State Politics

Fla. lawmakers bring tumultuous session to a close

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature concluded the 2010 session Friday with a tense, polarizing debate over abortion and fresh signs of Gov. Charlie Crist’s willingness to criticize Republicans he once considered allies.

As weary lawmakers headed for home, the larger story of the session began to emerge. Crist, a former Republican seeking to recast himself as a nonpartisan outsider, began waving his veto pen, warning he might reject the abortion bill, parts of the new state budget and a property insurance bill that could raise rates on homeowners.

A day after Crist publicly broke with his party to seek a U.S. Senate seat as an

independent, he opted not to share the spotlight with legislators at the end of a session, the only time as governor that he didn’t participate. The session was still going on when he caught a commercial flight to Miami, saying: “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be.”

“This has been a different kind of year to say the least,” said Crist, still smarting over the Senate’s rejection of his two appointees to the Public Service Commission, recommended to him by a panel of legislators.

The Senate adjourned Sine Die at 8:47 p.m., nearly two hours after the House, and the sergeants dropped two hankies at the front of the chamber.

Legislators passed a no-new-taxes $70.4 billion budget on party-line votes and Crist said he would consider vetoing parts of it. He voiced concerns about cuts to substance abuse and mental health programs, and a $160 million withdrawal from a road-building fund.

“There are concerns that I have that I want to look over,” Crist said, adding his budget chief, Jerry McDaniel, and his staff would spend the next two weeks reviewing the budget “with a fine-toothed comb.”

If Crist vetoes budget cuts, it would force lawmakers to return to Tallahassee to find new sources of revenue or make different cuts to placate Crist.

The House passed the budget on a 77-43 vote with one Democrat, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, voting with Republicans. The Senate voted 33-4 with Republican Paula Dockery of Lakeland siding with Democrats Dave Aronberg, Dan Gelber and Nan Rich.

Dockery, a candidate for governor, criticized irresponsible spending, while the

Democrats criticized the lack of spending on vital human services. Aronberg and Gelber are running for attorney general.

“This budget is lean, but it’s not mean,” said Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey. “We made the responsible, common sense choices on this budget,” said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.

“That we were able to leave Tallahassee and not cut student funding is incredible,” Rep. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said.

Democrats decried cuts to some services, a $160 million transfer from a road building fund and a built-in tuition increase of up to 15 percent for state university students.

“We might not call it taxes, but we’re calling it a tuition increase for higher

education,” said Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami.

Referring to the transfer from the highway fund, Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said: ‘‘This is going to cost thousands of jobs.”

In other final votes Friday, the Senate put its own redistricting ballot proposal on the Nov. 2 ballot to compete with two citizen initiatives that seek to make it more difficult for Republicans to draw districts favoring their party. Two Democrats provided the margin in a 25-14 vote, one more than the three-fifths required to send the eighth ballot proposal to voters.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, called the amendment “an unfortunate effort to reduce minority voting rights while holding onto the power to manipulate districts. But Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said the redistricting question “is trying to clarify. It is not a game. It is not a trick.”

One of the last bills to be approved would provide full death benefits to firefighters who die during training exercises - a reaction to the death of a Volusia County firefighter, J.J. Curry.

In the visitors’ gallery, an emotional Kristen Curry held her 6-year-old son, Owen, as the bill (HB 1193) passed the House, and lawmakers broke into applause. Mrs. Curry spent the final week of the session working to pass the bill.

One bill that didn’t make it was an omnibus bill that included an NRA-backed provision allowing people to keep guns in their cars, a pre-emption of Pinellas County’s ban on fertilizer sales during the summer and a ban on sex with animals. Even though Crist rarely directly engaged himself in legislative matters, he hovered over the session, often a maddening presence to Republican lawmakers. His threats to veto bills or bolt from the Republican Party for a risky nonpartisan U.S. Senate candidacy - which he formalized Thursday - were dominant themes.

The session began March 2 on a positive note, with the governor and Legislature quickly agreeing to delay an unemployment tax on Florida businesses.

But over the past nine weeks, the atmosphere steadily deteriorated and Crist, facing a 20-point deficit in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, increasingly distanced himself from his fellow Republicans.

He vetoed two bills championed by the Republican leadership, re-creating “leadership funds’’ as fundraising tools for key lawmakers and a teacher merit-pay bill - a veto that will help him build a new political base as a nonpartisan candidate.

Crist’s last legislative session as governor was marked by setbacks. He finally got the Seminole tribal gambling compact he advocated for three years, but lawmakers rejected his call for a small cut in the corporate income tax and publicly rejected his two appointees to the Public Service Commission.

With Crist on a commercial flight to Miami to see his wife Carole, and the two chambers on slightly different schedules, they dropped a traditional hanky-dropping ceremony of Sine Die (Latin for “without day”) marking the end of the 60-day session, and the unofficial start of the most active and unpredictable election campaign season in decades.

Legislators may not be back at home or on the campaign trail for long. Crist said it’s “not unlikely’’ he will call them back to work, perhaps in June, to consider anti-corruption reforms expected to be recommended by a statewide grand jury investigating political corruption in Florida.

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