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The history of the deal, a future full of question


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2000

Senate President Toni Jennings swapped a new medical school for Florida State University for two law schools at Florida A & M University and Florida International University.

Legislative deals are not new to the process, but it is rare to hear the dealmakers talk about it so openly. It was an unusual moment of openness for Jennings, who built new walls of secrecy around her every move this year.

Her confession to the deal came as black and Hispanic legislators praised her for helping win approval of the two new law schools.

In the mid-1960s, the state abolished FAMU's law school and then gave one to FSU a few years later. The wound has never healed.

"This is one of the most exciting things in my legislative career," gushed Sen. Betty Holzendorf, D-Jacksonville, as she praised Jennings.

It wasn't hard to see some sort of trade coming. Everyone knew the new FSU medical school was the only thing House Speaker John Thrasher really wanted. In addition to the new law schools, Jennings also got a $15-million performing arts center for her hometown out of the budget. But she didn't mention that part of the deal when she talked about the university trades.

"I thought it was worth the trade," Jennings said. "Two law schools for a medical school."

Sen. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who has pushed for the law schools for several years, said the first glimmer of hope came when Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, agreed to put money in this year's budget for the schools. The appropriation was subject to passage of a separate bill authorizing the schools.

Some thought it would never happen, but they didn't count on the deal making that might go on before the budget won approval or the strength of an alliance between black and Hispanic lawmakers.

A few minutes after their moment of sharing, Jennings refused to let the Senate consider a bill authorizing the FSU Medical School.

"We haven't seen any House movement on the law schools," Jennings cautioned.

After all, a deal is a deal. It went down to the wire -- the House approved the law school bill Friday afternoon. The next to last bill up in the Senate created the medical school.

Completing her fourth year as Senate president, Jennings was not so open with the rest of what happened this year. She took the unusual step of blocking access to the Senate floor for press and public and rarely allowed reporters into back-room Senate meetings where openness once prevailed. Under Senate rules, meetings between two or more senators called to discuss business are open, but Jennings made it impossible to determine when such meetings were occurring.

Now Jennings will run for state insurance commissioner with an eye toward becoming the state's chief financial officer in a few years. Wonder if she would be any more open in explaining how insurance and banking are regulated or what is happening to the state's money.

Her critics suggest the coming elections were a key part of her Senate decisionmaking process. Teacher and state employee unions were courted and won with her proposal to enhance their pensions. Black and Hispanic voters were courted with the law school proposals.

Thrasher will go home to Clay County and his Jacksonville law practice. He has filed the paperwork to run for a Senate seat in 2002 but also says he may become a lobbyist once he waits for a two-year hiatus to pass.

Their places will be taken by Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.

It will be interesting to see what the voters do in November. Feeney and McKay lack experience in dealing with the press and public.

If the Republican majority narrows, it could be a rough ride.

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