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In session, is anyone safe?

Published May 18, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Ernest Bartley, a political science professor at the University of Florida, had helped write the constitution of Alaska. Asked why he hadn't recommended a one-house legislature for the new state, he replied simply, "Too much to steal."

Bartley meant that the traditional two-house system would make it harder to plunder Alaska's immense natural resources.

The more I see of Florida's Legislature, the more I doubt that even two houses are enough to protect us from anything. After Week One of the relapse - or the special session, as they call it - the regular session is becoming a pleasant memory. By doing next to nothing, it did relatively little harm.

But what's happening now recalls the famous words: "No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session." (Anonymous, quoted by Gideon J. Tucker, New York Surrogate Reports, 1866)

Workers and students will find out soon enough what that means.

First, the workers.

The deal has been cut on a workers' compensation bill that literally puts lives at risk. It says that to sue for damages outside the no-fault compensation system, injured workers (or their survivors) have to prove the management "deliberately intended" to hurt or kill them or "deliberately concealed" a known danger. That's the equivalent of attempted or actual first-degree murder. There are several lesser offenses (reckless disregard, mayhem, etc.) that would now be easier to prove in criminal court than in a lawsuit over someone having lost a life to save the boss a buck.

The trial lawyers patiently explained this to legislators, but it was like talking to zombies. Reckless neglect should be treated as a criminal offense, said the insurance lobby - and the zombies.

Let's be real. How many prosecutors have time to hunt down employers for cutting safety corners? Has it ever been done?

This legislation (HB 25A) contains scores of provisions, some sensible but too many slimy, that are calculated to save some $500-million a year for employers at the expense of: guess who? The worst of them (picking a winner was hard, so there is a tie for nastiest of the nasties) requires injured workers to pay up front for an independent medical examination and sets a $1,500 ceiling on what a lawyer can charge for helping them pry an interim benefit out of a reluctant insurance company.

There is no doubt that some claims are bogus. But neither is there any doubt that the modus operandi of some insurance companies is to stall and deny and then stall and deny some more. There is no limit on what they can pay the lawyers who help them do this. When Democrats argued in the House that workers' lawyers should be allowed at least as much as the other side's counsel, their amendment was shouted down.

At that point, the Republicans already had all the amendments they wanted. So they rammed through a motion to permit no more amendments. The Democrats had a motion that would have superseded that, but Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, who was presiding, refused to hear it.

For this we overthrew Saddam Hussein?

The Democrats did succeed in exposing a fundamental hypocrisy, though they neglected to exploit it. Defending the scheme to make injured workers advance the cost of independent medical examinations (which they would recover only if they win their appeals), Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland - a workers' compensation defense lawyer - compared this provision to the way things work in conventional tort litigation.

Workers' comp, however, is supposed to be a no-fault plan. That is, in fact, the precise excuse for closing the courthouse to workers even in cases of gross negligence.

Nobody stood up to point out that the sponsors were in conflict with themselves.

Not that it would have mattered. A deal had been signed privately - by the key bill writers, by House Speaker Johnnie B. Byrd Jr. and Senate President Jim King - to write the bill just so, with no amendments allowed but those that Byrd and King approve. It was with that assurance that Gov. Jeb Bush added compensation to the special session agenda, which meant Senate Democrats could no longer block it. They may still try to amend the bill, but when they do, the Republicans will fall in line behind the argument that any change would break the deal and kill it. So the bill will pass despite mounting concern in both parties over the reliability of the savings projections - provided by the insurance industry, of course. The compromise? Another study!

That's the danger of special sessions. They're too eager to get things done.

Another deal that was done before anybody could stop it means that junior college and university students will pay at least 7.5 percent more tuition. Florida tuition is low by national standards, but despite paying more, Florida's students (including the two in my household) will get only larger classes and fewer of them. What they're paying will go right through the Legislature's pockets into tax cuts for corporations and stockholders.

Anonymous had it right.

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