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Leaders push county wants

Commissioners share with county representatives, and others who will listen, their desires for this legislative session.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- County commissioners, other elected officials and business leaders visited the state Capitol Wednesday to let Tallahassee know what's important to them. Here's a look at how the day went.

There was no lunch on Wednesday for state Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River. She sipped a small can of pink grapefruit juice at her desk as Citrus County Commissioner Vicki Phillips ran through a list of legislative concerns.

Please let the counties continue to regulate billboards.

Please find more funding for the transportation-disadvantaged programs.

Please do not let the state push the cost of detaining juvenile offenders onto the counties.

Phillips had several note pad pages full of neat cursive notes from that morning's briefing with the Florida Association of Counties. The notes highlighted bills to support and oppose. She ran through the list quickly, describing briefly how each measure would impact the county.

Please do not make the county pay for an extra day or two of Medicaid patients' bills, which would cost Citrus County between $40,000 and $81,000 a year.

Argenziano nodded, took down her own notes and often made frank interjections.

"I'm just so disappointed that someone did not tell us last year what shape we were in with the Medicaid budget," she said.

The budget as a whole was filling up with proposals that Argenziano said she could not support. It could be the first year she would vote against the state budget, even though it will contain funding needed for her district, she said.

As much as she supported Gov. Jeb Bush in some respects, Argenziano said she found herself at odds with him over certain measures. She expressed her concern with one bill that would allow untreated water containing coliform bacteria, which come from human or animal waste, to be pumped into aquifer storage and recovery wells, known as ASR wells.

"You don't have to be a scientist to know that you don't put, excuse me, crap into the potable water supply," Argenziano said.

Yet Argenziano cast the only vote against the bill when it came before the House General Government Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

She would later tell two dozen Citrus constituents that, for better or worse, seasoned legislators have been booted by term limits, making way for a sea of freshmen who are still learning about these complicated environmental issues. She said some of those freshmen find themselves swayed to favor a project because it is recommended by Bush and his agencies, such as the state Department of Environmental Protection.

"Sometimes you want to take them and shake them and say, "Remember, you were voted in as an independent representative,' " Argenziano said.

Argenziano voiced the same frustrations as she spoke with Phillips in her 11th-story Capitol office, a small room decorated with a dozen elephant statuettes emblematic of her party. When Phillips asked what other measures the county should lobby against, Argenziano said the county should never relax its vigilance over water marketing proposals.

"Science is on our side," she said. "But will science prevail? Not necessarily in a political zone."

An aide knocked at the door. Argenziano's 12:30 appointment was waiting.

Inside, the Capitol crawled with lawmakers, their aides and swarms of lobbyists. Outside, a group of protesters gathered on the Capitol steps with signs and fake coffins.

"They want to shut down nursing homes," a college-aged protester screeched into a microphone. "What's up with that?"

The crowds, the meeting rooms, the issues -- it can be chaotic. County Commission Chairman Roger Batchelor humbly admitted that he was late meeting up with the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce group because he left his itinerary in the car and forgot which room he needed to find.

There is a frenzied pace to Florida's 60-day legislative session, which is one of the shortest in the country for a state of this size. State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said she sees more lobbyists now than she did as a legislative director for the New York Senate.

On his first Tallahassee trip as a county commissioner, Josh Wooten was overwhelmed and at times disturbed by the scene.

In hallways and restaurants, he saw lobbyists practicing their art of persuasion on lawmakers. Walking into the office of House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, Wooten saw a room full of men in suits and had to wonder: Who are they? What are their interests?

"There just seems to be a lot of business being done out of the public eye," Wooten said. "It just seems there ought to be a better way of doing business."

"If I could describe it in a word, it's chaos," he continued. "I was amazed, and I was thinking that I don't know that I would ever want to have my political career take me to Tallahassee."

State Sen. Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg, met up with the Citrus County Chamber of Commerce group a few minutes behind schedule. She had just visited with Lake and Seminole county officials and presented three bills that day.

"I haven't even had a chance to sit yet," said Cowin, leaning against a table in a Capitol conference room.

But at least she made it. Tied up on the Senate floor and at Lake County's legislative day, Cowin failed last year to keep her appointment with a busload of Citrus constituents.

This year as she addressed the group, Cowin fired through a list of accomplishments and concerns. Funding for the county's Boys and Girls Club looked secure, she said, but she worried that transportation dollars might be diverted to help pay for the $19-billion high-speed rail system that voters approved in November.

Cowin was up for re-election in November. Although the majority of Citrus County voters cast the ballots for her opponent, she picked up enough votes in the rest of her district to secure her second term.

The gulf between Cowin and her Citrus constituents was there, and it was unclear whether her appearance Wednesday did much to bridge it.

There were puzzled looks when Cowin said she had recently seen the low lake levels in Inverness and Beverly Hills, a high-and-dry community that has no lakes of its own.

"That's a (drainage retention area)," someone mumbled. And there was concern when Cowin enthusiastically reported that Citrus County could be split between two representatives, just as it is now split between two senators, when the state legislative districts are redrawn in light of the 2000 Census figures.

Cowin said it would be beneficial for Citrus to have two representatives watching for its interests, but some locals have long felt that the county's political clout is diluted when it is divided among districts.

"I think Citrus County is better off to have one representative for all of Citrus County and one senator for all of Citrus County," County Commissioner Gary Bartell later commented. "It would be better for the county and for them because then they could concentrate on that geographic area and their constituents."

Bartell walked the halls of the Capitol on Wednesday and Thursday like a door-to-door salesman. He hit more than a dozen lawmakers' offices with the same pitch: Please keep the $1-million in the budget for the Homosassa wastewater project.

The House of Representatives' budget funds the project, but the Senate's budget does not. Bartell has to get legislators on board now so the Homosassa funding does not get cut when the two chambers hash out their budget differences in conference committee.

He makes a quick appeal for the project by saying the central sewers will replace the septic tanks that have polluted the river. Water quality is a universal problem that speaks to all lawmakers, even those who will never cast a fishing line in the Homosassa River, Bartell reasons. "I try to make sure they also understand that we're not just looking for a handout," he said. "We're willing to match funds locally through assessments and other county initiatives."

At a Florida Association of Counties reception Wednesday night in the old Capitol building, Bartell talks up the Homosassa project to Sen. Ron Silver, D-Miami, and Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton. The next day, he gets a commitment from Sen. John Laurent, R-Bartow, to support the funding.

"He's worked closely with us before on projects," Bartell said.

"In all honesty, that's one of the things," he continued. "You can't just have your local delegation. You've got to have a coalition of other members you can get to support these kinds of things, and that's one of the things I've tried to do over the years."

Bartell returned from Tallahassee Thursday evening and already was planning his next trip.

"I'm waiting to hear about the conference committee," Bartell said, referring to the group of representatives and senators who will negotiate the final budget. "As soon as those folks are appointed, I'll go back up and meet with them."

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