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Chaos leaves lawmakers unsure what they did

Florida legislators say that in the pell-mell rush of the session, they sometimes don't know what they are voting on, or even if they voted.

Published May 13, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - One lawmaker pushed the wrong button and voted for a bill he opposed.

Another was out of the room when someone pushed his vote button - he still doesn't know who.

One said he voted for a bill with no idea what it would do. Two others angrily say they were misled and later changed their votes.

It all happened this year in the Florida Legislature, a place of snap judgments, stretched truths, and controlled chaos. Lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday to finish some of the work they left behind after their 60-day regular session ended in failure.

Some lawmakers are still trying to figure out what was in the 315 general bills they passed. Others are congratulating themselves for defeating opponents or sneaking things through.

How confusing is it? Consider this play-by-play from a new lawmaker, Republican Rep. Ed Homan, a Tampa orthopedic surgeon who was "overwhelmed" by the craziness of the Legislature.

"For the first seven weeks, you go into the committees where all the decisions are being made, and it's like a chess set and a checkers set, and you keep track of that," he said. "When you get out of committees, there's three checker sets and three chess sets.

"Then, in the last week, there's a game of Clue - that's the intrigue. And two Monopoly boards - that's the money. When one player moves on the table, everybody else moves. Sometimes, players move, and you don't see anybody touch them!

"Then, at the end, there's a Pac-Man that comes around and eats all the pieces."

Homan would study a 4-inch stack of bills until the wee hours only to have someone introduce a new bill. His studying was useless.

"The game I was watching," he said, "was not the game being played."

Lawmakers said that raising phone rates would lower them and that extending a deadline for cleaning up the Florida Everglades wasn't a delay.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, persuaded lawmakers to vote unanimously for a bill dealing with dry cleaning pollution by explaining that the legislation was "to respond to a court order."

But Jones later acknowledged there was no court order. Instead, Publix Super Markets had lost a lawsuit after dry cleaning fluid from a Publix shopping center polluted a neighbor's land.

"It was a court decision," Jones conceded. "I'm not an attorney and maybe I didn't know the difference."

The bill, which passed unanimously, makes it hard to sue even if dry cleaning fluid pollutes your property. Publix owns some of the shopping centers where dry cleaning fluid has soaked into the ground, but there are thousands of others in Florida.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, who didn't mention that his law firm represents Publix.

With bills flying fast, lawmakers have to ask questions and hope they get the full story.

"I don't want people to say: Can you believe that guy voted for a bill he didn't read?" Homan said.

But it happens.

"There's no way, when you are passing 50 bills a day, that you can look at every word. There's just no way," said Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, who has served in the Legislature since 1996.

It's not a new phenomenon. "I had some times when I'd find something in a bill I voted on that I didn't grasp" before voting, said Ken Plante, a Republican lobbyist who served in the Legislature from 1967 to 1978. "I'd have to own up to it, and say I made a mistake."

Homan admits it. In one of the most confusing moments of this year's legislative session, he voted yes when he meant to vote no. So did freshman Republican Rep. Kevin Ambler of Lutz.

They were voting on a bill that, with a few exceptions, forbids Florida cities and counties from passing regulations governing agriculture. The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission was against it. Also opposed: the Florida Association of Counties, which said the Legislature was taking away local control.

Supporters said the bill would eliminate "duplication" and "paperwork."

But Ambler, a lawyer, disagreed. "My reading of the fine print suggested that when you looked at the bill, it applies to any regulations that would affect farmland. I don't see the word duplicative in there when I read the enacting clause."

So, Ambler and Homan decided to vote no. The the measure came up in the middle of a string of bills announced rapid-fire by a reader who sounds like an auctioneer. "At some points, we were voting every 45 seconds to a minute," Ambler said.

Ambler and Homan pushed their yes buttons, but later changed their votes. So did Democratic Reps. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa and Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg. The bill passed anyway.

"I really like to know what I'm voting on," Ambler said. "I'd have liked it if we spent more time dealing with these bills substantively."

But in the Legislature, taking advantage of confusion is an age-old sport.

It helps to be a good mumbler.

"The idea is to attract as little attention as possible," said former Palm Harbor Republican Sen. Jack Latvala. "You don't raise your voice. You mumble. Sometimes your ability to pass something or put an amendment on depends on who is in the room and who is paying attention."

The most famous snooker: In 1994, Sen. W.D. Childers of Pensacola helped sneak in a law that Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles later used to sue tobacco companies and win a multibillion-dollar settlement for Florida. When a Democratic senator rose to explain the bill, Childers banged the gavel, said, "without objection," and it passed.

"I had no idea it had anything to do with tobacco," then-Rep. Dan Webster said later.

Tobacco lobbyists were furious.

This year, environmental lobbyists howled when Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, assured senators that some amendments to the Everglades bill were approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

Some lawmakers planned to vote against the bill because they worried it would jeopardize billions in federal dollars for the Everglades. Lawson's assurance changed their minds.

In fact, the state Department of Environmental Protection wrote the amendments.

An angry Democratic Sen. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whose South Florida district includes part of the Everglades, changed her vote, citing "deliberate misrepresentations."

Campbell also changed his vote.

"The message was: Everybody has signed off on this," Campbell said. "I found out afterward, it wasn't true."

[Last modified May 13, 2003, 09:17:26]

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