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    A Times Editorial

    Shell games

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 2, 2003

    This is the entire text of Florida Senate Bill 1140: "The Legislature intends to revise environmental laws."

    That tells a lot, doesn't it?

    SB 1140 is what senators call a "shell bill," legislation that merely stakes out a subject and a place on the calendar of the first committee that will hear it.

    More than 100 shell bills have been filed and many more are expected before Tuesday's opening session, which is the bill-filing deadline.

    At the first hearing, the sponsor is expected to present an amendment, which can be tens or even hundreds of pages long, that puts substance into the shell. So a "shell" that seems harmless could take on ominous proportions and pass out of committee with insufficient warning to citizens who would otherwise object.

    The wealthy lobbies can afford to have watchers in every place at all times, most public interest groups can't.

    Senators are exploiting shell bills to defeat the early bill-filing deadline.

    The good news is that the Senate leadership, sensitive to the problem, is advancing a new rule that will essentially require amendments to be filed at least 24 hours before a committee takes up a bill. The question remains, however, whether that is time enough for citizens who might want to travel to Tallahassee to lobby for or against a bill once they know its real purpose.

    The Senate should give further thought to prohibiting shell bills altogether, even if it necessitates a later bill-filing deadline.

    Among the shells already filed are six relating to medical malpractice, two on electronic utilities and two on telecommunications, two others expressing an intent to rewrite environmental laws and 10 threatening unspecified exemptions to the public records laws.

    These shell games must stop.

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