Happy to fiddle as budget consumes

By null, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 26, 2003

I've tried to think of something else that looks as ugly as the Florida Legislature this week.

Words fail me.

I've seen train wrecks, gory accidents filled with people bleeding to death, wicked political campaigns, drug users, drunks staggering down the streets, even an autopsy or two, and a lot of very bad legislators.

None of them compare to the ugliness of watching the House and Senate struggle to end this year's session.

Our legislators have spent 54 of the 60 days allotted to them each year unable to agree on how much money they have to spend so they can pass the only bill they really have to pass: the state budget.

Can you imagine how long it will take these people to decide how to divide $52-billion when they can't even agree on exactly how much they have to spend?

Simple things elude them. It is likely that no issue of substance will be resolved until they are able to unravel the budget differences. Then it will all be decided in a final blizzard of bill passing that will leave us all wondering what they have done.

Don't hold your breath waiting.

In one corner we have our own special version of "Baghdad Bob," the Iraqi information minister who was all but dodging bombs as he denied that American troops were invading.

Our version of Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf is House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.

"It's a beautiful day in the state of Florida," Byrd insists as the state's health care, arts and education programs lie in shambles all around him.

"We're living within our means," Byrd says as he suggests that the Senate is a bloated beast burping on millions and millions of dollars. He does not mention the more than $400-million he has included in his own budget for hometown projects of individual members while omitting some of the money needed to provide health care for the poor and elderly.

"The sky is not falling," insists Byrd as the clock ticks toward the end.

Across the building we have Senate President Jim King, red-faced with bloodshot eyes and long sighs.

With 17 years' experience in the Legislature, King clearly sees how bad things are and tries his best not to tell us.

King had hoped to spend this weekend watching conference committees decide how to spend the money, but Byrd directed House members to head for home.

It appears they are about to circumvent the longstanding process of actually letting members decide how your tax money is spent and do it all in a few back rooms.

"I'm still optimistic," King told reporters at a late-afternoon briefing. But his weary expression told a different tale.

He believes lawmakers can finish work with an additional week of work, but he admits that no issue of substance is likely to be decided until they have finished work on the budget.

"There could be some major blowups," he acknowledged when pressed.

That may be the understatement of the session. These two houses are so far apart on so many issues, we could spend all day every day for the next year and not agree on the color of the sky.

House Minority Leader Doug Wiles said he believes there has never been a session where lawmakers have been so far apart on so many issues that are critical to Floridians.

The session won't be extended for just a week, Wiles speculated. We'll be coming back over and over again into the summer. And every day it will cost Floridians at least $40,000 a day - enough to provide the drugs for a medically needy person for an entire year.

Perhaps the House's song of the day at the end of session Friday says it best: Stuck in the Middle With You.