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Democracy in the Senate; no such luck in the House

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By MARTIN DYCKMAN, Times Associate Editor

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 16, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- This is a tale not of two cities but of two houses that might as well be in two different worlds. They are the two houses of the Florida Legislature.

It begins in the Senate, where something remarkable happened last week. A committee refused even to hear a bill that meant very much to the Senate president, Jim King. Though it had another sponsor, it was really King's bill. What's more, the health care committee didn't just table it. The chairman and sponsor pronounced it dead for the year.

This was the nursing home bill, freighted with a controversial provision to let long-term care facilities limit their potential malpractice liability by invoking arbitration, as doctors and hospitals already can. King knew in advance that this faced trouble in the Senate. But it was unthinkable that the committee would not even hear it.

"This has not been one of my better days," King said later. ". . . Short of saying, 'I insist you vote for this bill,' I did everything else."

Had he insisted, they would have voted for it. They had told him so.

It is unheard of for a Senate president to take a hit like that so early in a two-year term, when he is still nearly at the peak of power; when so many bills remain to be scheduled and committee chairs can still be sacked. Even toward the end of his reign last year, John McKay maintained such tight control that nothing else could pass before he got at least a token victory in his fight with the House of Representatives over tax reform.

McKay wouldn't have had to insist on something like the nursing home bill. That he was known to want it would have been enough.

So why didn't King insist?

One reason, perhaps, is that he had his own arm twisted too many times during the previous 16 years. He knows how it hurts.

It was King, you'll remember, who as majority leader was the only Senate insider to defect on a McKay-backed plan to raise taxes for education last year. Many people marked him as weak for that, and infer from it that he (and the Senate) will cave in to the House over taxes again this year no matter how bad the budget looks.

But last week, at least, King showed uncommon strength of character.

It would have been easy for him to order the health care committee to pass the nursing home bill.

It was harder to let the other senators have their way. It took strength and self-restraint. Every parent knows how tough that can be.

"I've given them freedom of choice," said King, adding pensively, "I would hope that what happened today is not a harbinger."

As some people see it -- perhaps wishfully -- King's indulgence could actually stiffen the Senate for a battle with the House. As Frederick Douglass said, slaves don't fight but freed men do.

"I believe yesterday was a great day for Sen. King in terms of his leadership," said a close ally, Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is in line for the presidency in 2006.

Whatever the future, it is the present that is remarkable: a legislative body that's actually as democratic as the civics books say it should be.

But only one. Our story moves to the House of Representatives. Minutes after King promised that the Senate would decide collectively whether to propose taxes to what he calls the House of No, the House majority leader confidently confirmed that the House response would indeed be no.

"The House will not raise taxes," said Marco Rubio, R-Miami.

Did Rubio poll the House? No. Did he assume so much as a vote? No. Did he promise freedom of choice? Silly question.

Speaker Johnnie Byrd talks a lot about a "member-driven process," but that must refer only to legislation he doesn't care about. Democrat Loranne Ausley's bill to give disabled kids a fair shake on the FCAT was referred to six committees. School prayer went to only one, and is already on the calendar. The medical malpractice bill, complex and controversial, is going to the floor this week after only one three-hour hearing before the health care committee.

Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, the vice chairman, had an amendment to undo a Supreme Court decision that lets defendants shift blame to people who aren't in court. Predictably, plaintiffs' lawyers have responded by suing everybody who might have had anything to do with their cases. Homan, a neurosurgeon, had this happen to him over a patient he hadn't seen in two years.

But the insurance industry still likes the rule. Their lobbyists got frantic when it appeared Homan's amendment would pass. Abruptly, he withdrew it.

"The leadership told me to back off," he explained.

Homan may try again on the House floor, but the odds will be long against him.

If that can happen to a vice chairman, what chance do rank-and-file legislators stand? So much for democracy in the House.

-- Correction: Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, was misidentified in last Sunday's column.

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