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GOP lawmakers talk strategy in closed meeting

The secret meeting gives Republicans in the House a chance to prepare for budget battle with the Senate.

Published April 3, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - To prepare for a budget battle with the Senate, House Republicans held a secret meeting at a hotel outside the Capitol Tuesday night where they talked about taxes and economic philosophy.

While House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, has promised to open the process "to the light of day," Tuesday's House GOP caucus was held with no public notice.

"It was a discussion of revenue economics," said Byrd, who led a slide show on Florida's revenue picture with quotes from former President Reagan, economist Paul Samuelson and author Thomas Sowell on the importance of limited government.

A copy of Byrd's presentation was provided to the Times on Wednesday by the House majority office.

House leaders said the private gathering was legal because a partisan caucus is not a legislative committee, and that specific legislation was not being discussed. They cited a provision in the Constitution that bars secret meetings of lawmakers "the purpose of which is to agree upon final legislative action that will be taken at a subsequent time."

But Byrd's presentation went beyond generalities, and took dead aim at two Senate proposals to raise money. One slide posed this question: "Why does the Senate want to increase taxes when families are struggling, just to make ends meet? Do you really believe video lottery terminals and housing impact fees are going to help us in the long run?"

More than half the 81 Republicans in the House attended part or all of the meeting at the Doubletree Hotel a few blocks from the Capitol, said House communications director Todd Reid.

The last House GOP caucus was in the House chamber, but attendance was light. Rep. Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater, who heads the House Republican Conference, said the hotel was chosen because food and soft drinks could be served.

Rep. Allan Bense, R-Panama City, a key Byrd lieutenant, said the point of the caucus was to discuss the budget, "so members know it real well. We wanted to get them prepared . . . There was no intent to keep anyone from knowing what we were doing."

Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, House majority leader, said the caucus reminded lawmakers, especially new members, of Byrd's philosophy of fiscal conservatism, limited government and market-driven economics.

"It's not blind ideology," Rubio said.

Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, said most of the talk was about the budget. She recalled discussion about the need for proper decorum on the House floor because most activities are televised.

Freshman Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, who did not attend the caucus because he was at a National Guard event, said there were "growing pains" between freshmen and senior House leaders because some new members were leaders at home before coming to the Capitol.

"I do ask questions," Ambler said. "I'm not the type to salute smartly and charge up the hill."

Still, House leaders said there were no attempts to discourage freshmen from aggressively seeking to amend major bills, such as medical malpractice and workers' comp reform. Byrd wants individual members to pursue their agendas, Rubio said.

Ambler said he has been asked by committee heads not to introduce budget amendments "because of our strategy." But he said the House leadership often sees the big picture while rank-and-file members "only see our immediate environment."

[Last modified April 3, 2003, 02:44:42]

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