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The Capitol command

Without using the basic principle of political fair play in the Florida Legislature, lawmakers changed the rules and played dirty to win in this legislative session.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- There was something missing in the legislative session that often had the decorum of a fraternity house.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t, as Aretha Franklin would sing.

On any number of levels on any number of days, state legislators this year demonstrated a remarkable lack of respect for rules, open government, lobbyists, reporters -- and each other.

Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, took the cake when she sent a gift-wrapped pile of cow manure to lobbyist Jodi Chase. Instead of apologizing, she circulated a petition that several dozen members signed in her defense.

House Speaker Tom Feeney issued a letter of admonishment to Argenziano. But given the bare-knuckles atmosphere cultivated by the speaker and his Republican allies, Argenziano's behavior should have come as no surprise.

With their political power unchecked, Republicans found no need to check themselves.

Twice in two weeks, House Republicans changed the chamber's rules to cover their oversights or shortcomings. That made it easier to bring up any bills they wanted whenever they wanted.

In the Senate, Republicans didn't change their rules. They just waited until several Democrats went to former Rep. Doug Jamerson's funeral in St. Petersburg so they would have the votes to bring a controversial bill to the floor.

When Democrats returned and complained, Senate President John McKay was shocked -- shocked! -- that his motives were questioned.

Then there was the secret meeting McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney held to break a deadlock on the state budget and tax cuts. Reporters should have found them and demanded to attend. But we assumed they wouldn't dare meet in private.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1990 clearly requires the Senate president and the House speaker to meet in public when their discussion could lead to a final agreement on legislation.

At least McKay acknowledged the meeting took place and later apologized for his error. If it were up to Feeney, the public still would not know why the budget stand-off abruptly ended.

Feeney enjoys quoting the state and federal constitutions. Yet he insists the House speaker and Senate president can meet in private. His predecessors over the last decade certainly didn't hold the same opinion.

The attitude toward public records wasn't any better.

Legislators couldn't wait to make autopsy photos exempt from public records laws after the Orlando Sentinel asked to see the Dale Earnhardt photos. When one reporter asked for a public record regarding the budget negotiations, a legislative staffer refused and suggested they could both get lawyers and go to court.

But the Republican list of enemies was long.

Reporters were biased liberals. Voters and environmentalists who opposed pumping untreated water in the state's aquifer were extremists. Teacher unions were evil. Trial lawyers were worse.

There is little room for disagreement or compromise in a Capitol where one political party's domination is complete.

In the Senate, McKay strived for civility. Some of his gestures were symbolic, such as forcing senators to address each other by their district number. Others were less public. He sent a handwritten note to Chase to apologize for Argenziano's package even though he presides over the Senate, not the House.

The House is traditionally more rambunctious than the Senate. But there was a sharper edge this year in the way rules were ignored, debate was cut off and amendments were banned on some key bills.

The scene could have been worse.

Imagine where legislators might have ended up if Gov. Jeb Bush and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan had not intervened early and often. It wasn't unusual in the session's final days to see the unusual sight of the lieutenant governor standing side by side with Feeney at the podium. Or to see Bush roaming the halls himself.

If lawmakers had been left to their own devices, this legislative session could have easily degenerated into a free-for-all. We could still be waiting for deals on the budget, election reforms and other issues.

To be sure, Democrats weren't Boy Scouts when they ran the Legislature. A Democratic caucus last week offered a sideshow of bickering and tension over rules and leadership of their beleaguered group of just 43 members in the 120-member House.

But Republicans are responsible for the tenor of session now. It fell far short of collegial.

Perhaps it was nothing more than the contrasting leadership styles. Feeney is a former hockey player who favors brute force and an uncompromising ideology. McKay is a developer who is more subtle in his deal-making but knows a thing or two about holding grudges himself.

Maybe it was the large number of freshmen and the absence of any old-timer with the influence to curb excesses. Or perhaps it was the nature of the difficult, technical issues lawmakers faced.

That is a question for another day. Whatever the reason, state legislators who often talk of dignity and respect displayed precious little of either.

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