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It was Civility Day in the Capitol

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 3, 2002

Stop the presses: Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney are actually talking to each other. And Gov. Jeb Bush is talking to both of them.

Now don't go getting so excited that you think our legislators might actually do something constructive this week.

A week ago they left the Capitol in shambles, unable to agree on the simplest of things and barely able to appear in public together.

On Tuesday, summoned by the governor like children ordered to their rooms, they returned.

This week's special session focuses on a 1,800-page bill that rewrites school laws and grants more authority to local school districts and universities.

They will have to return to finish the state's $50-billion budget and reorganize the way Florida regulates banking and insurance.

Except for partisan barbs tossed by Democrats in both chambers, they have decided to try to play nice this week.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin somehow blamed Bush for the Legislature's failure to pass the school code bill during the regular session that ended March 22. Labeling the bill "technical," Rossin said the governor called legislators back because he was angry and shouldn't waste their time and taxpayers' money with a special session.

Senate Majority Leader Jim King defended the governor, saying lawmakers just finished the most contentious session ever and failed to act on the school proposal despite the efforts of Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

"We need to do this as effortlessly as we can to show people we can govern without being in each other's face," King added. "It's not a Democrat or Republican issue. We are all painted with the same brush . . . in this case, the governor is right."

Folks outside the Capitol don't understand "why we can't just get along," King said.

"It's a whole new day," King added later. "I'm hopeful this can be seamless and we can come in and do it right."

As if to prove the point, the governor, Feeney, McKay and a cast of dozens gathered to display their unanimity over the school bill. Brogan jokingly referred to the gathering as "the cast of Ben Hur," as one after another school official stood up to praise the bill.

University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft said it allows universities to adapt to community needs. The Florida PTA likes it too.

Only the teacher unions and the Democrats were missing. After the dog and pony show, the union issued a statement supporting the bill but urging legislators to refrain from controversial amendments.

Democrats in both chambers spent part of the day raising questions about the state's failure to provide more money for education. In the House they suggested it should also be a vehicle for raising teacher salaries, reducing classroom size and curing all of the other ills that afflict public education.

"You are talking about issues unrelated to the task at hand," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka. "No, it doesn't raise teacher salaries, reduce classroom size or cure the common cold and it doesn't put a chicken in every pot either."

Bush said the bill includes answers from educators who were asked "if we weren't doing it this way, how should we do it?"

"I'm not sure when we have ever had every facet of the education system supporting something," Bush added. "We are unified in saying it is time to devolve power to where it needs to be."

McKay and Feeney say they talked about the bill and a date for a budget session.

In 1992, the last time lawmakers faced redistricting and a lean budget year, they had 10 special sessions and didn't get a budget until July.

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