April 24, 2018

Legislative Session
Sibling Spats

Mary Ellen Klas | 7/1/2003
If the best measure of character is how one responds in a crisis, Florida's Republican-led Legislature may have faced its toughest test yet -- and come of age.

For the first time in nearly a decade, and the first time since Republicans took control of the Legislature in 1996, legislators faced a stagnant revenue stream coupled with expanding needs for revenue -- such as rising Medicaid costs, constitutional amendments to reduce classroom size and a voter mandate to build a multibillion-dollar bullet train. It was the equivalent of the perfect fiscal storm, and it left lawmakers ducking for cover.

Legislators faced other policy tests: Sorting out the workers' comp insurance crisis, halting rampant auto insurance fraud and fixing medical liability insurance.

How did they handle it? They fought for six months. The sibling spats led to special sessions to resolve the budget, the insurance issues and implementation of constitutional amendments to ban smoking in restaurants and reduce class sizes.

"I keep trying to tell people we're drifting back to a period of normality," says Ken Plante, veteran lobbyist who was a Senate Republican leader during the era of Democratic infighting in the 1970s and '80s. "It was normal to have disagreement between the House and the Senate and go into special session."

Gov. Jeb Bush, like Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles, intervened to break up a budget fight and force a resolution on workers' comp reform. But, most often, the Senate perceived Bush as too closely aligned with the House to be a mediator.

Term limits, ambitions
"They are doing exactly the things they complained about Democrats doing all those years," says Susan McManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.

She blames the infighting on term limits and personal ambition. The House is more conservative and less experienced. By adopting the conservatism of House leaders, members have a better shot at securing a leadership role before term limits force them out.

The 40-member Senate is more moderate and more experienced. Its districts are three times larger and more diverse than the House's.

For these and other reasons, the Senate refused to go along with the House's anti-tax ideology. It insisted instead on new revenue from, for example, the introduction of video lottery terminals and wanted to avoid cuts in high-profile programs, such as university spending.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, not only clashed openly with his Senate counterpart, Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, but also discarded many traditions and protocols, including the budget conference committee, that had been used to resolve conflicts between the chambers before.

First, Byrd appointed a budget chairman who had no experience on the appropriations committee. Then, he persuaded the House to adopt a rule that prohibits any House action on a bill without 48 hours' notice. Then he employed a top-down strategy to negotiate the budget that forced most discussions with the Senate to be conducted behind closed doors or through emissaries.

Byrd's 48-hour rule "shows total disregard for the Senate" because it "restricts the ability for give-and-take on major legislation," Plante says.

Bush, too, used his own strategies to restrict the Senate's more moderate Republicans. Afraid that senators would amend the House's workers' comp bill and reduce the savings to employers, Bush initially ordered that the special session agenda include only the House bill. When a legal threat appeared imminent, the governor added the Senate bill to the agenda.

Lashing out
The bickering also got personal. Before the session began, Byrd announced that some legislators, whom he didn't name, who had been in Tallahassee for 16 years had "lost touch with the people." King had served 16 years.

King and his deputies lashed out too. Forced to swallow a budget that included no new money to offset program cuts, King warned: "We doubt very seriously this budget will last one whole year."

McManus notes that intraparty squabbles come with political dominance, but they also carry dangers. "It could draw some Republicans opponents," she warns, the kind that say, "Vote for me. I'll work with people, not against."

Tags: Politics & Law, North Central

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