Florida lawmakers take off the gloves as tensions mount

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 2, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House devolved into chaos Wednesday with Republicans declaring victory on a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott and Democrats vowing a court battle — back-to-back developments that capped off a long, tense and bizarre day in the state Capitol.

At the center of the political drama: health care reform and a bill to give manufacturers a sales tax break. The tax break received a 68-48 vote after a last-minute amendment and little debate, but Democrats insisted that it needed a two-thirds majority to become law. In a late-night flurry, House Speaker Will Weatherford declared the bill passed, and Democrats immediately pledged that the law would be challenged in court.

“This day was not our finest hour,” said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, after nearly 12 hours of procedural gamesmanship and stall tactics by Democrats unhappy with a legislative stalemate over health care reform.

House Democrats had used procedural methods to require all bills to be read in full, and an electronic auto-reader spent hours reading through mundane legislation, line-by-line, in a robotic voice.

Reading full passages from the state’s Constitution, House Democrats held firm. They insisted that Florida reach a deal on health care reform this year.

The gamesmanship, which began Tuesday, threw into chaos what had mostly been a harmonious legislative session. Republicans responded by pulling some Democrats’ bills from the agenda and limiting debate. By day’s end, a number of pending proposals were in danger, including elections reform and tax breaks for sports stadiums.

The manufacturing tax cut was also at risk, as questions swirled about whether the hurried 68-48 vote was constitutional. The bill, HB 7007, creates a non-profit corporation to shepherd economic development in the home territory of Senate President Don Gaetz, using any proceeds from a lawsuit stemming from the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Democrats immediately pounced on the fact that it was a lengthy bill with language lawmakers had never seen before.

“This is just an abuse of the system,’’ said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, as Republicans jeered. “It is outrageous, improper and, in my opinion, borders on unethical.”

Two minutes later and with little debate, the bill came up for a vote, garnering 68 “Yeas” in a contentious split. Four Republicans joined 44 Democrats in voting against it.

Democrats said the bill needed a two-thirds majority of 80 votes because of its impact on the tax revenues on local governments, a claim that is backed up by legislative documents on similar legislation.

Weatherford countered that the bill was “extremely constitutional.”

After the vote, House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston and Waldman told a boisterous group of Democrats members there would be a legal challenge but did not specify from which group it would come.

They chided Republicans for pushing a major bill through in less than five minutes.

Earlier in the day, House Democrats were shifting debate on all kinds of bills back to the issue of health care reform. Bills about everything from water management to cancer treatment were used by Democrats looking to revive the debate over expanding health insurance under federal health care reform.

“We have one of the most healthy pensions in the world, so I can’t see why we’re not [focusing on] more important issues,” said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, speaking about a pension reform bill. “Like health care.”

House Republicans, who have opted to reject billions of health care dollars from the federal government, sought to keep the process moving by limiting debate on bills to three minutes.

Though several lawmakers appeared annoyed by the all-day marathon bill-reading session, the two sides were no closer to reaching an agreement over health care before Friday. House Democrats started their protest after the Senate passed a bill to accept billions of federal health care dollars, drawing a stark contrast between House Republicans and their Senate counterparts. Gov. Scott has also backed the Senate plan, leaving House Republicans as the lone standout.

Leaders in the House continued to embrace their own health care plan, which declines federal money and covers far fewer than the 1.2 million uninsured people who might benefit from the Senate plan.

Weatherford acknowledged that the two chambers probably would not reach an agreement before the end of session Friday.

Thurston, the Democratic leader in the House, said that result was unacceptable, and that his party would be willing to go to great lengths to draw attention to the legislative breakdown.

As the procedural tactics slogged on, there was increasing fear that the clock would run out and several bills would be left pending when the Legislature ended its session.

Proposals to give tax support to the Miami Dolphins and other sports teams and to reform the elections system were at risk of being sidelined by the process.

The manufacturing tax cut was a top priority for Scott throughout the session. Some Democrats said Scott had not done enough to pressure the Legislature on health reform, and all Democrats voted against the bill.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward County Democrat and chair of the national Democratic party, blasted Scott while in Tallahassee on Wednesday.

“Gov. Scott was elected to lead this state,” Wasserman Schultz said. “If he has a particularly strongly held view — and he says he supports the acceptance of federal dollars to cover a million Floridians — it seems to me he’s sitting on the sidelines trying to have his cake and eat it, too.”

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