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    Bush set to summon special session

    The convening of legislators in May is another try at hammering out the state budget and a new education code.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 19, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush is expected to announce today a special session of the Legislature in yet another attempt to resolve three contentious issues.

    Lawmakers expect the session to start May 2 after a few days of committee meetings and end in mid May.

    But nothing is certain.

    The House and Senate have reached deals this year only to have them unravel at the last minute.

    The special session would focus on the budget, a massive rewrite of the education code and the duties of the state's new chief financial officer. The three issues have become intertwined during negotiations.

    "We're sort of a difficult Legislature to predict right now," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

    Bush told a group of business leaders during a luncheon Thursday at the Governor's Mansion that he was growing tired of dealing with the "children" -- presumably Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney -- and hoped to announce a deal today.

    "The House has been ready, willing and able and if that's the timetable the governor wants, that's fine," Feeney said.

    McKay was out of town and unavailable, a spokeswoman said.

    Bush spent part of Wednesday and Thursday on the phone with McKay and Feeney trying to avoid another embarrassing meltdown like those in the final night of the Legislature's regular session March 22 and on April 5, the final day of a four-day special session.

    In both cases, the Senate failed at the last minute to take up a 1,800-page revision of state education laws, the first time because the bill arrived late and the second because of unexpected opposition to provisions dealing with guns and religion.

    Lawmakers involved in the negotiations say they are making progress.

    "There's nothing inked out and handshaked yet," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami. But he thinks the House and Senate can agree on an education bill that circumvents the politically explosive guns and religious freedom issues.

    The proposed code included a provision spelling out religious freedom at school. Jewish senators worried that putting the language in the code would encourage proselytizing, while conservative senators worried it could lead to satanism on campus. A compromise Bush suggested would provide that information in a pamphlet to school administrators or students.

    "I think the whole issue got so confused," said Rep. Johnnie Byrd, the Plant City Republican who is expected to become the next House speaker.

    Another provision would have given school boards the authority to create an exemption from the state's zero tolerance policy to allow some students to keep guns locked in their cars on campus.

    The House has tentatively agreed to remove both provisions from the code.

    Lawmakers say they have made progress on the budget, but have not offered details. The biggest disagreement is over a corporate tax break that would cost the state at least $200-million. Negotiators have moved beyond whether it should be passed to figuring out how to fill the hole it would create.

    "I wouldn't say decisions have been made," Lee said. But discussions now lean toward "how we fund it, not whether we fund it," he said.

    Lawmakers still have to decide how much to spend. The Senate's last budget proposal outspent the House by about $500-million, mostly for public education and human services. Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, the chief budget negotiator for the Senate, said the Senate prefers to keep its spending levels.

    So far, lawmakers say they have yet to reach a deal on how to handle the new chief financial officer position voters created in 1998.

    "We'll have to have some kind of agreement," said Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "Everyone is saying it can wait until November, but the person who is elected would have no idea of what his job is. . ." he said. The governor doesn't want to call a special session on the issue without a deal beforehand.

    "Why we couldn't do this in regular session, I don't know," Feeney said. "I just hope the third time is a charm."

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