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    A Times Editorial

    Tallahassee snookers

    Sneak-attack techniques are being used to add questionable provisions into legislation. Lawmakers should take the time to undo the mischief.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 12, 2002

    Florida legislators will return to Tallahassee Monday intending to vote quickly on the state budget and a few other bills. They expect to be done and to call it quits for the year before day's end. Better they should plan to stay awhile.

    If the budget compromise distributed Friday is like its predecessors -- and there's little reason to hope that it isn't -- the bill and its accompanying enabling legislation will be larded with provisions that are improper because they were not approved by the entire membership of the House-Senate conference committee. If the racket runs true to form, there will even be a few of these so-called "snookers" that were never voted on by either house or the conference committee. Last year, the Senate president used this technique to try to force Leon County to remove speed bumps from a local road that was his preferred route to the airport.

    Thursday night, as staff members were preparing the presumably final texts, lobbyists and legislators were seen streaming into the offices of the House appropriations chairman, all hoping to do or undo things that should have been considered final when the conferees signed the reports. One legislator said he was standing watch there in fear of 11th-hour attempts to tamper indirectly with the already-passed bill that overhauls the regulation of financial institutions and the insurance industry.

    Meanwhile, Republicans were pulling off a serious snooker in the main implementing bill, retroactively stripping the attorney general, a Democrat, of his authority to present the Legislature's redistricting plans to the Justice Department in Washington. Though the governor and legislative leaders already went behind his back anyhow, such a change is too substantive for appropriations legislation and is arguably unconstitutional.

    This sneak-attack technique has been flourishing because of a constitutional amendment that was supposed to prevent it. The amendment, well intended but poorly conceived by the Tax and Budget Reform Commission of 1994, requires all general appropriations bills to be delivered to the Legislature and other officials 72 hours before either house votes on the bill "in the form it will be presented to the governor." The Legislature holds that to mean that any change during floor debate, even to correct an acknowledged error, requires restarting the clock and postponing final passage for three more days. This would be only an inconvenience if the budget ever came to the floor with days to spare, but somehow that never happens.

    Monday marks the last day of a two-week special session, to finish what they should have done nearly two months ago, and members will be understandably loath to linger longer no matter how much foul play turns up in the final documents. But stay they should, or the blame will be theirs.

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