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Florida's two political parties: House and Senate

By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- The election raised at least as many questions as it answered. To begin with the most obvious, does Florida still have a flourishing two-party system?

TALLAHASSEE -- The election raised at least as many questions as it answered. To begin with the most obvious, does Florida still have a flourishing two-party system?

The answer -- tentatively -- is yes. But not in the conventional sense. The warring "parties," for the moment, are not so much the Republicans and Democrats as the Florida Senate and the Florida House of Representatives. Their institutional and instinctive differences run deep, a fact illuminated by last session's quarrel over tax reform. Though Gov. Jeb Bush won re-election in a landslide, not all the boulders are bounding in the same direction.

The Democrats, meanwhile, can take some comfort from history. Though they're at an all-time low, outnumbered 81-39 in the House and 25-15 in the Senate, that's still not as far down as the Republican nadir in 1977, when the GOP fell to only 27 House members and 9 senators. The Republicans eventually came back to be a decisive force in the Legislature long before they achieved outright majorities.

But to follow that example, the Democrats will need to play it very smart. That means, among other things, focusing their sights on only a few big issues, such as education, health care and the environment, that matter most to the public.

"You can't stand up and be opposed to every issue every day, but only three or four a session," says Curt Kiser, a Tallahassee lobbyist who once led the House Republicans under similar adverse circumstances. "You know you're probably going to get rolled over by the majority, but at least you take your stand."

The Republicans will want Democratic help (if only to spread the blame) in coping with the class-size and pre-kindergarten initiatives that voters approved in the face of heavy Republican opposition. Even in the light of the most optimistic estimate of $8-billion over eight years for class size, there would have to be highly controversial tax increases and spending cuts.

The third option that some talk about, which is to simply ignore the new constitutional mandate (that's happened before) would be the costliest of all to the Republican Party's prospects for long-term rule. As Johnnie Byrd, the incoming House speaker, conceded the other day, "The people of Florida have sent us some messages. Like all of us, they are concerned, deeply concerned, about education."

Byrd clearly had that on his mind in promising to respect the Democrats' "right to have input in a meaningful way." The key test: Will the House keep or scrap its dictatorial "closed rule" provision that lets committees make bills immune to amendment on the House floor?

There will be moments when the Republicans rue what they wished for. Absolute power implies absolute responsibility. Jim King, the incoming Senate president, has been losing sleep for months over a projected deficit that could approach $2-billion even without the class-size and pre-kindergarten initiatives. Jerry Regier, the new head of the Department of Children and Families, wants a $474-million budget boost, including $200-million earmarked to the child welfare program beset by many missing and murdered kids. An equally big bill is coming due from the 1998 constitutional amendment making the state instead of the counties primarily responsible for financing the court system.

Byrd, who is as fiscally conservative as any leader in House history, was still sounding anti-tax last week. But not in as Shermanesque a fashion as before.

"My first reaction would be to live within our means. Let's see what the options are," he said.

"Just now the wisdom and vision of John McKay are becoming apparent to the rest of the Legislature," said Senate rules chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, recalling the outgoing Senate president's unsuccessful fight for tax reform last session.

"I am sure this sounds crazy, but I believe that the Republican Party in Florida may have doomed its future," said political scientist Lance deHaven Smith, of Florida State University. "I say this because the state is headed into a budget crisis and yet Gov. Bush campaigned on the premise that Florida is in excellent shape and that the main thing wrong with McBride was that he might raise taxes. Now with the campaign over, the re-elected governor must either raise taxes or drastically cut services, or borrow money, or all three. How is he to explain this to a state that believes that everything is well? He might blame the class size amendment, but will this be believeable given that it does not have to be implemented for many years?"

Jim Bax, a Republican who headed state agencies in Florida and Idaho and teaches now at FSU, agrees that the fate of both parties is now in Republican hands.

The Republicans, he said, "have been divined the next two years to govern Florida. Two years to resolve a multibillion-dollar structural budget deficit in a staggering economy. Two years to convince teachers, minorities and state employees that Republicans need their support and involvement. Two years to smooth out the wrinkles in the FCAT, One Florida, Florida Reads and the many other well-intentioned yet unfinished Bush initiatives. Some problems, such as fixing the problems at the Department of Children will not wait and will provide an early insight into how this new team is going to function. . ."

U.S. Sen. Bob Graham , the last Democratic governor to have a Democratic Legislature throughout his tenure, says the history of California could be the future of Florida. Democrats were as far down in California during the Ronald Reagan era as Florida Democrats are now. California is now the most solidly Democratic state.

"Why did it happen? Two basic reasons are relevant to Florida . . . large numbers of people from Mexico and Asia who became registered voters in the 1990s and in large part because of the policies of the Republicans governors and legislators, became solid parts of the Democratic coalition. I would read there how the Republicans are treating the Haitians today in Florida.

"The second is that California, like Florida, is pretty much a centrist state and the Republican leadership became ideological, moving further and further to the right, and lost contact with that center. The Republicans have done some of that in the past and now have the potential of doing that in Florida."

That's why it would be a huge mistake for the Republicans to try, as some propose, to meet the class-size and pre-kindergarten mandates by resorting heavily to private-school vouchers. Among other things, it would betray Bush's position that "choice," as he calls it, is only about prodding the public schools to be better.

It still could pass the House, and probably will. But not the Senate.

A largely untold story of the 2002 election cycle is how it strengthened the Senate's moderate leadership for years to come. King's supporters won three key primaries over backers of Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, a conservative who was the first Republican House speaker. Those outcomes assured not only King's presidency but also the likelihood that Lee will succeed King in 2004 and that Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-St. Lucie, who managed McKay's tax reform bill, will follow to the presidency in 2006. Though King eventually waffled on tax reform last session, Lee and Pruitt did not, and they are unlikely to forget or forgive the hosing they got from the House and Bush on that issue.

King and Byrd will get along better on a personal level than did McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney, who spoke face to face only a few times during the entire 2002 session. But in most other respects the two chambers will continue to act as if they were different parties. The more some things change in Tallahassee, the more others stay the same.

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