Florida’s government is ready for a Millennial takeover

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Great news, everybody! Millennials are probably Florida’s best hope for survival.

Oh wait, that’s actually kind of horrifying.

This isn’t a knock against my 18-to-34-year-old friends. It’s just that Florida is facing crazy existential problems, and our elected leaders don’t really give a shit. So Millennials are responding in kind by not giving a shit about our political leaders.

I can’t really blame you. But can we talk for a second?

It’s about those problems. They’re cinematically epic. One is that global warming will cause even more flooding in Florida’s coastal cities, right about the time we run out of drinking water from our depleted aquifer. And another man-made disaster is our wacky, disconnected state government, which is hurting – and even killing – our own people, while ignoring these looming crises.

The 2014 legislative session ended on May 2 without so much as a vote on our water supply, or on what we’ll do about those floods. And Gov. Rick Scott continues to dance around the issue of Medicaid expansion, even though the delay is causing an estimated six Florida deaths a day.

Florida’s own government has abandoned its responsibility to protect us. That’s incomprehensible to a young generation that values volunteerism and public service.

It almost makes sense to disengage from a system like that. But the awkward reality for young Floridians is that, as much as your elected leaders don’t seem to deserve your time and attention, you currently don’t deserve theirs.

That’s because you’re probably not even going to vote this November.

A new national poll of 18-to-29-year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics predicts historically low participation in this year’s November elections. Harvard found that only 23 percent of young Americans say they will “definitely be voting,” which is 11 percentage points lower than five months ago.

The same poll says that Millennials increasingly agree with the statements “elected officials seem to be motivated by selfish reasons” (62 percent) and “elected officials don’t seem to have the same priorities I have” (58 percent).

So what do Millennials discover when they themselves become elected officials?

I asked the only Millennial I know in the Florida Legislature, Democratic state Rep. Joe Saunders, who serves east Orlando, including UCF. Elected at age 29 in 2012, Saunders is also one of Florida’s first two openly gay state representatives.

“One thing that surprised me when I got elected and began to engage at a new level,” says Saunders, “was just how rare it was for a lawmaker to write their own bill and how often lawmakers didn’t even understand their own bills.”

“The truth is, most legislation that moves in Tallahassee is not written by legislators,” says Saunders. “It’s written by associations or lobbyists.”

If you think about it, he says, it (unfortunately) makes complete sense.

“We’re a citizen Legislature,” he says, “and there’s this expectation that because you got elected, because you were able to raise a chunk of money and … go knock on a bunch of doors and talk to voters and express your values to them, that that would make you an expert on the nuances of policies that affect 20 million people.”

Saunders says lawmakers pay attention when Millennials act like lobbyists and show up at their offices, but he says they pay much more attention when Millennials take over those offices.

“Right now, in this moment, there are going to be more competitive state legislative seats than there were a decade ago, that there are going to be more races that are won or lost by a few hundred or few thousand votes,” he says. “So if young folks who are disillusioned by the process … take this moment to engage in the process, in the election cycle, their voice is more greatly weighted than it was in the past.”

If we’re ever going to have a forward-thinking Legislature, one that could even begin to address global warming, for instance, Saunders says he’ll need more of his generational cohorts alongside him.

“I’m already here,” he says. “I just need help with the math.”

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