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Legislators leave much undone

They must return to agree on a budget, education laws and a new Cabinet job's duties.

By LUCY MORGAN and STEVE BOUSQUET

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2002


They must return to agree on a budget, education laws and a new Cabinet job's duties.

TALLAHASSEE -- The Legislature adjourned late Friday night with so much unfinished work that the governor plans a series of special sessions to finish the job.

The Legislature adopted new plans for congressional and legislative districts, a growth management bill and a watered-down tax overhaul plan.

But it could not agree on a $49-billion budget, a massive rewrite of the education code or the duties of a powerful Cabinet post voters approved four years ago.

As the session concluded minutes after 10 p.m., Gov. Jeb Bush congratulated lawmakers.

"At the start of the week, I thought this was going to get really, really ugly," Bush told reporters. "But we got more done than I expected."

Senate President John McKay got what he wanted: an agreement on tax reform. It wasn't the ambitious plan he originally proposed, but he took what he could get and declared victory in the waning hours of the session.

Bush wants legislators to return April 2 to finish rewriting state education laws. He also plans to call special sessions on the budget and on the duties of the new post of chief financial officer.

The House and Senate appeared to have a deal on the chief financial officer, but it imploded at the last minute when the Senate rejected two amendments the House approved that were unrelated to the issue.

The measure sparked a feud between the two men whose jobs will be merged into the chief financial officer position. Comptroller Bob Milligan announced Thursday that he will oppose Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher for the new job, which GOP officials had hoped to avoid.

While Bush expressed satisfaction with the session, others were dismayed.

"This session was all about the politicians," said House Minority Leader Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach. "Maybe . . . we'll come back and do work for the rest of people."

The session was marked by a struggle over McKay's insistence on overhauling the state's tax system. Friday's 30-9 Senate vote on the compromise tax plan followed a 74-43 House vote in the early morning hours.

McKay got what he wanted on tax exemptions by giving House Speaker Tom Feeney what he wanted: a congressional seat he can win.

The deal proved crucial to breaking a logjam that had virtually halted the passage of all bills.

Lawmakers continued debating bills late into the night, exchanging hostile barbs that have been a hallmark of the session.

The tax plan came together after Bush urged House Republicans to accept it as part of a compromise to end the session.

"I told them it was important to get the work of the Legislature done. I told them we need to get things done and these things were tied together," Bush said.

The result: Voters will be asked in November to create a special panel of 12 legislators -- six from the House and six from the Senate -- to study tax breaks and vote for exemptions. A tax break would disappear two years later unless the Legislature voted to reinstate it.

"It's a comprehensive review of all tax exemptions," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who shepherded the measure through the Senate. "It allows the people of Florida to decide whether or not they are happy with their current tax system and whether or not they would like an improvement."

But the concept didn't sound right to Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami. He worried that an anti-tax House would choose six staunch conservatives to review tax exemptions. "I think this is a fixed deck they're handing the Florida Senate, and I think we're going to get snookered in the end," Meek said.

The plan bore little resemblance to McKay's original, far-reaching proposal to reduce the sales tax and eliminate hundreds of tax exemptions. But that idea was rejected by the House and criticized by Bush and a coalition of lobbyists for businesses.

Almost immediately, business organizations whose services are tax-exempt began discussing a strategy to oppose the measure.

Late Friday, the House and Senate clashed over a rewrite of the state's education laws. The measure is a priority for the governor, aligning Florida's laws with the new kindergarten-through-graduate school system.

But instead of allowing a handful of senators to attend a conference committee meeting with House members to resolve differences, McKay forced senators to vote on the tax amendment.

The House appointees to the conference committee waited for two hours for their Senate counterparts, who appeared only after Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, and Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Miami, went to the Senate floor to fetch them.

Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan called the Senate "shameful."

Lawmakers agreed to leave the budget unresolved until later this spring. The Senate plan spends about $500-million more than the House, and there are other disagreements about tax issues.

Bush said he may wait for new revenue estimates before calling a special session on the budget. The budget year ends June 30.

"We'll come back as long as it takes," Bush said.

One of the biggest issues left undone involves the the chief financial officer's duties. The House and Senate appeared to have worked out a compromise, but it fell apart late Friday night.

The Cabinet post was created by voters in 1998 to reduce the size of the state Cabinet. The House wanted the people who regulate banking and insurance to be insulated from the influence of campaign contributions to the chief financial officer. The Senate version had regulators under the chief financial officer's control.

Lawmakers also passed a growth management bill aimed at better coordinating new development with school capacity. But it was far less sweeping than a measure Bush backed last year that would allow local communities to reject development proposals in areas with overcrowded schools. This year's version mainly improves coordination between local governments and school boards.

Another key environmental bill, locking in funding for Everglades restoration, also passed the Legislature, but with an amendment widely condemned by environmentalists. The state and federal government are sharing the cost of the $8-billion restoration project, and lawmakers agreed to issue up to $100-million in bonds annually for that purpose.

Environmentalists cheered the funding but denounced an amendment barring people not directly affected by a proposed development from challenging it.

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