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Legislature

Restart wobbly for lawmakers

Bickering and failed attempts to add measures in the House mark day one of the special session.

By ALISA ULFERTS and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 13, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers began their special session Monday much the same way they ended their regular session: lots of confusion, laced with bickering, and little accomplished.

House Republicans spent the afternoon trying to add several measures to the special session. But they didn't have the votes.

Then they spent a half-hour in farewell speeches for Rep. Mike Hogan, a Jacksonville Republican who is leaving to become Duval County tax collector.

All that at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a day.

"This Legislature really has to walk before it can run, and we have not accomplished much," said Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach.

Gov. Jeb Bush summoned lawmakers back to the Capitol for one reason: to pass a $52.3-billion budget. But lawmakers are feeling pressure to do more.

A St. Petersburg Times poll last week found just 16 percent of voters approved of the work the Legislature did during its regular session that ended May 2.

It's a message constituents gave lawmakers directly during a week at home, and it's upped the pressure to pass more than just the budget during the 16-day special session.

"The one thing that I heard constantly from my constituents was about the special session and the cost: How much is it going to cost us?" said Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey. "If we're going to be here two weeks . . . why not use this time wisely?"

The House wanted to add bills dealing with auto insurance fraud and workers' compensation, plus a class size bill, an antismoking measure and several other minor issues. But it takes two-thirds of the members of both chambers to add measures to a special session, and House Democrats weren't going along.

House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, said the minority party was not about to let Republicans and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd "railroad through" major legislation in a compressed schedule. Democrats want lawmakers to focus on the budget.

"Our desire was to slow the process a little bit," Wiles said.

The Senate, meanwhile, voted to add class size reduction to the agenda. The Senate might add other measures, but is still working out details with the House.

Byrd offered words of encouragement and rejected criticism that the regular session had been a failure.

"The 60-day session was a huge, huge success for the Florida House of Representatives. You proved that you can make decisions based on principle," Byrd, R-Plant City, told House members.

The principle: no new taxes. The state, Byrd says repeatedly, should live within its means.

It's not a sentiment shared by Senate President Jim King, who repeated his prediction that lawmakers will have to return in the fall once the "mean-spiritedness" of the proposed state budget sinks in.

"If people with no means have to live within someone else's means, I'd rather lose," said King, R-Jacksonville.

"We fully expect a hue and cry . . . to get the attention of the governor and the House," King said.

Lawmakers have gotten Bush's attention, but not necessarily the kind they seek. The governor took time out from a tour of a Clearwater elementary school to repeat a rebuke.

"In other professions, if you didn't do your job, you probably wouldn't be there," Bush said.

Still, Bush said he is "very optimistic" about the budget session and that House and Senate leaders have had "a lot more conversation in the last week than in the previous months."

Lawmakers did show signs of progress.

As scheduled, House and Senate appropriations subcommittees approved the framework of what will become budget bills for the two chambers. And Byrd dropped a rule that required House members to wait two days before taking a final vote on any bill. That rule ended up snaring, and killing, several major bills in the final days of the regular session.

The House claimed an accomplishment by increasing its public education budget for next year by $200-million. Most of the money would come from reducing Byrd's coveted teacher bonus program by $100-million and eliminating a $50-million program to reward businesses that provide classroom space.

But the Senate, because it originally wanted a budget that was $1-billion more than the House's version, must trim its spending plan. King said Monday he doesn't know if he can get the 21 votes needed to pass a budget.

He won't get a vote from Sen. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Weston.

"I just can't in good conscience go home and face my community," Wasserman Shultz said.

- Times staff writer Lisa Greene contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 13, 2003, 02:01:16]


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