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Heartfelt finale incongruent with plot

In a legislative session riddled with retribution, special interests set the stage for "Let's Make a Deal.''

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- They barked like dogs, argued about the size of beer bottles and cried as they said goodbye.

One lawmaker called a colleague a goon. Another called for a state secretary of barbecue, and Senate Republicans called timeout on budget negotiations to have dinner at a plantation in Georgia.

When the Florida Legislature adjourned Friday night, it wrapped up a session that defies comparison to other years.

It started with a march to the Capitol by 11,000 protesters upset with Gov. Jeb Bush's efforts to end affirmative action. It ended with supporters of term limits celebrating that more than 60 legislators are being forced into retirement.

In between, the legislative session was sometimes entertaining, often tedious and always bubbling with special deals.

This was not the year for grand experiments in public policy. That was last year, when Bush won record tax cuts, an overhaul of public education and sweeping changes to the civil courts.

This was a year for lobbyists, actuaries and investment bankers looking for -- and often winning -- an advantage in highly technical bills. You needed a magnifying glass and a decoder ring to decipher them.

It might be in the change in benefits for state workers. Or in health care legislation. Or definitely in legislation dealing with polluted areas known as brown fields -- until legislators stripped off an enormous tax break for a new stadium for the Florida Marlins.

With term limits, there was little fear inside the chambers of retribution for helping a friend in a tailored suit in the rotunda.

From the outside, it appeared little happened this year. From the inside, it was a feeding frenzy. Republicans who run the place ought to be grateful that few Floridians see the Legislature in action.

The brazen efforts to seek retribution for perceived slights were remarkable.

Republicans who were upset with the Florida Supreme Court for blocking their initiatives, such as stream-lining death penalty appeals, clamored to add justices to the court who would be more to their liking. When that failed, they created a commission to study the court's "workload" and recommend whether more justices are needed.

You have one guess what that recommendation will be from a panel that will be dominated by appointees from the Republican legislative leaders.

And just to make certain the courts got the message about who's in charge, lawmakers refused to provide money to hire a single additional judge. That will hurt citizens seeking justice more than the justices in the Supreme Court across the street from the Capitol.

You want retribution?

The Legislature voted to put out of business the state Board of Regents, which disapproved of the two new law schools and the new medical school lawmakers approved. Then they rubbed salt into the wound by freezing the regents' hiring and forcing deep cuts during the next two years before they go out of business.

Only Bush's intervention prevented that from happening. But the message still came through loud and clear.

When the Realtors agreed to host a reception for Democratic candidates, Republicans complained and the Democrats were forced to move.

When a travel agent sent his Democratic opponent a contribution, incoming House Speaker Tom Feeney switched travel agents.

In this atmosphere, you are either on the team or you're not.

Several factors helped soften the Legislature's hard edges.

The first was the Senate. President Toni Jennings of Orlando and Majority Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor held off the worst of the worst on the environmental front, including the attempt to steal land around rivers and lakes from the public.

Even more influential was a mountain of money.

It's easier to look good when you can play Santa Claus and throw cash at everything, even if it is the public's cash. Only in this economy could legislators spend another billion dollars on education and still cut taxes by several hundred million dollars.

African-American and Hispanic legislators both want law schools even though there are too many lawyers?

Give them each one.

House Speaker John Thrasher wants a medical school at Florida State, and Jennings wants a performing arts center in Orlando?

There's money for both.

"Nobody will be able to do what you all did -- because nobody will have the money you had," Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, told Jennings as the medical school was approved.

Secrecy also played a role in hiding the darker side of legislating. The toughest decisions were not made in public.

Legislators reminded reporters about the old days, say a dozen years or more ago, when doors were locked and the public was kept out. They're right; secret meetings were the norm back then, and we spent a lot of time hunting for them.

But those legislators never claimed to be open government advocates. The laws and the rules have changed to require more open meetings. So now legislative leaders have stopped meeting and started using staffers and telephones almost exclusively to negotiate.

The good-bye speeches from many of the more the lawmakers forced out by term limits also served a purpose.

Some were funny. Some were terrible. Most were heartfelt.

In the Senate, it was something to see Pat Thomas of Quincy salute his old friend, W.D. Childers of Pensacola. They were young men when they came to Tallahassee in the early '70s. They both were Senate presidents and colorful characters who were not above cutting a side deal or two.

Now Thomas is fighting cancer. Childers is running for the Escambia County Commission. Thomas told stories of late-night dinners of black-eyed peas and called Childers the brother he never had.

"I'll miss you W.D.," Thomas said, bringing tears to his colleagues.

In the House, diminutive Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Davie said goodbye from the back rows where the Democrats sit. For years, she and the conservative Thrasher have battled over politics and philosophy.

"If I had another daughter," Thrasher said from the podium after Wasserman Schultz sat down, "I would want her to be like you."

For a minute there, it was easy to forget a legislative session scarred by the dominance of special interests and the power plays by a Republican majority flexing its muscle.

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