Legislative turbulence as session nears end

Florida capitol building
Florida capitol building

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – For months, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz tried to show that they would run a different kind of session than the chaotic, often-confused two years under their predecessors, former Speaker Dean Cannon and former President Mike Haridopolos.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Gaetz, R-Niceville, made a joint presentation of their agenda to the press corps in January, calling it "Work Plan Florida." Three of the five items had been checked off before the final week of the session began. And the budget was done almost two full days before it had to be completed for the session to end on time.

But on Tuesday, it all seemed to, if not crumble, at least show the first signs of cracking.

For the second year in a row, an education bill allowing parents a greater say in the fate of failing schools went down in the Senate on a tie vote. Hours later, Senate GOP defectors struck again, essentially killing an overhaul of the pension plan for public employees that was one of Weatherford's top priorities.

By that time, bills were being read in full on the House floor by a machine nicknamed "Mary," the latest escalation in House Democrats' efforts to force a vote on accepting federal funds to help provide health care to low-income Floridians. And Gov. Rick Scott and legislative Republicans were feuding over what had and hadn't been agreed to in his drive to eliminate the sales tax on manufacturing equipment.

That left lawmakers waiting on a variety of issues -- from a bill meant to help the renovation of Sun Life Stadium to elections reform -- feeling a bit nervous.

"When they're reading the bills over there, everything looks grim," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. "Anything we passed yesterday, it's all caught up in that. But that's the prerogative of the minority in the House. They've got to do what they've got to do, man."

Republican leaders dismissed the idea of a session coming unglued, saying that everything was still on track for the kind of successful ending that seemed almost a foregone conclusion a few days ago.

"I think the Florida Senate was doing what it was supposed to do today, and that's have thoughtful, deliberate debate on critical issues, and have members vote based on what they thought was right," Gaetz said Tuesday afternoon. " ... I think we're ending the session in a very good way."

Weatherford ticked off a list of legislative accomplishments in 2013, from a campaign finance overhaul to a ban on Internet cafes, that shows lawmakers still ahead of schedule and headed for a happy ending.

"I could not be more pleased with where we stand today," he said.

But some of those accomplishments are still in doubt. Scott has made ominous comments about Weatherford's campaign-finance bill, and a final decision is due sometime Wednesday. And the governor still hasn't secured one of his two legislative priorities, the manufacturing tax break.

He reiterated Tuesday that he thought a deal was done.

"The Legislature has the opportunity to do the right thing," he said. "I can't imagine they're going to reject a tax decrease or a cut in taxes when they're talking about raising taxes through the form of a tuition increase."

Gaetz suggested that a deal might be in the offing, but that nothing was in writing yet.

"My hope is that we'll have all of this written down, and that we can end the session on a very good note, to give the governor an opportunity to say that he's done very well for Florida's teachers and very well for Florida's economy," Gaetz said.

Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican and former House speaker, didn't seem overly worried about the House Democrats' plans.

"All tactics are fair in love and war and politics," he said. "All tactics are available. ... You do it at your own risk, obviously."

With that risk in mind, groups with bills at stake in the process began trying to rally support. The League of Women Voters of Florida released an open letter to Weatherford asking him to make sure that the elections reform package (HB 7013) was approved by the House and sent to Scott.

"That's why we wanted to ensure that they were reminded that this was a critical deliverable for the Florida Legislature this session," said Deirdre Macnab, the organization's president.

The bill on Sun Life Stadium, home of the NFL's Miami Dolphins, could also get caught in the crossfire. While some Republicans back the bill, it is also a priority for some Miami-Dade County Democrats, like Braynon.

House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said his caucus understands that some of its priorities could go down in the push for a health-care bill.

"That will happen, but I'm not concerned about it," he said. "I think that those people who would go and sit in those luxury boxes, and enjoy those games, and enjoy the Dolphins, they would think a little bit about those individuals who can't afford that ticket, who may not even have a television to watch that game."

The fates of everyone involved could hinge on the final moves in the games currently afoot in Tallahassee.