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A voice of sanity in Senate committees, but not for long

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 17, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- In the mythology of classical civics, the purpose of a legislative committee is to make good bills better and kill the bad ones. Committees are where most of the real work gets done.

TALLAHASSEE -- In the mythology of classical civics, the purpose of a legislative committee is to make good bills better and kill the bad ones. Committees are where most of the real work gets done.

In the reality of present-day Florida, House committees take it as their duty to make bad bills worse and kill the good ones. Senate committees, on the other hand, are loath to kill outright any bill whose sponsor might return the favor. So they vote for what they know they shouldn't in the belief and hope that time will run out before the bill reaches the floor.

Nothing else -- except, perhaps, a plea of insanity -- could explain why one Senate committee voted last week to prevent the release of any public record, unless redacted, that discloses the home address or telephone number of any public official or employee. Strictly read, that would require your local library to censor its copy of the phone book.

Occasionally, however, a committee lives up to better expectations. I witnessed a couple of examples last week. Both happened to involve Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. If legislators still voted for annual superlatives, he'd be a consensus choice for most effective in committee.

I may ruin his day by writing something nice about him, as he pretends to notice only when we say that he isn't siding with the angels. (The billboard amendment and "tort reform" come to mind.) But over the past eight years, Latvala has done more to clean up bad bills -- especially those affecting the environment -- than anyone else.

Earlier in the session (as he did last year) Latvala managed to stop the bill to legalize so-called flexible benefit health insurance policies, which would cover only what doesn't cost much, by merging it with his own bill to crack down on Golden Rule, United Wisconsin and other out-of-state companies that rake in customers with low rates followed by breathtaking premium increases. It's one of Florida's long-running scandals. As these companies have House Speaker Tom Feeney in their corner, the combined bill will probably go nowhere. But mini-med insurance won't either.

Taking no chances, lobbyists for Golden Rule and its allies made a run at Latvala's bill in a second committee Monday with an amendment to preserve their cozy regulatory exemption. Observers reported that Latvala went into "full outrage mode," as one put it, pounding the table to make his point. The amendment was defeated.

Earlier, Latvala had introduced the workers' compensation bill (SB 2304) pushed by a powerful coalition of business lobbies led by Associated Industries, which owns one of the larger workers' comp carriers. It was in some respects a good bill, but in too many others it was harsh and vindictive, especially in limiting legal fees so severely that cutthroat companies might be tempted to stiff medical or wage-loss claims they really ought to pay.

The worst part, as I reported two weeks ago, would overturn a Supreme Court decision that said employers could also face unlimited damage suits for such gross negligence as injury or death would be "substantially certain" to occur. That's also what it takes to prove a manslaughter case. What the business lobbies admitted they wanted as a new standard was the civil equivalent of first-degree murder.

Latvala knew that wouldn't fly and didn't appear to want it to. As other senators picked the bill apart at a meeting of the Banking and Insurance Committee, Latvala agreed to take it back and work on a compromise.

When he surfaced the compromise Tuesday, calling it "workers' comp light," the business coalition wanted no more part of it. Workers advocates, on the other hand, were happy. So was the home builders association, which kept coverage exemptions that the big business lobbies had been trying to erase. (The home builders are the only lobby that can out-muscle Associated Industries.)

That's the form in which the committee passed it. A similar amendment surfaced in the House the next day.

At his next stop, the Natural Resources Committee, Latvala helped clean up SB 207, the bill most feared this session by environmental advocates. It is still problematical, but at least the business and development lobbies will have to settle for less than they had bargained for. "We're going to work some more on it," Latvala said.

The time is swiftly running out, however, when he can work on anything. Term limits, the worst idiocy that Florida voters ever put over on themselves, toll on him this year. On Don Sullivan, too, another Pinellas senator who has been conspicuously effective. This is an enormous waste of talent and experience. Though there are some dodos who are being term-limited, too, a dozen of them wouldn't balance the loss of those two.

The changing of the guard was dramatically evident as the banking committee adjourned Tuesday morning. Latvala left alone as a dozen or so lobbyists clustered around Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who had declared that "exemptions will be gone" in the workers' comp bill he intends to file next year.

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