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Learning the ropes at the Capitol

First-time Rep. Sara Romeo of Tampa has to get used to more than 15-hour workdays. She and an unprecedented number of other newcomers in the Florida House also have to get used to lobbyists as they ponder big-ticket business issues this session.

By KYLE PARKS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 11, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- "Sheesh. Did we take the wrong elevator?" Rep. Sara Romeo asked her aide.

Romeo, a Tampa Democrat, was hustling to the 22nd floor of the Capitol for a lunchtime schmoozefest thrown by the Florida Society of Association Executives.

The problem: There's no one Capitol elevator that goes to every floor. For Romeo, two days into her first session of the Florida Legislature, figuring out the elevator system was another hassle in a blur of a Thursday.

This 51-year-old rookie has to adjust to 8 a.m.-11 p.m. workdays. She's packing in meetings around seven-hour sessions of the House of Representatives, then going to her condo at night to pore over 2-inch-thick binders crammed with budget figures.

And everywhere she turns, there's a lobbyist eager to say hello.

"I learned quickly that everyone I meet wants something from me," she said. "It's almost like when I shake hands with someone, I think, "Nice to meet you -- or not.' "

Whom Romeo and her fellow freshmen listen to is a big question for Florida companies because the Legislature is pondering plenty of big-ticket business issues this year. (See chart, 2H.)

Should there be a cap on how much nursing home patients can win in liability lawsuits? How should the state rewrite its growth management laws? Is it a good idea to let out-of-state utilities build power plants in Florida? Will the Legislature take the next step in eliminating the intangibles tax on Floridians' investments?

Tackling such complicated issues would be a challenge any year. But this spring, there's an unprecedented number of newcomers trying to sort things out. Because of term limits instituted last year, 61 of the House's 120 members are new to the Legislature. Compare that with the Florida Senate, which has just one member who is new.

The House situation concerns some legislators, who think it will result in fewer bills. "There is a worry that some of the freshmen will be timid, laying low for a year," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg.

Democrats have another concern. They worry that these freshmen, who are overwhelmingly Republican, will blindly do whatever the party leaders and lobbyists want them to do.

"The question is whether they are just going to play follow the leader or really make up their own minds," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.

Looking past lobbyists

Rep. Mike Fasano, the House's majority leader, scoffs at the idea that he's leading a bunch of sheep.

"The speaker (Tom Feeney) and I were laughing about that notion the other day," said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "It's ridiculous. When people can't get you to agree with their point of view, they are going to have to say something."

Still, it's a challenge to keep a level head when everyone wants a piece of you.

Consider what Sara Romeo is dealing with. In her sparsely furnished office, she has a box with the goodies House members have gotten from lobbyists, including a donkey Beanie Baby and a toy airplane. The most elaborate gift: chocolates in such shapes as a cellular phone and a Florida map, from big shot lobbyist Ron Book's firm.

Romeo is a prime target for the business lobbyists. She and her husband own Romeo's Stylish Furniture in Tampa. And she was one of only two Democrats in last fall's elections to get an endorsement from the powerful Associated Industries of Florida business lobbying group.

To win the group's backing, she had to fill out a 27-page questionnaire on issues. Then she went through a videotaped grilling by 20 AIF members at the group's Tallahassee headquarters.

"People say I'm a pro-business Democrat," she said. "But what the heck is an anti-business Democrat?"

But on Thursday, Romeo voted against the AIF on a bill that would take the next step to repeal the intangibles tax, which is charged on investments that are separate from retirement accounts. The repeal, which passed the House, is a priority for the AIF, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Legislature's Republican leaders.

"I just didn't see how we could pass that before we know what the budget looks like," she said. "As a business owner, would I pay out bonuses before I know what my revenues are?"

Still, she admits that fully understanding the issues is going to be tough. "There is no learning curve," she said. One way she copes: After hearing from a lobbyist on an issue, Romeo often calls a lobbyist for the other side for another view.

The business lobbying groups have been working on the freshmen for months. The Florida chamber targeted potential legislators before last fall's elections. And the AIF held presession "information sessions" for rookies at the posh Governor's Club in Tallahassee.

"We are very pleased that these folks are here," AIF president Jon Shebel said. "They don't have a lot of preconceived notions. Many of them run businesses, unlike all the trial lawyers who used to dominate this place."

