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Legislative briefs

By JO BECKER and TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 4, 2000


Bills to save tobacco money conflict

With two days to go in the legislative session, lawmakers are far from decided about what to do to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars tobacco companies pay the state each year as part of a lawsuit settlement.

The Republican-controlled House and Gov. Jeb Bush want to sell off a portion of the future proceeds for up-front cash, which would then be invested in a diverse portfolio. The House passed a bill to do that Wednesday.

But, citing figures that suggest the deal could cost the state about $700-million over the next three decades, the Senate has rejected that option as too expensive.

It has passed a different set of measures meant to deal with the risk that tobacco companies could go bankrupt, including a new cigarette tax that would be applied on companies that do not make payments to the state and a controversial measure to help tobacco companies appeal a decision this spring in a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of sick Florida smokers.

The two chambers seem set in their ways, and with the debate becoming increasingly acrimonious, it may be that nothing at all gets done this session.

"Like with so many things, the House suffers from a lack of information," said Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach. "We are the ones that had the committee hearings. We invited them to participate, and they did not."

The fear is that lawsuits against the tobacco industry, including the class action suit pending in Miami, could cause the companies to go belly up.

The state is expecting to receive $17.4-billion from the industry over the next 30 years, and counts on that money to pay for programs for children and the elderly. -- JO BECKER

In a few words, take this, justices . . .

The Legislature has had more than its share of squabbles with the state Supreme Court, which has overturned its efforts to streamline death penalty appeals.

On Wednesday, lawmakers tweaked the court.

Legislators sent the governor a bill that would exempt themselves from the requirement that proposed constitutional amendments be limited to 75 words or less. That gives the court one less reason to reject an amendment proposed by lawmakers. The requirement would remain for amendments backed by people who gather signatures to get them on the ballot.

"I think clarity is more important than a certain number of words," said Rep. Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, before the House approved the bill 83-30.

Legislators abandoned a bid to prevent the court from reviewing the language of proposed amendments for clarity. -- TIM NICKENS

. . . And get ready for some company

Court tweak number two: If you can't beat them, add to them.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, upset with the state Supreme Court and criticized for trying to add justices more to their liking, has decided to study the issue instead.

The House voted unanimously Wednesday for a bill that includes a new study commission to review the court's workload and recommend whether additional justices are needed. The court has had seven justices since 1940.

The House speaker, Senate president and chief justice would each appoint three members to the commission, which would make its recommendation by Feb. 15. The bill now goes to the governor. -- TIM NICKENS

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