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We're in overtime! The anatomy of a session meltdown

Bitter and exhausted, Republicans in the Florida Legislature officially extended the 2011 lawmaking session into overtime late Friday as the House and Senate began killing each other's bills unexpectedly. UPDATE Session actually ended at 3:34 a.m

"It's an enormous power struggle," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. She blamed the meltdown on the proliferation of conference reports, the product of joint House-Senate committees.

In all, legislative leaders wanted rank-and-file lawmakers to pass 44 conference reports. Some of the legislation was decided in the final days, was written by a few lawmakers and made major policy changes that irked those who weren't on the inside. The frustration and suspicion created a political powder keg, and despite the fact that Republicans overwhelmingly control both chambers of the Legislature, they ran out of time and patience with each other.

"It just didn't work out," Senate President Mike Haridopolos said early Saturday morning. "We would rather get it right then get out on time."

Haridopolos said his chamber will only pass one more bill: HB 7023, a $126 million tax-cut and economic development package.

"Ill sleep in my office. And if they just send over tax relief, we can go home," Haridopolos said.

Earlier in the day, Haridopolos seemed confident that session would end on time and that he'd be able to hit the campaign trail in his bid for U.S. Senate. He had said some of the emotions had been "rocky" earlier in session.

At 11:43 p.m., the Senate unanimously voted to extend the 60-day session’s end until 6 p.m. Saturday.

The sergeants-at-arms put away their ceremonial handkerchiefs that are usually dropped to mark the end of session. Capitol staffers began removing stanchions and a lectern where Gov. Rick Scott was to celebrate on on-time finish with Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon. Twenty minutes later, the House cast a voice vote to extend session.

Just after midnight, once the session was officially in overtime, Scott left the building and went home to sleep in the governor's mansion.

"The governor’s headed to bed," Scott's spokesman Brian Burgess said. "He’s disappointed we won’t be able to do a simultaneous hankie drop. He’s got to get some rest and get ready for a big day tomorrow."

The revolt came unexpectedly, with a proposal to de-regulate commercial interior designers. It was a priority of the House. But a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators -- increasingly frustrated with Cannon -- just couldn't stomach the idea that the lower chamber was calling the shots.

But Republican senators were also bothered with Haridopolos and his leadership team as well. During budget debate early in the evening, Sen. Paula Dockery raised questions about putting substantial policy in the conference reports tied to the budget. Sen. Storms joined her. Haridopolos' enforcer, Rules Chairman John Thrasher, then rebuked them, saying they can question the process "all night" but it was pointless.

The Dean of the Senate, Sen. Dennis Jones, pointed out that the House bill had not been heard in the House. What’s more, the chairman and staff director of the House committee overseeing the de-regulation bill never had the courtesy to call him.

Jones, R-Seminole, pointed out that a third of the Florida House membership have been in office less than a year.

"We need to send a message back to the House. Don't send us bills we've had no chance to discuss,” Jones said. "Don’t come around the back door and expect us to swallow it."

The Senate came to life, albeit after the House has called the shots throughout the session, forcing the Senate to take a growth-management overhaul in a tough-to-amend conforming bill. Speaker Cannon refused to back off the major components of his Medicaid overhaul, which the Senate essentially swallowed. Cannon wouldn’t even let the Senate rename a program for the sick, which remains the Medically Needy program.

The deregulation bill failed 32 to 6, and only Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his leadership team voted yes.

"Leadership went down there," Haridopolos said, almost laughing.

But the rank-and-file senators weren’t done. After the deregulation bill died in the Senate, the House took notice. Then came another Senate smackdown.

“They killed mold remediation!” Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said on the House floor. It was another House priority.

Soon after, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a former House speaker and lobbyist who knows the drill, filed a resolution to extend session until 6 p.m. Saturday. The 60-day session is supposed to end midnight Friday.

Then the Senate was poised to kill yet another bill. At least 22 senators cast no votes, but Haridopolos regained control and refused to lock the board. He then postponed the vote.

Rep. Will Weatherford, a future House speaker, told fellow representatives that Cannon wasn't happy. he then urged members to vote down another Senate measure, SB 2134, concerning Citizens Property Insurance. The vote against it was unanimous.

Cannon began talking about killing off priority bills of the Senate, specifically an accounting measure pushed by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander on behalf of state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Cannon and Alexander clashed two weeks ago, when the senator accused the speaker of "gamesmanship" that exploited Haridopolos, who's running for U.S. Senate and could take political hits for failing to finish session on time.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, complained that the Senate scuttled his health regulation bill by loading it up with amendments. He specifically called out Sen. Jack Latvala, claiming the St. Petersburg Republican tried to break a deal over regulating pill mills to help workers compensation doctors. Latvala denied it. He said the amendment he tacked on to the bill, HB 119, was sought by the Florida Medical Association to prevent the over-regulation of family doctors and other physicians who don't frequently prescribe pain medication.

As the House exacted its revenge, the Florida Senate finished the one constitutional task assigned to the Legislature: passing a budget for the state. Final vote: 31-8.

The House took up a slew of bills but didn't pass the budget. After midnight, Haridopolos told the Senate they would return at 1 a.m. to see their next move. The Senate took a break. So did the House. At 12:27 a.m., the House mood lightened.

Rep. Richard Steinberg, D-Miami Beach, hijacked the House's public-address system, and pumped an instrumental version of the 1986 hit by the soft-metal hair band Europe, "The Final Countdown."

-- Staff writers Michael C. Bender, Janet Zink, Katie Sanders, Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas, Patricia Mazzei and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report

Comments

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cravin_moorehead

It's time for South Florida to secede from north Florida. They could rename north Florida - South Georgabama. The main export would be the finest "stupid" money can buy. Their leader could be Fire Marshall Bill.

Jim Hill

I guess the comment above is supposed to cast a poor light on my home state of Georgia and its sister state of Alabama. Having served as a South Florida legislator a long tiome ago, 1982-1992, I found that I was more in tune with a lot of North Florida Membes than South Florida ones, but it just seems to be disrespectful to pull other states into the disagreement(s) one may have with the Florida legislature. We ae a big and diverse state with competing interests. I think that makes for better government, but I guess some would disagree.

Public servant

Since these clowns cut my income by three percent -- no raise for four years now this -- they can all count on how easy the next election will be for me -- I'm voting against every single incumbent

Terry Marlow

The proposal to de-regulate (de-license) commercial interior designers was wrongheaded from the start. Commercial interior designers are licensed to allow them to sign off on certain construction drawings, certifying they meet complex building codes. These designers are not interior decorators -- they must receive two or more years of post secondary education and serve a four year apprenticeship before they can sit for the licensing test -- a difficult test that has a high failure rate. Interior designers are hardworking professionals with serious responsibilities to the public safety and welfare. It has never been clear who would have benefitted from de-licensing them -- certainly not the public. I hope this will be the last we hear of this silly matter.

Glog

Public Servant, if you ever see this and have an incumbent Democrat from your district, check his/her vote. You can be sure they voted for you.

C.R.

Being a diverse state with competing interests would be good if the party in complete control wasn't passing an obscene amount of legislation aimed at tightening their control & completely shutting out any opposition. Not to mention coddling the super-rich and corporations while destroying the quality of life and future of every-day citizens. It would be great if the 4 S. Fla. counties could secede & have some fair representation. http://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/South-Florida-should-secede-become-the-51st-state/167090976642176

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