Strange days have befallen the Senate and Louis XIV-led House

By null, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 27, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - The Florida Legislature may have seen stranger days, but not in the 36 years that I have been watching. Nearly everyone of long memory seems to agree that this is the worst. House members are the exceptions, but only because they're all too green to know any better.

There was a long, rambling, mournful speech to the House Thursday by its speaker, Johnnie B. Byrd Jr., whose message yet again was that the Senate was trying to trick the House into voting for taxes or gambling. Byrd decried but essentially conceded Senate President Jim King's last-resort offer to compromise at $475-million more than Byrd had wanted to spend. This was still only half as much as the Senate really wanted, but Byrd - who had spoken to reporters earlier of "trying to feed the beast in the Senate . . . it will probably make them burp and keep going" - sounded as if he were delivering the lamentation of Job.

"If we can get out of here and only spend another $500-million it's not a bad day's work," he concluded. "That's kind of up to you . . . it boils down to what is your political philosophy and how tall are you willing to stand up for it."

The Republicans gave him a standing ovation.

Republicans control the Senate too, but all similarities end there.

President Jim King had spent the day mending fences with senators, Republicans as well as Democrats, who thought he had already surrendered too much. Shortly after noon, King publicly assured the Senate that he wouldn't concede anything more.

"I cannot imagine how you would expect me to back off any further and I won't," he said.

He got a standing ovation.

At day's end, shrugging off word that Byrd had accused him of bargaining in bad faith, King told the Senate he would still keep plugging for a budget deal that could send the Legislature home, if not on time then with only a short extension.

But what was supposed to be the next-to-last week ended Friday without even an agreement on the shape of the table, as diplomats would put it. Byrd and King still hadn't gotten to the point where their conference committees could start work on the hundreds of differences that would have to be resolved to make a budget.

King had accepted Byrd's suggestion to balance the budget with $165-million a year in stiffer traffic fines (think another $50 for a red light) after state economists nervously endorsed the estimates. But Byrd wanted more. Among the sticking points: documentary stamp taxes that were enacted 11 years ago on a promise to spend them on affordable housing and environmental land purchases. Byrd is determined to siphon off most if not all of that trust-fund money as general revenue. It sounded as if Byrd would block any budget deal without that precondition.

To Byrd, it's a point of principle: Legislators should appropriate each year everything that the state spends. But a contrary principle is in play. The tax was imposed with the support of homebuilders, Realtors and others who would have opposed it if it hadn't been pledged to a trust fund. If legislators can't live up to the promise, shouldn't they repeal the tax?

The most profound difference between the House and Senate is in how King and Byrd relate to the members they lead.

Byrd does accept ideas from other representatives; the traffic fine plan, for example, comes from a Democrat whose 14-year-old daughter died for not wearing a seat belt. But when it comes to basic philosophy such as raising no taxes (apart, of course, from fines, fees, and student tuition) Byrd is the incarnation of Louis XIV, who famously said "L'etat, c'est moi" - I am the state. It is pointless for any House member to disagree.

King, on the other hand, presides over a robust parliamentary democracy. A lot of senators would cheer if he told Byrd to get lost. "Maybe it's not time to throw the first punch," said Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, who is to become minority leader in 2004, "but I think the first punch has been thrown."

Though these were Democrats talking, everyone understood they spoke for some key Republicans too. King acknowledged that his leadership of the Senate had become the issue.

"I also understand," he said Thursday, "that this goes way beyond a budget."

". . . I am at the stage," he said Friday, "where I don't have much wiggle room."

This is what democracy has come to in Florida: The House majority marches obediently to its presiding officer's drumbeat. Senators, on the other hand, are telling their leader what they expect him to do.

Many reasons account for the difference. Senators represent larger districts, which tends to make them more moderate. There are only a third as many senators, which makes it harder for anyone to boss them. There is a tradition of bipartisanship. The biggest factor, however, is the term limits voters approved in 1992. As Byrd himself put it, that has turned the House into an "entry-level legislature."

Senators, most of whom are former House members, have enough experience to assert a respectful independence. They also had enough of the House's lockstep discipline and excessive partisanship. They bring reputations that qualify many of them for leadership posts.

The House, on the other hand, has a speaker who was elected to the Legislature only seven years ago, an appropriations chairman who never even helped to make a budget before heading the committee, and only a fourth of its membership with as much as two years' prior experience in Tallahassee.

Eight years is too short, most seem to think, to earn a place in leadership except by kowtowing to those who are already there. This is a pernicious apprenticeship.

The Senate voted 35-4 Thursday for a constitutional amendment to extend term limits from 8 years to 12. Nothing will come of it in the House. The senators knew that, but they had a point to make.