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The final spasms of business as usual


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2001

Welcome to chaos.

Welcome to chaos.

This is how our laws are made in the closing hours of every legislative session.

In one corner of the Capitol's fourth floor there is a huddle of dark-suited men with grim faces. They are the lawyers who represent injured workers in workers' compensation cases.

A few feet away stands a smiling Mary Ann Stiles, lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida and the queen of workers' compensation law. She is working on a little amendment that will eliminate some of their legal fees.

You can tell who is winning.

"I've never seen any of them," notes lobbyist Mike Harrell as he surveys the worried crowd. "So it wouldn't surprise me if they were a little late finding out."

A few feet away, lobbyist Steve Metz has cornered Rep. Johnnie Byrd, rules czar in the House. Metz is lobbying for the Florida Bar, fighting a losing battle to keep legislators from undermining the Bar's role in selecting judges.

Byrd has just asked Metz if 71,000 of the 73,000 members of the Bar are Democrats.

"I'm going to go down and bring this in for a landing," Byrd promises.

Nearby, Bar President Herman Russomanno waits nervously.

In the Senate president's office, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo was fighting to get legislative approval of a tax break that will help the Florida Marlins build a new stadium. He is surrounded by a horde of reporters peppering him with questions.

He too, was losing, but House Speaker Tom Feeney noted the proposal has at least nine lives.

Ducking in the back door of the Senate is Gov. Jeb Bush. He emerges into a sea of reporters with questions.

He was visiting to thank the lawmakers for an election bill that is moving toward approval and to urge them to pass a bill that makes it easier to fire state employees.

Bush paused to criticize the Senate for including budget language designed to force Tallahassee into removing speed bumps on the road between the Capitol and the airport.

"That's a local issue," Bush said. "I don't like it."

Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, emerged from the back door of the Senate. Lobbyist Jodi Chase is waiting to talk to him about an amendment that might limit dialysis service to patients.

"If it's a really (expletive) amendment and very bad, it will likely pass, given the criteria that we've been using," Smith says sadly as he turns away.

Outside House lobbyists are scribbling frantic notes and shipping them inside to legislators in a last-ditch effort to get bills passed or amended.

"Our issue is in the ditch," Blue Cross Blue Shield Lobbyist Mike Hightower tells a House aide.

A fire alarm goes off. A few lobbyists look around, but no one makes a move to leave. The alarm stops. There was no fire.

Some lobbyists have brought in lawn chairs to supplement the few benches and chairs in front of big-screen televisions that broadcast what is going on inside the House and Senate out to the lobby between the two chambers.

Others clutch little pieces of paper, amendments destined to find their way onto bills that are whizzing through the House and Senate.

The end was near. Long faces are everywhere; some bills are clearly dead. Others may be revived at the wire.

Senate President John McKay and Speaker Feeney are in a little game of chicken -- "a Mexican standoff," says Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg.

Frantic negotiations are under way as everyone tries to break the logjam.

Some of the bills that passed may actually be laws we needed or wanted. But it will take us all a little time to determine exactly what they've done to us.

Inside dozens of bills they've buried dozens of other bills in the form of little hidden amendments.

It's all part of the game. Our job is to find them.

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