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Overall, Argenziano is pleased

Despite frustration with nursing care reform, the Dunnellon Republican supported other measures that were successful.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


State Rep. Nancy Argenziano won re-election without opposition in November. But she encountered plenty of opposition -- from lawmakers and special interest groups -- when she returned to Tallahassee.

Argenziano, whose district includes all of Citrus County and northwest Hernando County, said the just-completed legislative session was bittersweet: bitter because her signature issue, nursing home reform, didn't turn out nearly the way she wished; and sweet because some pet projects did win approval.

"Amazingly, I feel pretty good," she said Friday night as the session crawled toward a close.

Citrus County's two other lawmakers, state senators Anna Cowin and Richard Mitchell, also had extremely active legislative sessions. The senators remained at work late Friday and weren't available for interviews.

Earlier this year, Argenziano came under fire from the nursing home industry, which wanted legal protection from lawsuits and was disappointed when Argenziano didn't pledge full support.

She certainly was in a position to do so: Argenziano was recognized as a leader on the issue in the House and served on a state task force that studied long-term care.

But Argenziano refused to adopt the nursing home line as her own. She said patient advocates and trial lawyers made sense when they argued that punitive damages were necessary to punish the worst nursing homes.

Though she battled hard to keep the legislation in a form she liked, Argenziano came up short. She was exhausted and upset Wednesday after being the only House Republican to vote against nursing home reform, which was her signature item.

Her vote was the same when a revised bill came up late Friday night.

Argenziano said she supported parts of the bill that provide additional money for patient care. But the cap on punitive damages -- and, more important, the difficult legal standard set for plaintiffs -- soured Argenziano on the bill, which was amended and tinkered with countless times during the 60-day session.

"They'll never change that part," she said of the legal standard.

Argenziano said critics who accuse her of taking a stand against tort reform are misguided.

"I did not vote against tort reform. I voted against a particular stand that they applied to tort reform. It's a stand that is extremely hard to get to," she said.

Argenziano's frustration led to one of the session's strangest episodes. Upset when a lobbyist who favored the nursing home bill came uninvited into her office, Argenziano sent the woman a package of cow manure.

House Speaker Tom Feeney admonished Argenziano, who refused to back down.

But the 60-day session wasn't all bad news for Argenziano. Another pet project -- a bill designed to allow pharmacists to prescribe generic versions of often-used drugs -- won strong support in the House and Senate.

That bill, if signed into law, would give pharmacists the freedom to offer patients generic forms of drugs such as Coumadin, a blood thinner used to prevent strokes. Until now, the pharmacists could not do so without specific medical instructions.

She also succeeded in arranging for the state's public counsel to work with counties such as Citrus that regulate utilities themselves. Argenziano also pushed through a muck cleanup bill designed to help local waterways, and a few other local measures.

"I'm happy. I worked hard for those," she said.

Argenziano said she was relieved when an environmental bill -- one that would clear the way for untreated water to be pumped into the underground water supply -- eventually died.

"That'll be back," she predicted wearily.

She also was happy that the Legislature, in its final day, approved a sweeping reform of Florida's election system.

The bill eliminates punch card balloting, requires all counties to have optical scanning equipment (like Citrus already has) by next year, provides money for the equipment switch and voter education and does away with the second primary in 2002, although it will return in 2004.

Gov. Jeb Bush has said he might sign the bill into law as early as this week.

"We had to get most of what was in there done," Argenziano said, though she said she was uncomfortable with some portions of the bill that address campaign finance reform.

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