders; by last year, it was 16,169. An extravagant but worthwhile accomplishment? Hardly. Florida jails are so overcrowded that the state is obliged to let the average convict out after he's served just a third of his sentence.

Governor Martinez ordered drug testing for most state employees, including his own closest aides. He's one of the country's most vocal advocates of enlisting the military in anti-drug operations abroad. During his failed re-election campaign, he announced he favored executing some drug traffickers. In fact, he favors executing lots of people. He boasted in one bellicose television ad that he'd signed more than 90 death warrants.

And the total keeps rising. President Bush, revealing he'd decided to make his old Florida campaign chairman America's drug czar, praised Governor Martinez for signing no less than 130 death warrants. Mr. Bush said Governor Bob had ''earned his stripes on the front lines'' and merited a ''battlefield promotion.'' We can hope the president exercises better military judgment in the Persian Gulf. Despite all the tough talk, executions and the nation's highest incarceration rate, Florida has the highest crime rate of all 50 states.

As Mr. Bush appointed him, Governor Martinez said he favored a ''holistic'' approach to fighting drugs in which ''treatment, education, information and the criminal-justice system must all work together.'' That's not what he delivered as governor. Florida spends 16 percent less than the national average on drug treatment, 57 percent less on drug-prevention efforts.

Nor does Mr. Martinez seem a likely candidate to cut the carnage on the streets brought on by urban drug wars. He supported a National Rifle Association-backed bill making handguns more easily available in Florida than in practically any other state.

As Governor Martinez arrives, the Bush administration is touting a National Institute on Drug Abuse survey claiming big drops in the numbers of Americans using cocaine and marijuana. The figures do suggest some drop in middle-class use of drugs since the mid-'80s. But murderous drug wars continue to afflict city ghettoes and barrios, suggesting drug use and drug abuse among the most desperate Americans hasn't subsided an iota.

If you believe it's time for new social policies, aimed at the causes of drug abuse rather than their results, Governor Martinez is a dreary choice. Unless he shows operational savvy never evident while he served Florida, the governor's tough talk will produce meager results, if any at all.

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