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Legislators strap in for a tough session

A state budget crunch and other challenges have the county's three lawmakers expecting a battle when the Legislature opens this week.

By COLLEEN JENKINS
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


State Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, has adopted something of a motto for her inaugural session in the Florida Senate: "Hold tight and do no harm."

Not the most heady or grand vision for a freshman senator, but Argenziano has had a large enough dose of political realism to grasp the dicey issues facing state legislators this year. A budget crunch. A problem-riddled insurance market. Program cuts.

This could be, she said, the "toughest session" she's encountered.

When the session begins Tuesday, Citrus County's three legislators will fill new shoes. Voters boosted Sens. Argenziano and Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, from their long-held state House seats in November. And state Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, has transitioned from years of lobbying in Tallahassee as a former sheriff to representing the county in the Florida House of Representatives.

Those track records have the elected officials feeling less like newcomers and more like weathered veterans ready to get down to business.

"It's like getting geared up for the big ballgame," Dean said. "You can't wait to blow the whistle and get started."

Senate leaders have told their colleagues that individual member projects are "out of the question" this session, Argenziano said during a recent interview. She'll still work feverishly to bring home what local money she can, she said, but priorities must reign in a tight fiscal year.

"I'm seeing a lot of harm coming down to the 13 counties I represent," she said. "My biggest priority is to do no harm. Health care and safety of the public come first."

She said that means protecting program funding for seniors and the medically needy, such as expectant mothers without income or children who don't have dental care.

She's particularly concerned about saving several juvenile prevention and detention programs, including Outward Bound and the Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services -- or CINS/FINS, Florida's program for handling runaways and truants.

Argenziano also is prepared for a fight to retain the state's aquaculture division, which oversees clam, fish and shrimp farming. Gov. Jeb Bush has proposed cutting it.

The senator, who is chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee and sits on the Natural Resources Committee, said that action would essentially put one of the state's critical industries out of business.

Water issues weigh heavily on the minds of both Argenziano and Dean, who said he has signed off on every bill dealing with local resource programs.

They are pushing a bill, vetoed by Bush last year, that would create citizen councils in Citrus and Hernando counties and charge them with developing strategies for restoring the quality of local waterways. The bill passed both houses during the last session, but critics persuaded the governor to think the councils would create more bureaucracy.

Argenziano said she and Dean are trying to meet with Bush to tell him otherwise.

"They're not being paid," she said. "It's participating in democracy. Who knows better about those waterways than the people who live in those counties?"

Close attention to Citrus' lakes and rivers is badly needed, Dean said.

"We're trying to build the quality of the water back up for consumption and recreation," he said.

The two Citrus lawmakers also are teaming up to strengthen laws that protect Florida homeowners, Dean said. Their legislation would allow homeowners to take more legal actions against builders who bilk buyers out of money.

Like Argenziano, Dean noted that finding the money to keep current programs running will be legislators' main challenge. He said they must also implement constitutional amendments approved by voters in recent elections, such as those limiting class sizes and funneling more state funding to county court systems.

They'll have better direction once general revenue assessments are done, he said. Dean also is sending 2,500 surveys to randomly chosen registered voters in an effort to capture the mood and opinions of his new constituents.

"We've got to find the money and make sure we do the type of programs that are best for our constituents and the economy of our state," said the new representative, whose committee assignments include Natural Resources, Finances and Taxes, Business Regulations and Public Lands.

"Citrus will fare well," Dean said.

As will veterans statewide, if Fasano has his way. The chairman of the Senate's Military and Veterans' Affairs, Base Protection and Spaceports Committee wants to pass legislation that would provide greater protection to those serving in the military.

At present, service members called to active duty are penalized financially if they have to break a rental lease agreement or cancel auto insurance early, Fasano said. That's unfair, said the senator, who represents Citrus County residents who live west of U.S. 19.

"We want to make sure that when they put their lives at risk for us, companies aren't penalizing them," Fasano said.

He's also backing a 40 percent increase in funding for the Department of Veterans' Affairs. That money will help build more state owned and operated nursing homes for veterans throughout Florida, he said.

In addition, Fasano said, lowering prescription drug costs and liability insurance and worker compensation premiums rank high on legislators' priority lists.

However, he said they must find a way to balance the state budget without raising taxes or hurting seniors, children and veterans.

"We want to be sure that those individuals who are getting services today are still getting them when we finish in 60 days," Fasano said.

That is, if legislators manage to wrap up their lengthy agenda in a two-month span. With all the presession infighting she's seen in the House, Argenziano said she's praying leaders eventually reach a middle ground this session.

"It's really good to be in the Senate," she said. But, she added, "I hope we're not there forever."

-- Colleen Jenkins can be reached at 860-7303 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

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