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    Legislative prayer: 'Oh, God, here we go again'

    A senator calls for divine help as lawmakers turn to business left over from the regular session.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 4, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Jim Sebesta figured the Legislature needed all the help it could get to overhaul the state's 1,800-page education code.

    "Oh, God, here we go again," the St. Petersburg Republican said as he led the Senate's opening prayer Wednesday. Lawmakers are in town for a special session to update the state's education laws before many expire in January.

    "Do you remember all the prayers we said in the 60 days of regular session asking for guidance? I hope you remember, because we need it again," Sebesta prayed.

    Divine guidance or no, lawmakers are headed into a conference committee this morning to resolve the last of their differences, a day after the House and Senate appeared to be moving further apart.

    Among the sticking points: how much to pay school board members and whether to begin reducing class sizes.

    The special session, called by Gov. Jeb Bush after lawmakers failed to adopt the school code revision bill in the final hours of the regular session March 22, began Tuesday and is scheduled to end Friday, though a final vote could come today.

    School board pay and class size are the top two items left after senators agreed to include an Alzheimer's research center pushed by Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, for the University of South Florida and an appeals commission House Republicans wanted for charter schools that are rejected by local school boards.

    Senators voted to name the research center after former President Ronald Reagan, who has the disease, but refused to include the $40-million House members want to start it. And they agreed to let a commission review and reverse a local school board's decision to deny a charter school application.

    The House wants to let school board members set their own pay, but senators voted to set pay according to the size of the district as is done now. The Senate also threw the House a curve in the form of an amendment that would order the state to begin reducing class size. The change mirrors a proposed constitutional amendment pushed by Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, but is unlikely to be welcomed in the House or survive today's conference committee.

    But the item that got the most debate Wednesday won't come up today because it's already been settled: a provision that lets school boards allow guns on campus if they are locked in cars.

    Proponents say the language merely reflects a change in federal law and restates current law. But Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, tried to strip the provision from the bill. She said no one can tell her where it came from or why.

    "I'm sure it came from Marion Hammer and the damn NRA (National Rifle Association) and you can print that," Holzendorf said.

    Not so, said Hammer, the NRA's chief lobbyist in Florida. Hammer said she had nothing to do with the language, which she said gives local school boards the option of creating an exemption to the state's zero-tolerance policy on firearms, such as for students who drive directly to school from a hunting trip and need to lock their guns in their cars.

    "It's done all the time in certain parts of the state," Hammer said.

    But that didn't convince Sen. Les Miller, who reminded his colleagues that he knows how it feels to have a family member injured by a gun at a school-related event. Miller's son was shot at a college graduation party in Tallahassee.

    "I've been there and it's something you never want to happen," Miller said.

    But Wayne Blanton, head of the Florida School Boards Association, said the point is probably moot. "I know there's not a school board in the state that will change its policy" if the state gives it the choice, Blanton said.

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