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House Democrats find a way to slow GOP train

MORGAN
MORGAN
By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001


A partisan war erupted Wednesday just as legislators began taking up the most important issues facing Floridians.

You might call it back to the future -- a return to the good old days when Democrats were running the show with invisible calendars and all-night sessions.

Wednesday's session of the House began with an objection from Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach.

House rules require the distribution of a list of the bills that will be heard on the floor by 9 p.m. the night before a session.

Republicans said a computer problem prevented that from happening until 12:40 a.m. Wednesday. Democrats said they didn't believe the computer story and objected to hearing the list of 122 bills.

Republicans turned to another list of bills that had been scheduled for a final vote next week, the final week of this year's 60-day session.

Invoking a seldom-used provision of the Florida Constitution, Democrats demanded that all bills be read in full.

The Constitution says any bill considered by the Legislature must be read in its entirety if a third of the members want to hear it. Otherwise bills are merely read by title, a process that takes a few seconds.

Democrats have 43 members, slightly more than one third, so they used what little muscle they have in a chamber dominated by 77 Republicans.

"Get the clerk some water and some throat lozenges," joked Speaker Tom Feeney as he ordered the reading to begin.

As clerks read every word of a 66-page elections bill, the Republicans called a meeting of the rules committee and changed the rules. The newly adopted rule -- the same rule that existed when Democrats were in charge before 1996 -- allows the House to take up any bill at any time.

The committee couldn't change the requirement to read all bills, because that's in the Constitution and would require a vote by all Floridians.

Democratic Leader Lois Frankel of West Palm Beach blasted the Republicans for "marching out and changing the rules."

She said Democrats are also angry over tax cuts that are about to be approved as part of a budget deal.

Democrats accused Republicans of "running over" them.

"I watched the Democrats do it when they were in charge, and I didn't like it then," said Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach.

"We could go back to the days when the Legislature met all night," Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, said later.

And just to prove the point, Republicans returned to the House floor at 7 p.m. to begin work on the original list of 122 bills.

Feeney says the list may get very short indeed if they all have to be read aloud. He estimated it will take three days to read the budget. They'll hardly have time to read any bills filed by Democrats.

Democrats said they're ready to lose their bills and the money for special projects if it means they can get the Republicans to put more money in education and other priorities.

"I've never responded well to threats," said Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa. "If they want to get in my face and say all your stuff is going down, if they want my million dollars for the Tampa Urban League, fine. Put it in the pot for education. It will look bad on them for being so vindictive and mean-spirited."

Lobbyists say the GOP is killing projects that have Democratic backing, said Rep. Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach.

"It's political extortion," she added.

"The clouds may get a little darker before the sun comes out," predicted Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine.

"Today is one of the first days we've been relevant," said Rep. Ken Gottlieb, D-Hollywood.

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