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Late-night flurry ends in confusion

MORGAN
MORGAN
By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


It was shortly after midnight.

House Speaker Tom Feeney, Senate President John McKay and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan were having a joint press conference on the fourth floor of the Capitol, just outside the House chamber.

Gov. Jeb Bush had gone home to bed. He probably didn't want to be seen with these people.

All around them lay the litter of the night: empty pizza cartons, drink bottles, discarded bills and thousands of useless pieces of paper -- amendments no longer relevant.

Worse than the visible litter was the embarrassing evening of lawmaking that was finally over.

On the last possible day of a 60-day session, virtually every major bill considered passed or failed.

Much of what passed was slipped into other bills in lengthy amendments with members complaining that they didn't have a clue what was inside.

The House put on the most embarrassing demonstration of late-night lawmaking with a session of cheering and jeering and even mooing that ran until nearly midnight.

At one point Feeney gave the members three minutes to debate a bill that revamps the state's education system: one minute for each of the three years it's been discussed, he suggested.

Some members complained bitterly, but the bill passed into law, shortly before midnight.

The Senate went home at 9 p.m., complying with a rule that requires them to avoid the kind of late-night sessions that often marred past sessions.

Lacking such a rule, the House played on, finally catching up with the session's most important bills before midnight when the Constitution demands they leave.

Legislative leaders spent several hours on the final day in a mutual standoff, each house refusing to take up the other's key bills until Sen. Dan Webster, R-Ocoee, a former House speaker, negotiated a deal to move eight key bills that were caught up in the fight.

By the time Webster and Brogan finished shuttling back and forth between the House and Senate, it was too late for everything to get done.

Oddly enough it was Webster who drafted the House rules in 1996 to prevent last-minute breakdowns of the sort he was trying to unravel. Feeney changed the rules this year, taking the House back to the days when late-night sessions allowed lobbyists to slide special interests amendments into dozens of bills.

Caught up in the battle was the growth management bill the governor wanted. In the end it was the biggest casualty of the session.

But it wasn't the only major issue that failed to win approval. In the beginning, legislators were looking at deregulating utilities, revamping workers compensation and reorganizing the departments of insurance and banking. Those bills fell by the wayside.

A number of worthy issues had become long trains made up of dozens of bills and special interest amendments that collapsed under the weight in the final hours.

Legislators fixed most of the election problems that made Florida a laughingstock last year. Even the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, a group stacked with Democratic Party allies, handed out compliments in a statement released late Friday.

By 1 a.m. Saturday, legislators, lobbyists, reporters and state employees had shifted to a new arena: Clyde's and Andrews, the bar and restaurant complex on Adams Street just outside the Capitol.

The street party lasted into the wee hours of the morning as the crowd started trying to figure out what passed and failed.

Few were sure.

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