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Lawmakers have notable year

Good or bad, the county's legislators made an impression in Tallahassee.

By DAN DeWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


Lawmakers representing Hernando County in the Legislature this year had more power than any other group of local legislators in the recent past.

That meant when they were praised or criticized during the legislative session that ended May 4, residents across the state were likely to learn about it.

State Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River, earned high marks from elderly residents for fighting to reform nursing homes; she was widely condemned as unprofessional when she sent gift-wrapped cow manure to a lobbyist who opposed her.

Environmentalists applauded Rep. David Russell, R-Brooksville, when he introduced a bill that would tie future growth to the availability of water, but blasted him for pushing a new law that will make it more difficult for local governments to remove billboards.

State Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, was scolded by the state's First Amendment Foundation for introducing a law to keep some nursing home records secret. But she seemed farsighted for her opposition to a plan to pump untreated water into the aquifer.

That bill -- which became the most fiercely fought environmental issue during this year's session -- was backed by Gov. Jeb Bush and the state Department of Environmental Protection. Brown-Waite, Argenziano and Russell were among the few Republicans to vote against the bill, which eventually was killed by public opposition.

Brown-Waite, the president pro tem of the Senate, said the Southwest Florida Water Management District is studying what happens to bacteria when it is pumped into deep wells.

"We don't know that, or we wouldn't be spending taxpayers' money to study it," she said. "The first reading on the issue made me feel very uncomfortable. My big question was: Why the rush?"

Brown-Waite, like Argenziano, took a highly visible role in another of this year's most controversial issues -- nursing home reform.

Brown-Waite is generally happy with the results, which place a cap of $4-million on punitive damages awarded to plaintiffs suing nursing homes. But it also requires nursing homes to devote increased staff to care for residents.

"I know that Florida seniors will receive better care," Brown-Waite said. "In addition to the care, we gave the (state) some teeth to go after homes that are in error."

Argenziano, as head of the Council for Healthy Communities, was closely identified with the issue in the House. She was mad enough about the cap provision that it inspired her to send the gift of manure.

She does not object to the cap itself so much as the standards for punitive damages that will be almost impossible to prove, she said. Lawyers must show that owners of the homes knew that severe abuse could occur and allowed the conditions for monetary gain, she said.

"That's providing relief for the worst nursing homes, the ones that created the problem with terrible care," Argenziano said.

The two lawmakers disagreed more sharply over another bill they both introduced. The bill would have created a council overseeing rivers in Hernando and Citrus counties, and given the council power to remedy damage done to the waterways.

It passed in the House with the provision that the Southwest Florida Water Management District "shall be responsible for per diem and travel expenses of other appointees to the council," according to the version of the bill on the House Web site.

Brown-Waite added an amendment that would have reimbursed the district $45,000 for those expenses. The bill was then sent back to the House early in the afternoon on the last day of the session and never came up for a final vote.

"This was very dumb of our senator to do," Argenziano said.

"What Ginny did, she got a call from (Swiftmud executive director) Sonny Vergara. So she amended it on the last day. If she had just concurred with the (House) version, it would have passed," Argenziano said, adding that there was no money in the budget to cover the $45,000 Brown-Waite added.

Brown-Waite said money is set aside to take care of such small appropriations and that Argenziano's bill needed to be amended because it did not specify a source for the expenses.

"She's blaming me because her bill didn't pass?" Brown-Waite said when told of Argenziano's comments. "There was no money in her bill."

Brown-Waite also said she left plenty of time for Argenziano to pass the bill in the House.

"Lots of bills pass on the last day," she said.

All of the legislators who represent the county -- including House Majority Leader Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose district includes a small section of eastern Hernando -- agreed on another bill. All were either sponsors or co-sponsors of a successful bill that made the generic versions of four popular drugs more widely available.

Brown-Waite worked with Russell to pass a bill that creates an enterprise zone in Hernando County. The bill would entitle companies in the zone, especially new or expanding ones, to tax breaks, many of which depend on the hiring of people who live in the zone.

It originally included much of Brooksville, as well as industrial areas around the city and near the Hernando County Airport. That zone did not have enough low-income residents to meet the requirements, so the bill passed with the understanding that new boundaries must be drawn.

Russell passed one other bill designed to benefit Hernando County. He amended a bill that allows small school districts to be covered by the insurance program for state employees. His change expanded the requirements enough to include Hernando County, where the district's health insurance program is facing severe financial problems. The district will explore the possibility of taking advantage of the program in the future, Superintendent John Sanders said.

Russell, as chairman of the House Transportation Committee, found that much of his work revolved around related issues.

One of the provisions of his transportation bill requires local governments to pay billboard companies for any signs they ordered to be removed along roadways. That drew opposition from environmentalists and some cities and counties that had passed such laws; they argued that the law overrules local ordinances that courts had already upheld. It also would make it prohibitively expensive for any government to rid streets of the signs in the future.

Russell pointed out that it does not affect Hernando County's billboard law, which bans new signs. And, he said, "this doesn't allow for the placement of one extra billboard in the state of Florida."

He said he also believes that if local governments "are going to take property away from people, they should compensate them."

Russell's proposal to make future construction in the state contingent on the availability of water did not pass. Neither did any other growth management measures proposed this year, he said, including ones Bush supported. But Russell said he had been assured that his provision will be included in growth management legislation that comes up in the House next year.

Russell not only opposed the House leadership on the issue of aquifer storage, he opposed one of the early versions of the nursing home bill that he thought was too favorable to the industry.

"I suspect leadership was a little unhappy that I was not going along with that," said Russell, who drew criticism from his opponents during last year's election for kowtowing to Republican leaders.

He said he was not included on the committee that helps determine the final legislative budget, "and the Transportation (Committee) chair usually is included. So I guess I got into a little hot water."

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