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    Weight of experience goes to state Senate

    The House, meanwhile, will be awash in first- and second-term legislators.

    ©Associated Press
    February 3, 2003


    TALLAHASSEE -- Voters overwhelmingly responded to the drumbeat of "eight is enough" and imposed term limits more than a decade ago.

    Now, some lawmakers and observers say, the constitutional amendment has created an unintended divide in the Legislature: The Senate is full of experienced lawmakers while the House has practically turned into an entry-level chamber.

    "Now what you have is a group of novices (in the House) who have no experience to base their decisions, and they're kind of fumbling their way in the dark," said state Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Pembroke Pines. Term limits forced her to leave her House seat in 2000.

    In the Senate, 32 of the current 39 members served in the House before entering the senior chamber. One seat is vacant because of the death of state Sen. Howard Futch, R-Indialantic.

    Of the 14 newcomers, only one enters without serving in the House. Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, a former Senate president who returns this year, served in the Legislature from 1974 to 1992. Freshman Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, was in the House from 1978 to 2000.

    In the 120-member House, meanwhile, 30 are freshman and 55 completed their first term last year. Only seven lawmakers, including House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, has six years of experience. Rep. Matt Meadows, D-Lauderhill, elected to the House in 2000, served in the Senate from 1992 to 1998.

    Proponents of term limits say the turnover prevents politicians from becoming entrenched and establishing cozy relationships with lobbyists and brings in new lawmakers with fresh ideas and a direct connection to their constituents.

    "The more you're in Tallahassee, the more you begin to see and develop a passion and concern for the needs of government, and the more distant you become from the needs of those small-business people and the people who need our attention the most," Byrd said.

    Opponents say term limits have left a dearth of experience in the House, leading to a limited understanding of complex issues such as Medicaid, school funding formulas and the nuances of the multibillion-dollar state budget.

    "There's very little institutional memory that says we tried this idea and this is what happened," said state Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach, who lobbied in Tallahassee for more than a decade before winning her House seat in 2000.

    Tired of career politicians, voters approved the eight-year term limits in 1992 with 77 percent of the vote. Members who were elected that year were forced out in 2000.

    "A lot of what we do is not rocket science," said state Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, who becomes the House's top draftsman of the budget after just four years in office. "If you put your mind to it, you can learn the process."

    Nationwide, 17 states have term limits on the books, and 11 states have already felt the impact of the changes.

    A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that 322 lawmakers in 11 states were ousted by term limits during the 2002 elections. In Michigan, 71 percent of the Senate was forced out, and Missouri saw nearly half of its House leave.

    In Florida, opponents of term limits say the House-Senate disparity is underscored by the varying degrees of experience in committee chairmen.

    State Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, served in the House from 1980 until his election to the Senate in 1998. Term limits also have increased pressure on lawmakers to quickly accomplish their agenda, said Webster, a former House speaker. The new rules, he said, cause "a little more friction between the two chambers" and "scratching and clawing to get to the top or get their bills passed."

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