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Lawmakers pack it in until May 12

Gov. Bush rebukes Byrd and King for failing to pass a budget.

Published May 3, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers went home Friday with almost nothing to show for the 60 days they spent at the Capitol, a session Gov. Jeb Bush called one of the worst he has ever seen.

Virtually every major legislative proposal died, from medical malpractice to class size reductions to insurance reform, each the victim of Republican infighting between the moderate Senate and the conservative House.

Lawmakers will return May 12 to try again, this time with a tentative agreement on how much to spend but with many details still unresolved.

The session was such a failure, and the rancor between Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd so great, Bush snubbed them both by skipping the usual end-of-session ceremony in the rotunda of the state Capitol.

It's the first time in memory a governor stiffed leaders of his own party.

"It's a bad session. There is no other way to describe it," Bush said Friday afternoon. He later released a statement rebuking Byrd and King for failing to pass a budget - the lawmakers' only duty under the state Constitution - and blamed "a lack of trust and communication" between Byrd and King.

Friday had little of the frenzy that usually characterizes the last day of a legislative session in Florida. With so many major bills already dead, lobbyists simply stayed home.

The most revealing moment was a stilted, stiff-armed "embrace" between Byrd and King that brought laughter from a crowd of observers. King jokingly offered a fist instead of a handshake.

Byrd seemed at a loss for words when asked if he thought the session was a success. "It could be a lot worse," he said. Still, he would not have done anything differently.

Given the number of major bills on the agenda, King said it was "like trying to digest an elephant."

Democrats were happy to point out which political party was in charge.

"This is living proof that Republicans can't govern," said Democratic chairman Scott Maddox. "The difference is, they can't blame Democrats for this."

It's a point Bush himself worried aloud about with reporters the day before, saying Florida Republicans could be "in a bad position" if it appears they are mishandling the political power they have attained.

The governor has summoned all 160 lawmakers to return to the Capitol for a special session to run May 12-27 to pass a budget.

It could go quickly: King said Friday that he has agreed to accept the $52.2-billion the House wants to spend and won't ask to raise more money.

The Senate originally wanted to spend about $1-billion more than the House. It tentatively agreed to halve that, but King said Friday that he is willing to be "the go-along-to-get-along Senate."

But he doesn't think it will be enough and predicted the Legislature will be back for more.

King and Senate leaders had wanted to wait a month or so before returning to give the severity of cuts proposed by the House a chance to sink in with the public. Byrd and his lieutenants wanted to extend the session and deal with the budget immediately.

It was one of the many examples of how the two chambers could not agree.

But both sides say they are close enough to an agreement on a budget that they might take on other issues. King said both chambers are close to agreeing on how to implement the class size reduction constitutional amendment. Agreements on workers compensation and auto insurance bills are not far behind, King said.

"For them to let 60 days pass and not get anything done is pathetic," said Damien Filer, spokesman for Florida's Coalition to Reduce Class Size, which helped get the amendment on the ballot.

School districts across the state were waiting for lawmakers to outline how they were to reduce classes and, of course, money to support more teachers and classrooms. They went home empty-handed.

"I wish they would have gotten it taken care of," said Steve Swartzel, director of governmental services for Pinellas County schools. "The sooner they do the better."

Businesses were left waiting but advocates for workers breathed a sigh of relief as the debate on workers' compensation failed to produce results by Friday's deadline. The bill had promised lower rates by 15 percent. But injured workers faced a more difficult time proving permanent disabilities and hiring lawyers to push for claims if it had passed.

There was no agreement on how to reduce medical malpractice insurance rates, either, and that is likely to be the most contentious issue after the budget taken up in a special session. Bush and Byrd insisted on a $250,000 cap on pain and suffering jury awards but the Senate refused. Meanwhile, some doctors around the state have stopped offering some services in protest until the Legislature enacts a cap.

Lawmakers also failed to reach an agreement on how to carry out a several other constitutional amendments, including an antismoking measure and one requiring the state to pick up a greater share of court costs.

King said he hopes most of the issues would soon be resolved - after a break.

"We are going to come back refreshed and vigorous and ready to do the people's business," King said.

-Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Lucy Morgan and Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 3, 2003, 02:06:29]

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