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Capitol's actors set to perform high drama


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 3, 2001

The legislators we elected are packing this weekend for their annual trip to Tallahassee. Many of them are new, bright-eyed and eager to get down to making laws when the first gavels fall on Tuesday.

We have a citizen legislature that meets for 60 days a year to pass bills and a budget that will keep the state running.

They are spending much more than 60 days in Tallahassee these days. In February, they were in the Capitol almost every week.

It won't take long before they realize that the real power is out there on the fourth floor between the ornate House and Senate chambers, where lobbyists gather.

Lobbyists work in teams. You have your basic Republican lobbyist and your basic Democrat lobbyist. They are often former legislators who depend on friendships with lawmakers.

Now the big lobbying firms that were once dominated by Democrats have taken on token Republicans to help bridge the philosophical gap. And some of the most powerful companies are Republican strongholds these days.

In addition, many of the companies have added women and minority lobbyists so they can be politically correct in times of need.

Some lobbyists gain and lose clients according to the leadership positions given to lawmakers they are close to. There is no greater example of that than Oscar Juarez, an Orlando lobbyist who had about two clients until his close friend Sen. Toni Jennings rose to power. By the time she was Senate president, Juarez had more than 30 well-heeled clients.

Now that Jennings has gone home to Orlando, Juarez has yet to register for a single client.

There is potential for drama this year.

Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries of Florida, circulated a most unflattering cartoon of Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor last year on the closing day of session.

Latvala still keeps the cartoon on his desk and is chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, a place where Shebel needs to conduct a little business. We could all be entertained by this.

No one is happy. Budget cuts have everyone squealing with pain and trying to dream up the biggest sob story to get attention.

Nursing homes and the Florida Academy of Trial Lawyers are at each other's throats. The folks who make generic drugs and Du Pont are ready to administer overdoses to each other.

AT&T is fighting the local telephone companies in what appears to be our latest version of "Lobbygeddon," the term we use to describe an all-out lobbying war. Some 70 lobbyists have signed up for the fight.

You would think the partisan bitterness of last year's presidential fight might linger among the members, but most lobbyists are predicting a less partisan year among lawmakers.

The problems they have to solve are so serious, so overwhelming and so vital to Floridians, it's hard to find a Republican or Democratic side to many of them.

Gov. Jeb Bush might as well paint a bull's-eye on his chest to accommodate the number of people who want to shoot at him.

The governor remains popular among citizens, but he has state employees and black lawmakers foaming at the mouth.

Former Republican Party Chairman Tom Slade said the situation reminds him of a few experiences he's had with women. "If they ever really get "no-joke mad' at you, there is absolutely nothing you can do to make it right," he jokes.

If the Democrats can keep their constituents mad at him long enough, they can make trouble, but anyone who thinks he is a pushover should take another look.

You can't beat somebody with nobody, especially when the somebody is well-financed. But it will be fun to watch.

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