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State's new two-party Legislature: yin and yang

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 20, 2002


TALLAHASSEE -- The Senate is Eeyore.

The House is Pooh.

The Senate is a sad St. Bernard.

The House is a happy wiener dog.

The Senate is Hobbes (the grim philosopher, not the cartoon tiger).

The House is Mary Kay.

In sum, the outlook of the two halves of our state Legislature felt sharply in contrast Tuesday. It was the 14th day after the general election, the day that the Florida Constitution requires the members to convene, organize and choose their leaders.

Both chambers are run by Republicans, but they are the closest thing we have to a two-party system: a Senate Party and a House Party.

In the Senate, the 40 members elected the veteran Jim King of Jacksonville, as their president, a cheerful man who is worried about uncheerful times ahead.

The gist of it is that we are a state with a lot of needs and wants and no way to pay for all it. On top of that we just voted to require smaller class sizes, which will cost -- not to be McBridean about it, but, you know, a lot.

King sees the need for Florida to consider more gambling, to consider a vast expansion of private school vouchers, even to consider what he politely calls "new revenues."

The text of King's inaugural speech contained the warning that the next two years "could be more custodial than visionary." Although he quickly promised to try to make lemonade out of lemons, that still is an extraordinary thing for an incoming presiding officer to say. Malaise, anybody?

Over in the House, the 120 members chose as their speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, who was as sunny and optimistic as Ronald Reagan himself. The mood of the entire chamber reflected his outlook.

Byrd took the gavel from the past speaker, Tom Feeney. In his remarks, he said that in the election, which sent an impressive 81 Republicans to the House, the voters clearly endorsed the party's core principles -- less government, lower taxes.

Yes, Byrd obliquely admitted, the voters also ordered the Legislature to "rebuild public education around the classroom." But he said the voters want the Legislature to do that by setting new priorities, not by raising taxes.

Johnnie Byrd is at the moment the most interesting person in Florida politics. I hope he surprises people.

Some of the little things on Tuesday were a positive start. The session opened with invocations from both a rabbi and a Baptist minister -- even that gesture was more inclusive that the deliberate, in-your-face divisions that have racked the chamber. The 39 Democrats graciously moved to have Byrd elected by acclamation.

Few speakers have been stronger in their promise of an open government. "We will be allowing sunshine into places where the shadows have ruled before," he said.

Byrd also issued his members a warning about lobbyists that was eloquent -- and rare from someone who holds public office. Remember, he told them, there are thousands of people in Tallahassee who are paid to tell legislators how smart and good-looking they are. It is the people back home who count.

That last note stirred a dim hope in me. Maybe that hope will be crushed by events. But this week I have heard several smart people predict that Byrd, who is supremely strong in his position, will therefore be less under the thumb of lobbyists, more able to tell them they can't have everything they want.

That would be important. It would be a refutation of the complaint that Florida's eight-year term limits have shifted power toward lobbyists, since legislators are in a huge hurry to curry favor with them. It would be a reassertion of the Legislature's power against that unofficial fourth branch of government. It would be good for the Republican Party.

It is hard not to lean toward King's more grim assessment of the job ahead when you think about everything Florida is supposed to be doing with its general revenue -- health care and social services and prisons, let alone education. But on Tuesday morning in Tallahassee the House declared itself optimistic.

With the two-party system in Florida dead for now, this is the defining tension in our state's politics for the foreseeable future.

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