Tackling the issues

For the freshmen, learning every issue involves a history lesson. Knowing that, House and Senate leaders may push some of the most complicated and controversial issues off their list of priorities this year.

There was talk before the session began that the Legislature might repackage some parts of the tort reform law, which shields companies from some lawsuits but is now being challenged in court. That probably won't happen, though.

"It's such a complex issue, and this year there are only so many priorities that we can articulate," said Steve Liner, vice president of communications for the Florida chamber.

That factor also may work against another high-profile issue: whether out-of-state electric utilities should be allowed to build plants to sell wholesale power in the state.

"I just don't think enough time has passed to see how deregulation is playing out in other states," Fasano said. "It's such a complicated issue. Have we really been able to assess what's gone wrong in California at this point?"

Other issues are expected to come to a vote, though.

One of Gov. Jeb Bush's priorities is changing the state's growth management laws. Some legislators talk about shelving that idea for a year, but at least some of a study commission's recommendations may get passed. Among the ideas being discussed: Limit growth if nearby schools can't handle it, and use financial assessments to figure out the impact of new developments.

On other fronts, look for one of the biggest fights to be over phone access fees.

Long-distance phone companies want the Public Service Commission to have the right to lower the access fees they pay to use local phone lines. In the Tampa Bay area, Verizon charges 9.5 cents for every call handled by such long-distance companies as AT&T and Sprint.

The local providers say that if the fee is lowered, they'll have to charge more for local service. But the long-distance companies argue that the local providers don't have extra costs to justify charging such a fee.

The Legislature also will try to tackle financial problems in the state's nursing homes. Many are struggling to get insurance coverage, and some legislators think a cap on liability awards would help.

But others, such as Klein, say the largest awards aren't the problem. "It's just that there are so many smaller lawsuits, they add up," he said. "I don't think caps are the answer."

There's another possible solution: using some sort of method to give nursing homes different classifications for insurance purposes. "The best nursing homes -- the ones who don't get sued -- could still get good coverage," Romeo said.

After studying all the issues, Romeo was back in Tampa on Friday, working her third job as executive director of Artists Unlimited, a non-profit art center in downtown's Channelside district.

Until the end of the session in May, she'll be shuttling back and forth between home and Tallahassee, where she's sharing a townhouse with her son, Walter, a junior at Florida State.

"It's going to be tough for the next few months," she said. "Anyone who says the Legislature is a part-time job is crazy."

Key business issues for the Legislature

GROWTH MANAGEMENT: A study commission has recommended tying development approvals to school classroom size, giving local authorities more power over planning decisions and making communities come up with financial estimates of new developments' impact. Outlook: Some of it may pass, or legislators may put off the whole touchy matter.

ELECTRICITY DEREGULATION: Will Florida get out-of-state competition in the wholesale power business? At issue is whether the state's utilities can meet future demand. Outlook: At this point, not a high priority for Republicans, who want more time to gauge the problems in other states, such as California.

INTANGIBLES TAX: On Thursday, the House passed the third phase in a four-step elimination of the tax on investments. Outlook: This isn't a given in the Senate; much depends on how bad the budget picture is.

NURSING HOMES: The industry is pushing for a cap on damages paid to people who sue nursing homes, saying liability insurance costs are going through the roof. Outlook: Legislators seem to agree that the nursing home industry is in crisis, but there's no agreement on whether caps are the answer.

TELECOM ACCESS FEES: Long-distance phone companies want the Public Service Commission, not the Legislature, to set rates they pay local providers for use of phone lines. Outlook: The local providers are launching a fight against the idea, but it has wide support.

WORKERS' COMP: Associated Industries of Florida wants to change the way workers' compensation lawyers are paid. Paid by the hour, they drag out cases, the AIF says. Outlook: Though the AIF has clout, this doesn't seem be a priority.

CIVIL SERVICE: The Florida Council of 100, a group of the state's top business executives, is pushing a plan to give state government more leeway in how it pays, promotes and hires workers. Outlook: Expect a fight from the unions, but they have relatively little clout at the Capitol.

REGULATION OF BANKING, INSURANCE: The question is whether a separate agency should regulate the state's financial industry or whether an elected official should fill that role. Outlook: Too soon to tell, though there is some key early support for the elected-official option. -- KYLE PARKS

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