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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.

By MARTIN DYCKMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have much in common. Both resemble only superficially what they're supposed to be. They know the rules, but they can't play the game.

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays have much in common. Both resemble only superficially what they're supposed to be. They know the rules, but they can't play the game.

Unlike the team, the Legislature cannot plead that it's a young franchise. It has been 34 years (15 House members are younger) since the U.S. Supreme Court swept the Pork Chop Gang out of power and, it was thought, ushered democracy in. But though House Speaker Tom Feeney fondly and frequently quotes James Madison, it is George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, whose quotations better describe reality here.

"Power is not a means; it is an end," Orwell wrote. ". . . The object of power is power."

Power -- the accretion and the abuse of it -- was the leitmotif of the 2001 session.

The judicial nominating commissions were to be purged to give the governor, business lobbies and the Christian Coalition more power over the courts. The Board of Regents was to be abolished, allowing the governor to control the universities without having to wait for the terms of Lawton Chiles' regents to expire. (As of this writing late Friday it appeared that this bill would fail.) The Career Service state employee protection system had to be overhauled to put 16,000 more jobs at the governor's disposal and send a doomsday message to labor unions. In pursuit of these and other dubious goals, the House Republican majority tore up and rewrote its rules whenever they turned out to be inconvenient. They allowed debate only when it suited them; when it didn't -- as when they wanted no embarrassing roll call votes over details in the nursing home bill -- they simply shut debate down.

For most of the session, the Senate was by comparison a paradigm of fairness and bipartisanship, but at the end its leaders played dirty, too.

If there were a George Orwell Doublespeak Award, Rep. Johnny Byrd, R-Plant City, the heir-apparent to Feeney's throne, would have won it.

Byrd was extolling Feeney's bill to destroy the teacher's union and its locals by forbidding them, but no other unions, to use dues for political purposes.

"It's always a great day in Florida when we can set people free," said Byrd.

Nineteen Republicans took him at his word and voted with the Democrats to kill the bill. Feeney and his enforcers went to work. Two hours later, when the bill was reconsidered and passed, only seven still voted no. The rest were absent or back in line.

"I thought this was a day when we were going to set some people free," remarked the Democratic leader, Lois Frankel.

Rep. John Carassas, a freshman from Belleair, was one of the seven who defied Feeney on the revote. (So did all four freshmen Republicans from Jacksonville, Florida's strongest union town.)

Carassas wasn't fooled by all the GOP's doublespeak about liberating teachers. His wife is a teacher, his parents were teachers, he said he did his homework, and he knew that Florida teachers are already free, not only to join or not join a union, but to withhold dues they don't want used for politicking. (Every other House member knew that, too.)

"So when I heard that," he explained, "it seemed to me that at least the teachers in our county have a choice."

It's only House Republicans who don't.

The Senate didn't pass that bill. But it was conscripted into a plot to bash the teachers' union in another way. Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, had a hand in it.

Sullivan, a key Senate budget negotiator, took heat in debate for a last-minute proviso in the budget compromise to earmark $1.2-million of tax money to the Professional Educators Network of Florida Inc. -- PEN for short -- which is a self-appointed conservative rival to the Florida Education Association and its local unions. The $1.2-million is to buy professional liability insurance for teachers, who get it now as a side benefit of union membership. PEN advertises benefits at less cost, but it doesn't offer the biggest benefit. It doesn't negotiate contracts.

The budget bill amendment designated PEN to be the middleman for the insurance without any competitive bidding, and to be the direct contact for teachers, which would help PEN recruit them away from the union. This reeked of a familiar odor: rancid pork.

PEN is the creation of J. Stanley Marshall, founder and president emeritus of the James Madison Institute, which is Feeney's favorite right-wing think tank and was his choice to conduct orientation for the 62 House freshmen. Marshall testified in committee for Feeney's bill to bust the teacher's union. In 1998, as a member of the Constitution Revision Commission, Marshall's vote switch helped kill a proposal, fiercely opposed by Feeney, to have an independent commission instead of legislative bosses redistrict the Legislature.

The PEN proviso was discovered in the appropriations bill too late to get it out, so angry senators wrote corrective language into the separate authorizing legislation. In debate, Sullivan contended strongly for the Doublespeak Award as he tried to avoid saying who was responsible for the proviso.

What, he was asked, is the Professional Educators Network?

"It is a paragovernmental organization," he said. "It is a paragovernmental organization in that it is an organization interested in government."

Sullivan's "snooker," as legislators call such last-minute sneak plays, wasn't the only one. Another, bearing even more powerful fingerprints, was intended to have cost Leon County $4.7-million in highway funds unless it truckled to the Legislature on two points:

Remove some highway speed bumps from a popular route to the airport that the county considers a neighborhood road.

Restore to the formal title of its civic center the name of former House Speaker Don Tucker, a lobbyist.

Appropriations Chairman Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, took the initial rap for slipping that into the budget bill. He said he doesn't like the speed bumps. Later, Horne confessed the proviso wasn't his idea. He didn't say whose it was, but it wasn't hard to guess. Senate President John McKay's wife is Tucker's niece.

Horne took a lot of kidding from colleagues when the speed bump and Tucker snooker was exposed by the press.

"Are there any other speed bumps in this budget?" someone asked, suggesting what may become an enduring synonym for "snooker."

Senators may think it funny, but no one else does. In the year before Leon County installed the speed bumps, there were 23 accidents on that short -- 1.3 mile -- stretch of a winding, two-lane road. The safety of the neighborhood's children ought to count for more than the impatience of lead-footed senators.

For legislators to bludgeon a local government in such a way without notice, let alone a hearing, is one of the most arrogant and reckless abuses of power I have ever seen here. Had they asked, for example, they might have learned that the civic center is a separate authority to which the county commission appoints only one member. The civic center authority has nothing to do with roads or speed bumps.

Several commissioners held a mock Boston Tea Party and threatened to sue. Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, promptly cut out of his highway bill something else that Leon County wanted. Sebesta is only in his first term, but they learn quickly how to abuse power here.

Horne, whom everyone thought to be better than that, tried Friday to undo the speed bump proviso by amending the transportation bill. The Senate defeated his amendment, 13-16, with 11 members -- including Horne -- not voting. But the House was wiser than the Senate this time and amended the transportation bill to let the speed bumps stay.

Among those voting to extort the county, against every basic principle of political fair play, were Anna Cowin, R-Leesburg; Victor Crist, R-Tampa; Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor; Sebesta; and McKay.

"You don't vote against the president, the rules chairman or the appropriations chairman," explained one of the five Senate Democrats who voted against the county.

There are eight speed bumps. You can take them at 30 mph. They cost, at most, only half a minute of a safe driver's time. Even the most self-important Florida legislator ought to be able to put up with that.

The worst part of it is this: If legislators can abuse power over something so relatively insignificant as speed bumps, what might they do when the stakes are high? When they want more politics in the courts? When they want more employees out of the civil service? Now we know.

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