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    A Times Editorial

    Capitol offenses

    Muzzling citizens, endangering patients, harassing public employees and sponsoring sneaky gambling bills - all in a day's work for your lawmakers.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 3, 2002

    A Florida appeals court has ruled 2-1 that the NAACP is not entitled to challenge Gov. Jeb Bush's One Florida plan. If the nation's premier civil rights organization has no legal standing in such a case, then who would? Nobody. The court wouldn't let an African-American mother and son challenge it, either.

    The same never-never land is the Legislature's intended fate for the environment. For 31 years, the Audubon Society and other environmental associations have made good use of a law that established their right -- indeed, the right of any citizen -- to intervene in state administrative hearings on behalf of the environment and the public at large. Though this was in part a legacy of Nathaniel P. Reed and other crusading Republican environmentalists, their party now appears to have forgotten who brought them to the dance.

    Legislation with leadership support in both houses (HB 819, SB 270) would bar public interest groups from intervening in agency hearings until some individual who is personally and substantially affected has initiated a case.

    The big business lobbyists maintain that it's no big deal, but of course it is, or there wouldn't be so many of them at each committee hearing. The dissenting judge, Edwin B. Browning of the 1st District Court of Appeal, called the NAACP decision a "departure" and a "significant change" from historic precedents involving the environment.

    The Senate bill has another committee stop, but the House bill is already on the calendar. It is saddening to report that the two Pinellas representatives on the last House committee, Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, and Leslie Waters, R-Largo, voted for this assault on citizens' rights.

    Anesthesia on the cheap

    To the dismay of many surgeons and nurses, the Legislature apparently favors a bill that would let anesthetists hire a new class of assistants to help them. They would need less experience and training to be licensed than Florida's currently certified nurse anesthetists, who can't even begin their specialized training without a nursing degree and years of clinical experience. The new assistants, on the other hand, would need nothing but a bachelor's degree in any field before learning how to put people to sleep.

    Doctors could employ two (and eventually four) of these assistants who would work under their direct supervision but not necessarily in their direct sight. Four people could be simultaneously undergoing surgery without either a doctor-anesthetist or nurse-anesthetist at their sides.

    Considering that anesthesia can be the closest state to death, the Legislature ought to be thinking more seriously about this. Yet the House has already passed its version (HB 599) 71-46, and the Senate's (SB 966) is out of the Committee on Health and needs only a routine pass from the Appropriations Committee to reach the floor.

    Money, not need, is the motive. There does not appear to be a shortage of nurse-anesthetists. However, they earn more than the less-experienced assistants would.

    Bypassing benefits

    Some Republican legislators really, really don't like public employees. Two House committees had approved a bill (HB 217) intended to pressure school boards to privatize lunch rooms and other support services before a third killed it, 9-8. Congratulations to Reps. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg and Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, who broke party ranks to vote against the bill.

    Though drafted ostensibly merely to require school boards to seek private bids and publicize them, the deck was stacked. A staff report noted that private companies can usually underprice public services "because of limited employee benefits" such as pensions and health insurance. With 2.1-million Floridians already uninsured, what passes for conscience in the self-styled "Freedom Caucus"?

    Playing shell games

    The gap between the theory and practice of legislative procedure is getting as large as the Grand Canyon. House leaders are circumventing the committee structure whenever it suits them. In the Senate, the worst gimmick is a so-called shell bill that's filed by the deadline but gives no clue of the real purpose until the sponsors spring an amendment on the eve of a committee meeting, or even later.

    Last week, for example, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee put on the agenda a bill by Sen. Rudy Garcia, R-Hialeah, whose entire text was this: "The Legislature intends to enact legislation to assure that any system for the regulation of parimutuel personnel and facilities is fair and reasonable."

    When the committee met, an amendment revealed the real intent: to let the Hialeah horse track keep its permit without paying a penalty, even though it is not doing business. The goal behind that was to keep Hialeah alive for a day when the Legislature might let the parimutuels go into the slot machine racket. That legislation (HB 631) awaits a vote on the House floor.

    The Senate bill was delayed a week after Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, objecting to the "shell bill" procedure, stalled it long enough to also block consideration of the Senate bills to give the parimutuels a slot monopoly.

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