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Did Republicans jump or were they pushed?

Published May 4, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - When Senate President Jim King tried to reach House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd Jr. to tell him he was halting budget negotiations, Byrd sent word he was too busy to take the call. Gov. Jeb Bush finally got them to the same table two days later, but even he couldn't make them agree on anything. Afterward, Bush worried aloud about the future of the Florida Republican Party.

As well he should. The Democrats controlled the Legislature for more than a century before a budget crisis and a one-day shutdown in 1992 called into question their ability to govern. For the Republicans, it has taken less than seven years. But it's not all their fault.

That the House and Senate march to different tunes is nothing new. Writing in 1982, the late historian Allen Morris, clerk of the House at the time, explained that "Senate-House relations always have been a touchy area, with House members inclined to believe senators regard themselves as superior." He cited an 1889 special session in which a representative observed for the record, "I am willing to indulge the babies at the other end of the Capitol . . ."

Never, however, have the relations been as strained as they appear today. In a random poll of lobbyists - the only deep pool of institutional memory here - none could recall another session without at least one conference committee. Or a session with so few apparent results. The inability to agree on a $52-billion budget - involving more than $1-billion in specific differences - marked only one of many major casualties.

King and his allies say that it was Byrd's insistence on negotiating differences privately between the two leaders in advance of a public conference involving many members that eventually forced King to call off their budget talks.

The chambers were cordial for the first four years that Republicans led both, but the weather turned bad last term when Senate President John McKay sought a comprehensive tax reform that House Speaker Tom Feeney was determined to kill. The budget and every other major issue fell hostage to that dispute, which ended only when McKay accepted a dubious face-saving compromise referendum that the Supreme Court refused to allow on the ballot.

Though King and Byrd promised to do better, they fared badly almost from the start. Byrd is far more conservative - he's a libertarian in almost everything but name - than Feeney, while King is not as conservative as McKay. Byrd has long-range political ambitions. King doesn't. In January, Byrd staged a media event to accuse King of scheming to raise taxes by $11.5-billion, which wasn't true, and it has been downhill from there.

If the Republicans have hit bottom, they didn't get there entirely on their own. The underlying problem is the term limits initiative voters approved in 1992, the same year that legislators needed a monthlong special session to approve a budget that didn't get to Gov. Lawton Chiles until 17 hours and 30 minutes after the fiscal year had begun.

A journalist, spotting former Florida Republican Chairman Tom Slade on his lobbying rounds in the Capitol last week, asked jokingly when Slade intended to launch a campaign to repeal or extend term limits.

"Right away," said Slade, who represents Blue Cross and nine other clients.

He wasn't kidding.

"There are a bunch of lobbyists who are talking about campaigning to extend term limits," says Jodi L. Chase, also a lobbyist, for the Florida Apartment Association and five other clients. "There's no institutional memory. There's no accountability."

The eight-year limit first took effect two years ago. Now, in a House of 120 members, 85 are in their first or second terms. One consequence: there is almost no one left in the chamber to recall how conference committees used to work.

Another unhealthy result: With only six years to rise to the speakership (at least 11 second-termers are running) or attain the chair of a major committee, new members are virtually obliged to jump on the current speaker's bandwagon. A joke circulating in the rotunda holds that Byrd is having the speaker's rostrum rewired "so that when he hits the button, all the (voting) lights light up."

Term limits took a heavy toll on the Senate too, but former House members filled most of the vacancies, enlarging to vast proportions the existing gap in experience - and yes, attitude - between the chambers. Of the 40 senators, all but five apprenticed in the House. Two of them, Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, were the sponsors of an amendment the Senate passed last week to extend legislative term limits to 12 years.

"I was an ardent supporter of term limits until this year," says Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, a House veteran who now chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and is in line to become Senate president in 2006. "The campaign rhetoric has infiltrated into the halls of the Legislature, and that does not bode well for the people of Florida."

But the extension was dead on arrival in the House.

" "Eight is enough' is extraordinarily popular with the voters," says Rep. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who was elected in 2000. "They like us being on a short leash. Most of us wouldn't be here but for term limits."

"I would never vote for increasing term limits," says Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair, also a second-termer. "I am a product of term limits."

While agreeing that the House is a "little more parochial" than the Senate, Carassas attributes the difference to the fact that a House member represents only a third as many people as a senator.

He's right about that. Single-member districting, though praised for bringing minorities into the Legislature, was affecting how members voted soon after the Democrats introduced it in 1982. It's what enabled the Republicans, with key help from African-American Democrats and the Justice Department, to win the Legislature and pad their advantage in the last redistricting.

Single-member districts are here to stay, however, and so probably are term limits. Though history suggests they were unnecessary - former House Speaker John Thrasher recalls Morris telling him that 70 percent of the House turned over within 12 years - repeal or even extension would be a difficult sell. Especially if lobbyists were seen to be standing for the proposal. The outcome could be better if a broad coalition of business and nonprofit groups organized the campaign, but they would have to be prepared to spend money. Initiatives are expensive.

The brief ceremony Thursday at which Bush signed the bill to extend Medically Needy benefits was one of the session's rare heartwarming events. Everyone present was entitled to feel good about it. But an important part of the story had to do with who wasn't there.

There were Republicans from both houses along with the Senate Democrats who had helped push the bill. One of the Republicans was Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, who in 1996 had become the first Republican House speaker; his polite leadership is warmly remembered by the few remaining Democrats.

Though Webster may be the most conservative senator, he had put his heart into passing that bill. His long parliamentary experience did the trick. Webster crafted a unique motion, never tried before, that enabled the Senate to confront the House with a "clean" bill carrying none of several controversial provisions - among them, Byrd's $45-million Alzheimer's center - that House leaders wanted to couple to the noncontroversial Medically Needy bill. Webster's invention was so unusual that it crashed the computer system twice, but it was legal. So he belonged at the ceremony.

But so did Rep. Suzanne M. Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach, the House Democratic caucus chair, whose confrontation with House Republican leaders late Wednesday night enabled the clean bill to pass only 58 minutes before legal authority for the Medically Needy program would expire. It was Kosmas' private appeal to House Policy Chair Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples - backed up with a promise to snarl all bills with Democratic parliamentary challenges - that brought Webster's version to the floor for a unanimous vote.

Kosmas wasn't invited to the signing ceremony. Neither was Minority Leader Doug Wiles, D-Daytona Beach, or any other House Democrat. According to Jill Brattina, the governor's communications director, the ceremony was scheduled on short notice and only "key sponsors" were invited. Anyone, she added, was welcome to come.

Back on the House floor, Kosmas said, Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, handed her a souvenir signing pen.

"He said, "You might like this. Dudley Goodlette said to be sure you got one.' "

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