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Tom Feeney’s dictatorship

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 29, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- At this writing, the House and Senate are still behind schedule for a budget deal. Their leaders quarrelled long over how many state jobs to cut. The Senate tried to limit the toll to mostly unfilled positions. House Speaker Tom "Chainsaw" Feeney insisted on drawing real blood.

Yet even Feeney was holding back. His hit list spared the most conspicuous fat and waste in the entire state government.

I speak, of course, of Feeney's 119 superfluous House colleagues and the staffers who support them. We're talking millions of misspent dollars here.

There is no need for live members because it is Feeney who decides everything. The others might as well give him their proxies and go home. They are no more essential to the plot than a Greek chorus, which is essentially what they have become.

They are actually two separate choruses that rarely come together. One consists of the majority Republicans, only a handful of whom ever stray from Feeney's script. The other comprises the 43 Democrats, a bruised and bloody lot. They make a mighty and furious sound. But it signifies nothing.

The most the Democrats can do is to call time-out, as they did last week by insisting that a long elections bill be read word-for-word. This is a venerable tactic permitted by the Constitution. A third of either house may demand a reading in full.

The first time I saw it done was in 1967, when the Republicans were the minority and the Democrats were trying to pass the budget of Republican Gov. Claude R. Kirk Jr. exactly as he had proposed it. The House Republicans knew the budget was political baloney and that they had to save Kirk from himself. Their filibuster stopped the bill, but the Democrats didn't mind because they had made their point. Both sides treated it as good sport.

There was no such sportsmanship last week. Feeney and his enforcers were enraged. They threatened to kill all Democratic bills. Lobbyists began scrambling for Republican sponsors.

Meanwhile, the Democrats had caught the Republicans skirting the rule that provides for advance notice on the day's agenda. The Republicans couldn't waive the rule without a two-thirds vote that they couldn't get. Instead, they called an unscheduled committee meeting to propose a new rule that could be adopted by a simple majority vote. They said it merely restored an old Democratic rule. They neglected to mention that the Republicans had repealed it as unfair.

On the floor, they rammed the new rule through under a motion limiting debate to three minutes a side. Lois Frankel, the minority leader, was in mid-sentence when Feeney slammed his gavel to silence her.

Ralph Turlington, Fred Schultz and Dick Pettigrew would never have done that to Don Reed. The late, great Republican leader was their competitor, but he was also their friend. (Feeney and Frankel claim to be friends, too, but from watching the House you would never know it.)

Dan Webster, the first of the modern-day Republican speakers, wouldn't have done it to Frankel.

Webster, now in the Senate, cited the episode disapprovingly in the course of a Senate debate the following day. The issue was whether it should take more than a majority of voters to amend the Constitution. The liberals were split. So were the conservatives.

Webster, a true conservative, favored a 60 percent super-majority. What had happened in the House, "which I don't approve," he said, dramatized why it should be hard to change what protects minorities.

Such an event, he said, "destroys the will and the power of the minority to be a player."

Senate Majority Leader Jim King, one of Webster's two rivals for the next Senate presidency, applauded Webster's remarks. It is unprecedented for a former speaker to publicly rebuke a successor of his own party.

But Webster and King had learned the value of minority rights in the long years they were in the House minority. Unlike Feeney, they had not forgotten.

Voters wondering how Feeney controls the Republicans so totally -- of the other 76, you could count on one hand those who don't follow every order -- would be misled to think it has only to do with their bills and their local pork projects. Those are important, but Feeney also holds their careers in his hand. Redistricting comes up next year. Computers make it fiendishly easy for troublesome members to vanish.

Nothing the Democrats could do would dissuade Feeney from trying to leave them with fewer than 40 seats so that they no could no longer insist that bills be read in full or uphold a future Democratic governor's veto.

Upstart Republicans, however, know that they are expendable, too. They could be purged by pairing incumbents against each other in safe Republican districts.

The seeds of today's House dictatorship were planted when the leadership of the Constitution Revision Commission lost two of the votes it needed to put an independent redistricting commission on the 1998 ballot. Feeney had a lot to do with that, too.

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