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Sessions end with business undone

For three testy sessions, legislators wrestled with critical and complex issues. They didn't get to them all.

Published June 28, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - It all began four months ago on a spring day full of hope, like the first day of school or the opening day of baseball season.

Four months and three sessions later, as Floridians plan for a long Fourth of July weekend or pack for summer vacation, the Legislature's work is still not done.

Even Gov. Jeb Bush left town Friday to spend a week with his parents at the family compound in Maine, with still no solution to the high cost of medical malpractice insurance. On his way north, Bush stopped in Connecticut for another malpractice roundtable, this time with Republican Gov. John Rowland and doctors at a hospital in Stamford.

"It's a political problem, because you have very powerful special interest groups, especially the trial lawyers," who want to block malpractice reforms, Bush said before leaving. "The good news is, we're making progress."

A more upbeat assessment of the Legislature's work soon will arrive in hundreds of thousands of Florida mailboxes in upbeat end-of-session reports, sent at taxpayer expense.

The newsletters are a reminder of Tip O'Neill's proverb that all politics is local. Most of the work in a legislative session involves passing or blocking routine legislation affecting everything from alligator trapping licenses to water and sewer systems.

Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa, cited her support for renewing Hillsborough County's local sales tax that pays for health care for the poor. Rep. Ed Bullard, a Miami Democrat, claimed credit for saving the Farm Share program, which distributes surplus food to the poor.

The sharp-edged rhetoric that is routine in the Legislature is not allowed in taxpayer-financed newsletters, lest they appear to be partisan attacks. This is about as strong as it gets: "The recently passed state budget is extremely disappointing," says a piece approved for use in Democrats' newsletters. "You deserve better."

The newsletters are closely edited by staffers to eliminate references to partisanship or self-aggrandizement, and lawmakers are generally portrayed as stewards of efficiency.

Republican staffers edit Democratic newsletters and vice versa, and House policies prohibit words that are "laudatory, complimentary, critical or derogatory of any other member or governmental officeholder."

"We have proven up to the challenge and have made considerable progress on momentous issues," wrote freshman Rep. Marcelo Llorente, R-Miami.

First-term Rep. John Quinones, a Kissimmee Republican, ticked off a lengthy list of legislative accomplishments, like the sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers, which passed the House but failed in the Senate and did not become law. Quinones' newsletter said it was a fruitful year "despite the press reports about doom and gloom cuts and inaction in Tallahassee."

"House finishes strong," said the headline in the newsletter from Rep. Leslie Waters, R-St. Petersburg.

A review of a half-dozen newsletters showed no references to one of the most controversial decisions of the year, a bill that could raise local phone rates by up to $7.25 over the next four years while reducing long-distance rates.

Lawmakers tackled some vexing problems in 2003, such as the system for protecting injured workers, fraud in no-fault car insurance and carrying out the public mandate for smaller classes and smoke-free workplaces.

Still, the 2003 session - or sessions, since there were three, with at least one more to go - will not be remembered as particularly productive. This is a Legislature that Bush warned could put the Republican Party in "peril," and chided in May for its failure at "multitasking."

The governor also refused to appear in public with House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King after the first two sessions collapsed in an atmosphere charged with mistrust and marked by unfinished business.

Lawmakers also did not repeal two laws Bush strongly opposed. The high-speed rail and the class size reduction amendment, both added to the state Constitution by voters, remain on the books.

The leaders of the House and Senate barely spoke to each other for months, communicating instead by delivering put-downs and one-liners through a news media prism.

The next session will begin as early as July 9, the day Bush returns to Florida. And next year, an election year, they get to do it all over again.

[Last modified June 28, 2003, 01:32:47]

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