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Cooperation needed to clear legislative train wreckage


© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 31, 2001

Tuesday was a day to "call Willie."

In the legislative arena, the phrase is used to forecast a train wreck, a complete breakdown in the process used to pass bills. The story is that a couple tasked with pulling the switch that allowed a nightly train to pass by on the right track couldn't pull it one night because it was frozen in place.

After repeatedly trying and failing, the husband turned to his wife and said, "It's time to call Willie."

"Why, can he fix the switch?" asked the wife.

"No, but Willie ain't ever seen a train wreck," the husband replied.

That was the story as lobbyists and legislators entered the Capitol on Tuesday to watch the House and Senate come to blows. It ended when the House passed the Senate budget and went home. The Senate remained behind in the wreckage, hoisted on its own petard.

Senate President John McKay suggests a lawsuit may be in order to settle the differences.

It has been coming for some time now, this total falling out between the two houses.

You could feel the animosity in the air. House members who walked into the Senate were treated like children, forced to remain in the back of the room and get the attention of the senator they'd come to see.

In an effort to maintain decorum in his Senate, McKay took away the floor privileges traditionally granted to members of the other house.

McKay says his mother likes the way he keeps order. Life in the Senate is calm and smooth, not rowdy and loud the way things are in the House, where they still let senators walk onto the floor and talk to members.

House Speaker Tom Feeney compared the relationship between the House and Senate to that of a dog and a fireplug, with the House being the fireplug.

"Once in a while the fire hydrant has to turn around and look the dog straight in the eye," Feeney said after the House left the Senate holding the bag.

Feeney has been stung by editorial criticism for his refusal to take up a bill that would delay a cut in the intangibles tax and keep $130-million in revenue that is scheduled to disappear Jan. 1.

The Senate passed an initial budget cutting only $800-million of the $1.3-billion the House and Gov. Jeb Bush wanted to cut. It put the repeal of the tax cut in a separate bill. The House swiftly decided to take the Senate budget and ignore the tax bill, a move that produced howls of rage from the Senate.

McKay was in the awkward position of sending a Senate bill to the House that he didn't really want the House to pass. When the House called his bluff and decided to take the bill, McKay accused them of violating the rules and ignoring years of tradition.

"The Senate's approach to negotiating has been, 'Be reasonable, do it my way,' " said House Rules Chairman Johnnie Byrd on Tuesday as the House prepared to leave town.

McKay wasn't around in 1988, the last time this happened. Jon Mills was speaker of the House when it was forced to pass the Senate budget or face leaving the state with no budget at all. It happened after the Senate played a trick on the House.

Led by the wily Senate dean Dempsey Barron, the Senate passed a budget and quickly adjourned, leaving the House to take it or leave it.

"The chambers ought to cooperate," complained House Appropriations Chairman Sam Bell afterward. He could make the same complaint today.

This year the House returned the favor, leaving the Senate behind to complain. The difference is that the last time it happened it was at the end of the two years that Mills and Senate President John Vogt were in office. These guys have another year to go.

All of this does not bode well for Florida's future. Lawmakers have much to do next year. They must redraw the lines for legislative and congressional districts, continue cutting the budget, create a new agency to regulate banking and insurance, look at a way to fund the state's judicial system, consider deregulating the way we produce and distribute electricity and deal with a whole host of other problems that were here long before terrorism entered our lives on Sept. 11.

And underlying it all next year will be two things McKay and Feeney desperately want. Feeney wants a favorable congressional district surrounding his Central Florida home, and McKay wants tax reform.

A little horse trading may be the only way out of this mess.

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