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New legislative blood finds revolution in vain

Term limits pave the way for 63 new House members. But party leaders keep them in line with their agendas.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2001

Term limits pave the way for 63 new House members. But party leaders keep them in line with their agendas.

TALLAHASSEE -- So much for the freshman revolution in the capital.

When term limits swept a huge batch of newcomers into the Legislature this year, it appeared a new force of fresh blood might be coming to Tallahassee. After all, 63 independent-minded fresh faces could wield tremendous clout in the state House, just as post-Watergate newcomers dramatically changed the way Congress did business.

In Tallahassee, though, it didn't happen. All those rookie lawmakers have been united in little besides their angst. Only occasionally did new legislators assert themselves and vote against the wishes of their party leadership.

"When term limits passed, people wondered if you'd get a lot of strife and people going against conventional wisdom, but that hasn't happened," said former state Rep. Janegale Boyd of Monticello, who was in the Capitol on Tuesday. "I think it's because we have very strong leadership."

Indeed, several new Republican lawmakers on Monday got a taste of how forceful their leaders can be after the freshmen helped kill a GOP-friendly bill that would restrict unions from deducting dues from teacher paychecks. Party leaders quickly set to work on the Republicans who voted against the bill and passed the measure after changing enough minds.

As freshman state Rep. Bob Allen, R-Merritt Island, put it, he and other members were "updated" and persuaded to reverse their votes.

"It's very hard for even this many freshmen to break on leadership positions, because there's a huge and obvious consequence to that," said state Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami.

To run afoul of House Speaker Tom Feeney or Senate President John McKay is to risk getting your bills sidetracked. What's more, all lawmakers know their legislative districts could be redrawn next year.

"What surprised me the most (about the Legislature) is the total power and control of the speaker and the Majority Office," said Republican state Rep. Don Davis, a former Jacksonville City Council member.

There have been some streaks of independence, though.

Earlier in the session, a band of 25 Republican House freshmen successfully pushed to scale back a proposed tax cut on investments. A number of freshmen also bucked their party leadership on a key vote on a bill that would allow pharmacists to more easily substitute generic drugs for some brand-name drugs. And several stuck to their vote on teacher union paycheck deductions, despite pressure from the leadership.

"They said, 'Do you realize this is one of the speaker's priorities?' I said, 'I wish I could help, but I really couldn't,' " recounted Davis, one of those who stuck by his initial vote. Another time, when he supported a growth management proposal opposed by party leaders, Gov. Jeb Bush paid him a personal visit.

"These freshmen want to be part of a team. We are Republicans, most of us," Davis said. "But these freshmen are also pretty energetic and independent. They're not just going to be told what to do," Davis said.

The freshman class is not as wide-eyed as some people expected. Many cut their teeth in local politics and understand that rabble-rousing isn't necessarily productive.

State Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, used to be a legislative aide and said he has seen much more energy in the Legislature this year than in the past. In committee meetings he used to often see veteran lawmakers ignore testimony because they felt they'd heard it all before.

"You've got some sharp people who actually sit there in committee meetings and listen. There's a new level of studiousness," Justice said. "The main impact of the freshman class has been a real injection of fresh blood."

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