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Brown-Waite: 'It was very contentious'

The term-limited state senator has many things to say about this legislative session. Few of them are good.

By DAN DeWITT
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


BROOKSVILLE -- This year's legislative session was Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite's last.

It has also been one of the most frustrating, she said.

The two-month gathering of Florida lawmakers was burdened -- as only one session each decade is -- by the highly political process of drawing new legislative and congressional districts. It also carried the weight of one of the most divisive issues in years -- the reform of the state sales tax proposed by Senate President John McKay.

"It was very contentious," said Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, whose 10-year career in the Senate is being ended by term limits; she is now running for Congress. "There was a lot of animosity, and it wasn't productive."

Partly because of this, the Senate and state House of Representatives were called back for a special session on education last week that was unsuccessful. They also must resolve several other issues, including the budget. Despite the complications, both Brown-Waite and Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, who represents most of Hernando County, said they came away with substantial accomplishments.

Brown-Waite, as chairwoman of a special committee to combat terrorism, increased funding for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and for county health departments so they can better prepare for and respond to biological attacks. Along with Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, who represents northwest Hernando, she sponsored a measure to protect coastal springs, including the Weeki Wachee.

Russell is touting the passage of a bill that will encourage the creation of alternative sources of water to supply new development. A provision in his transportation bill will allow the state to issue bonds to raise money to widen parts of County Line Road.

Both Brown-Waite and Russell voted against a measure that would have allowed telephone companies to raise rates for local service. Though the bill was widely criticized as favoring special interests over consumers, it passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

"I voted against it. It's a bad bill," Russell said.

At the end of last week, the law, as well as most of those sponsored by Russell and Brown-Waite, had not yet been signed by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Along with their victories, both legislators found themselves in the middle of statewide controversy.

Brown-Waite, who supported McKay on his tax reform proposal, was criticized when she broke with him on his backup plan to cut some sales tax exemptions to raise money for education. She was also identified as one of the leaders of what the First Amendment Foundation called an unprecedented assault on open records laws.

Russell sponsored a bill to weaken requirements to build new toll roads that environmentalists called one of the most destructive of the session.

The state law currently requires the Turnpike District to prove that toll roads can pay for themselves. Russell's original bill removed that requirement altogether; the final version weakened it to the point that it is almost meaningless, said Charles Lee, senior vice president of Florida Audubon.

The district has already built many roads that benefit developers more than drivers, Lee said, including the Suncoast Parkway. Russell's bill, he said, would give the district freedom to build more roads that will promote sprawl.

"This will allow it to bond roads-to-nowhere across environmentally sensitive lands all across rural Florida," Lee said.

The bill also diverts funding from projects that are really needed -- turnpikes that can ease congestion in urban areas, Lee said.

Russell said roads to rural areas can relieve urban congestion. Also, he said, the bill will allow the Turnpike District to build roads before they are needed. Once the need is pressing, he said, right-of-way costs make them economically unfeasible.

"This allows us to provide preemptive transportation (solutions) . . . and not wait until after we're overcapacity on other roads," he said.

Brown-Waite said she had good reason to oppose McKay's second tax proposal, which would have removed more than a dozen exemptions for one year, including those on charter boats, tanning beds, public relations and sports skyboxes, and raised an estimated $880-million for education.

She acknowledged that some of the exemptions, including the ones on skyboxes, make sense. But the proposal was too arbitrary and would have left the state open to challenges from newly taxed industries. Also, she said, it didn't offer a permanent solution.

"I couldn't justify the shotgun approach," she said.

Also, she said, she has little enthusiasm for the final compromise worked out between the Senate and House. A committee of 12 legislators would be given the right to cut tax exemptions. Because the compromise would require a change in the state Constitution, it must be approved in a statewide referendum.

"I'm not real warm and fuzzy about the committee," she said. "It's so convoluted, I wouldn't vote for it at the polls."

Barbara Petersen, president of the state's First Amendment Foundation, said Brown-Waite introduced a long list of bills that sought to restrict the public access to government, most of which failed to pass both houses.

Some came because of her position as head of the antiterrorism committee, Petersen said.

"But I also think she sort of used the security issue to push through or attempt to push through things that had nothing to do with 9/11," Petersen said.

Among those was a provision to seal the military records of World War II veterans that have been filed with county clerks.

"I don't think I have to worry that (hijacker) Mohamed Atta is going to find out my 80-year-old grandfather was a pilot and come get him," Petersen said.

Brown-Waite said the bills she proposed did have merit, including ones to shield from public view the plans of stadiums, public utilities and other possible targets of terrorist attacks. She proposed sealing veterans' discharge information, she said, because the files contain information that could be used in identity theft.

Brown-Waite and Russell both sponsored the bill that ties future development to available water. It encourages developers to create additional sources of water, including desalination and the reuse of wastewater.

"It encourages awareness more than anything," Brown-Waite said.

"And I think it will increase public pressure on permit-granting agencies, whether they be the counties or the water management districts."

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