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The state of the state in Tallahassee

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- Haven't we seen this before?

The Legislature adjourns without passing a budget. It faces a series of special sessions to complete that and other "must-pass" legislation which easily could have been completed on time. Its top leaders aren't speaking to each other -- except through the press -- so the governor is forced to mediate. The Senate doesn't think too much of him either; he's denounced from the floor, where the confirmation of one of his top appointees is pointedly put off. In the final hours, bills pass at the rate of one a minute, hastily and heavily amended on the floor. Anyone who claims to know what's really in all of them is lying.

Yes, success has spoiled the Republicans. It's as if the Democrats were still running the show. To quote Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.

It is very familiar to Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University political scientist who studied Florida extensively during the Democratic hegemony.

"I don't think it's unusual for there to be strained relations between senates and houses of representatives even if controlled by the same party," he said last week. "And Florida was a real good example of it back when the Democrats had control. I mean they just didn't talk to one another unless they had to."

And so the mind fondly recalls the 1988 Senate returning in a one-day session, passing a budget bill and adjourning in only eight minutes, leaving the House no choice but to accept it. (In different ways, but less effectively, both houses passed take-it-or-leave it budgets this year.) Once again, a popular governor confronts surly senators of his own party, reminiscent (if not as profanely) of the events in 1975 when a Democratic Senate president orchestrated the ouster of a Democratic governor's social services secretary and then publicly told the governor to "stay the hell out of the Senate."

If anything is different now, it's the depth of the antagonism between the House and Senate. That may or may not outlast the departing leaders.

Any analysis of the reasons for all this must begin with the realization that it is not in the institutional nature of Florida's legislature to finish on time, and that its 60 day-quota (including weekends) is an anachronism dating to its 19th century status as the least populated Southern state. To conclude everything within that time span has been more the exception than the rule. It has happened only 10 times since annual sessions began 29 years ago. That includes the session of 1996, which had to be extended until 2 a.m. on the 61st day.

The Republicans, already in possession of the Senate, completed their takeover that November when the House fell to the GOP. Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Daniel Webster marked the passage in the best possible way, pledging to permit no night sessions, to adjourn on schedule, and to put a stop to "trains," the term for coupling many different bills into one on the House or Senate floor. They delivered on most of that. The years 1997 through 2001 comprised the most consecutive on-time adjournments since the advent of two-party politics. But the trains began to run again in Webster's second year, gained momentum under Speaker John Thrasher, and have run with abandon under President John McKay and Speaker Tom Feeney.

To give Jennings and Webster due credit, they proved that where there's the will, there's the way. I asked Webster, who's now a senator, how they did it.

"One thing is," he explained "we both went in purposed to do it. I guess the easiest way not to end on time is to not care whether you do it or not. The best way to end on time would be to plan for it. There was a lot of presure not to, lots of naysayers who had a vested interest in delaying the process."

(The naysayers included much of the lobbying corps, which typically earns its keep in the legislative equivalent of football's two-minute drill. For the last two weeks, Webster barred them from his office.)

"Secondly, communication," Webster added. "Toni and I talked about just every day. We have different personalities, different outlooks and so forth, just like the others who have been before us. We said, "If we don't agree, let's at least be sure we're talking.' We just chatted, and that too enabled us to know what was coming, even if she didn't like what I was sending her and I didn't like what she was sending me. . . . There were no surprises."

It helped also, observers say, that Jennings and Webster were members of the same Orange County delegation, had served in the House together, and had few ideological differences. The comity began to disappear when Thrasher succeeded Webster and refused to take up one of Jennings' highest priorities, reform of the campaign finance laws. Unlike John McKay, Jennings wasn't willing to shut down the legislative process to make Thrasher compromise.

This year's session was ill-fated from the start by Feeney's conspicuous disdain for McKay's tax reform plan, by the House's orchestrated vote to kill it 99-0, by the House leadership's refusal to take up any compromise that the Senate president might accept until less than a week remained in the session, and by a widening ideological gulf over budgeting for schools and social services. Moreover, McKay and Feeney had no use for each other.

McKay's logical recourse was to delay everything, including a redistricting plan designed to elect Feeney to the Congress. That put pressure not only on Feeney but on the governor and the Republican National Committee, who feared that to go beyond 60 days would invite a federal court to redraw the districts.

The logjam broke too late, however, for two massive bills on which agreement had actually been declared: the 1,800-page school code and the reorganization of banking, insurance and securities regulation. Those are targeted for special sessions -- the first of them this week -- which will likely conclude with a budget in May. Most lawmakers are hoping for better economic forecasts that would make agreement easier to reach.

What will persist beyond then is the enlarging institutional difference between the House and Senate. In one respect, it's an example of how some things never change. Under Democratic rule, the House tended to be liberal and the Senate conservative. Today, the House has swung far to the right. If the Senate appears to be more liberal, it is more or less where it always was. But now that position is the middle.

That senators have larger districts and serve four-year terms explains a lot; these are moderating factors. In the House, which splits the state into 120 parcels, Democrats are more liberal, and Republicans more conservative; there is no consistent middle ground.

The greater part of the difference owes to term limits, which have left the House hugely disadvantaged in experience. Sixty-one members are true freshmen, which makes them more vulnerable to being bossed by their leaders. Among other things, they haven't enough background to understand how the rules that are twisted to silence Democratic protests today could be used to silence everyone tomorrow.

Of the 40 senators, only one (Rod Smith, D-Gainesville) had not served in the Legislature before the last election. Such veterans have to be cajoled, not commanded; McKay kept most of their loyalties on the tax issue not just because of his power as presiding officer, but also on account of their belief in the issue and, perhaps more important, their devotion to the Senate as an institution.

Term limits will take a harsh toll even there: 10 senators, one in four, must leave, and no one is happy about it. This has interesting implications for one of the last bits of unfinished business: the confirmation of Bush's board of education chairman, Phil Handy. He's the only Bush nominee who remained unconfirmed as time ran out.

It was only partly because Democrats who oppose him had votes enough to keep the issue from coming up out of order. There are also Republicans who think he has an attitude problem, suspect him of being indifferent to education, and wouldn't mind taking the governor down a peg or two at Handy's expense. What none would note publicly, but was on all their minds, is that it was Handy who organized and led the term limits initiative 10 years ago. Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan did not help Handy's cause when he denounced the Senate as "shameful" for debating the tax reform compromise at such length that no time was left to pass the school code.

Under the law, the failure to consider Handy's appointment to the board of education was the same as rejecting him, with one significant difference: He can stay on for 45 days and Bush can reappoint him for another year, subject to his being approved during the next regular session. If he were passed over again, he'd be out.

Technically, however, Handy's office is vacant now. The law does not appear to provide for his reappointment to be considered at any of the special sessions and Bush would be prudent not to press the point. It is probably more symbolic than substantive, but the Senate has had at least a token revenge on the person most responsible for term limits. In a sense, they have term-limited him.

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