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Session shaped by last hurrahs

The departure of so many lawmakers - because of term limits - helps set the mood at the state Capitol.

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© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- Pat Thomas was worked up.

The 66-year-old state senator from tiny Quincy in North Florida was first elected to the Legislature in 1972, when Richard Nixon won a second term and the 22-story state Capitol was still a dream. He is battling cancer and is shuttled between his office and the Senate chamber in a wheelchair.

But Thomas stood up to speak last week after receiving an invitation to attend an upcoming celebration sponsored by supporters of term limits.

"I hate to think about my state being deprived of some of the talent that is on this floor," he said, leaning against his desk and naming several colleagues who also will be forced out by term limits. "I'm just so rattled somebody would have a celebration to say, "Farewell, we have run you out of town.' "

Senate President Toni Jennings had a ready reply.

"Sen. Thomas," the Orlando Republican said Friday afternoon, "let's show them we're not gone yet. We've got five more days."

And these next five days will be like no other final week of a legislative session.

The eight-year term limit on legislators, overwhelmingly approved by voters in 1992, kicks in for the first time this year. Term limits are forcing 52 of the 120 state House members and 11 of the 40 senators to retire from politics or run for other offices.

The 43 percent turnover in the House already guarantees the highest percentage of new faces in more than 20 years. It surpasses the turnover in 1992, when 39 percent of legislators were new after the election.

In the Senate, the 27 percent guaranteed turnover is lower than in 1992, when 47 percent of the senators were new after the election.

But 1992 was a redistricting year. Some legislators quit because they were burned out by several special sessions; others found themselves forced into new districts with multiple incumbents. Some ran in new congressional districts.

Those were voluntary decisions. It's unclear how the forced turnover from term limits will affect the session's final days as leaders try to cut deals on major issues ranging from education spending to growth management.

"I don't think anybody knows," said Curt Kiser, a lobbyist and former legislator. "Is the normal deference to leaders to call the shots still going to be there, or are people going to say, "The hell with that. I am not going to be back. I am going to do what I want to do'?"

Adds House Speaker John Thrasher, R-Orange Park: "I'll earn my money."

How well Thrasher and Jennings keep their respective supporters united this week may determine the outcome of the budget negotiations and whether the session ends on time.

Jennings, who is running for state insurance commissioner, wants to use more of the surplus in the state retirement fund to improve benefits and give teachers raises of up to 8 percent. She signaled she is prepared to keep legislators in Tallahassee well beyond Friday's scheduled adjournment if that's what it takes to get her way.

But Thrasher and Gov. Jeb Bush are just as adamant about not using as much of the retirement surplus.

Other legislators are determined to make lasting changes in public policy this week, from weakening growth management laws to abolishing the Board of Regents that oversees state universities.

"There is a heightened level of anxiety in the chambers and outside them to get something done before these people leave here for the last time," said lobbyist Ron Book. "People want to leave their mark."

Some already have.

Rep. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, walked over to the Senate on Friday to watch the chamber approve legislation that establishes new rules for spending state money for beach renourishment projects. The legislation is named after Jones, who has worked on the issue since he was first elected in 1978.

"If you have to go," he said, "it's a nice feeling to know you've gotten one major issue solved that you started with when you got here."

Jones is not seeking another office. But with so many legislators retiring and gearing up campaigns, the often-blurred line between politics and policy has been erased.

At least 17 members of the House are seeking Senate seats. One senator is running for a House seat, and five legislators are running for Congress. Jennings and Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami, are running for insurance commissioner.

Several legislators are running for local offices, including Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, and Rep. John Morroni, R-Clearwater.

But no one's political ambitions have been more obvious than those of the Senate president's.

During a debate last week over new law schools for Florida A&M University and Florida International University, Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami heaped praise on Jennings for her support.

"After this comes to fruition," Jennings said from the podium, "we'll let you go thank me a lot down in South Florida."

The Cabinet position of state insurance commissioner and treasurer is opening because incumbent Bill Nelson is running for the U.S. Senate. The job disappears in two years, when the Cabinet positions of treasurer and comptroller will be merged into one chief fiscal officer.

Last week, Jennings smiled as she presided over a debate on legislation that spells out the duties of the job she covets and how insurance rates would be reviewed. She helped write the proposal, and her supporters defeated attempts by Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, to make changes.

Geller argued he is friends with all of the candidates for the job, including the most-prominent Republican.

"I won't name who she is, but she is a member of the Florida Senate and she is wearing a scarf," he said, nodding to Jennings and her trademark attire.

Even Jennings' friends and fellow Republicans say her determination to improve benefits for public workers and raise teacher salaries are related to her campaign.

"It's obvious she's running for statewide office," Kiser said.

Jennings had a three-word response when asked how her legislative and political efforts are connected: "Not at all."

In the House, Cosgrove has been just as aggressive in speaking out and seeking attention.

He was miffed last week that Republicans did not let him show slides of his house, which was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew, during a debate over a new building code. Republicans have distributed buttons that poke fun at how many amendments the Democrat has offered.

"I've probably been a little more vocal and a little more strident," Cosgrove said. "I feel a lot more free and a lot more inclined to speak up on things, because I don't have to come back next year and work with leadership that could be oppressive if I said certain things."

The political maneuvering has been tempered by some nostalgia and dry humor.

In the House, time is being set aside every day for a handful of legislators to stand up and say goodbye. In the Senate last week, Sen. John Grant of Tampa made a promise to a colleague who unsuccessfully tried to push for trigger locks.

"We just couldn't get to it," Grant said, who is leaving because of term limits and will have a new state job in Tampa.

"But next year, it will be first on my agenda," Grant deadpanned.

As the sun sets Friday night, Florida Citizens for Term Limits will hold its celebration in Tallahassee in front of the Old Capitol. All legislators have been invited, and the Bellamy Brothers will play.

Max Linn of St. Petersburg, president of the group, said it was not his intent to offend Thomas or other lawmakers who are the first forced out of office by term limits.

"This is a historic moment in Florida, and we're trying to get the message out," Linn said Saturday, adding that he hopes retiring legislators will encourage others to seek political office. "It's the last day of the session. When is a better time?"

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