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Power bill squabble illuminates frustration

MORGAN
MORGAN
By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000


Two state senators were in a room having a heated discussion over a last-minute, handwritten amendment to a bill that could mean millions and millions of dollars to the state's two biggest power companies.

On that point, Sens. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, agree. But they vehemently disagree when it comes to the question of who brought up the name of Senate President-to-be John McKay and his wife, Michelle.

Dyer says Lee is not telling the truth. Lee says Dyer is not telling the truth. Neither uses the word liar, but that is clearly what they mean.

All of this has come to pass in the midst of one of the most heavily lobbied issues in the Legislature this spring.

Involving the McKays is very touchy. McKay is likely to be Senate president in November with life and death power over bills, committee assignments and other decisions that affect the lives of lawmakers.

This drama began when Lee filed a short little bill calling for the creation of a study commission to review the state's future electrical needs. The study could lead to deregulation of the entire industry. At the last minute, Dyer offered a five-page, handwritten amendment that would have helped Florida Power & Light Co. and Florida Power Corp. He didn't disclose that his wife is an attorney for FPL. The Regulated Industries Committee, which Lee chairs, postponed a vote on the bill and the amendment.

Lee was openly critical of the handwritten amendment offered at the eleventh hour. Dyer went to Lee's office to discuss it a short time later.

"I remember the conversation vividly," Lee said. "He was damn near shaking. He didn't appreciate me castigating him in public over the amendment."

In that one-on-one meeting, Lee says Dyer brought up the fact that Michelle McKay lobbies for Duke Energy Corp. Dyer says Lee brought it up.

Dyer said he did not mention McKay or his wife. Mrs. McKay lobbies the executive branch of government for Duke Energy Co., a merchant power company that could benefit from Lee's bill. Mrs. McKay is registered to lobby the House but is not actively lobbying the House, McKay said Friday.

"She registered out of an abundance of caution," McKay explained.

McKay wasn't there when the conversation between Lee and Dyer occurred, but he says Lee told him Dyer brought up Mrs. McKay's name right after it happened.

"Tom Lee has as much integrity as anyone I have ever met," McKay said. "I would never expect him to lie."

This entire experience has added to Lee's general disappointment with the system he is part of.

A Brandon homebuilder, Lee was elected in 1996, so he's a relative newcomer to this process. Dyer, elected in 1992, notes that "some of the newer senators" lack the respect for the institution that old-timers have.

Lee says some of his colleagues say he is "too pure and idealistic" for the Legislature, where lobbyists often control what is happening.

"If they taught this stuff in civics classes, we'd have a mass exodus from the state," says Lee, 38. "I'm a grown guy with a lot of experience in business, but I was not prepared for this. This is a democracy that ought to be run by people who have put their life on the line to serve, but it's not."

Lee is really frustrated. He's working hard to pass two bills: the power study commission and a bill that would allow Floridians to buy beer in any size container. Under current law, the beer distributors limit retail sales to four sizes, a situation that prohibits the sale of many foreign and micro-brewed beers.

The power bill is stalled in a committee that is poised to help the big power company lobbyists, and his beer bill is bottled up in the House where a beer lobbyist appears to be in charge.

It's enough to make a grown man cry.

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