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How the Florida Legislature really works

A high-stakes political chess game begins Tuesday at the Capitol. Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz are all Republicans, but they have separate priorities in the 2014 Legislature, and their search for common ground is more elusive than it appears. Lobbyists are very powerful, too. Their campaign money, at a minimum, ensures access to power, which is how they shape what happens in Tallahassee. The amount of money in politics is also greater, because many lawmakers control political committees that can accept unlimited donations. "It's unfettered," says Bob Levy, a Miami lobbyist who has worked the Capitol for decades. "Now there's a mechanism to write any size check you want to write." LOCATION

Tallahassee is a difficult destination. Early settlers made it the capital because it was midway between the only population centers of Pensacola and St. Augustine. It's closer to Atlanta or New Orleans than it is to South Florida, and central time is 45 minutes away. It looks and feels more like Georgia than most of Florida. It's picturesque with rolling hills, towering oaks and canopy roads and it's the football-crazy home of the 'Noles. But there isn't a beach or palm tree within 50 miles. The airport is notorious for a lack of flights, many of which go through Atlanta before circling back to Tampa, Orlando or Miami. The area is called the Big Bend because it's nestled in a place where the rest of Florida connects to the Panhandle.

LANGUAGE

The Legislature speaks in a language that's foreign to many Floridians. A bill can be a joint resolution, the daily order of business is a special order calendar, and there really is a committee on joint administrative procedures. It is layer upon layer of parliamentary rules that dictate how a bill is introduced, amended, passed or defeated. A basic lesson for every freshman lawmaker is that the most skillful among them are those who know the rules the best. And when lawmakers want to get their way as quickly as possible, they simply waive the rules and plunge ahead.

LOBBYISTS

By their numbers alone, they're a force: More than 3,300 lobbyists registered to lobby the Legislature last year, more than 20 for every member of the House and Senate. Unlike lawmakers, lobbyists are not subject to term limits, and many spend decades mastering their craft, building relationships, raising money and even walking door-to-door in the midsummer heat in lawmakers' campaigns. The average Joe is no match for a well-connected lobbyist, whose specialty is having ready access to the powerful. Lobbyists complained when the Legislature forced them to disclose their fees several years ago, but now they compete with each other to see who can show the highest fees and the most clients.

LIMITS

Term limits of eight years for most lawmakers have sapped the Legislature of much of its institutional wisdom and long-range vision. But another limit — time — plays a critical role. The annual session is 60 days, and it's actually less with light schedules on many Mondays and Fridays. Lawmakers seem perpetually in a hurry; the clock is ticking up until the ceremonial dropping of handkerchiefs by sergeants-at-arms that brings each session to an end. Every session has a moment when lawmakers are wasting time on something trivial and the speaker warns, "Your bills are dying, people!" Before they know it, they've run out of time. The clock also is a powerful weapon that skillful lawmakers and lobbyists use to great effect to kill legislation they don't like.

LOCATION

Tallahassee is a difficult destination. Early settlers made it the capital because it was midway between the only population centers of Pensacola and St. Augustine. It's closer to Atlanta or New Orleans than it is to South Florida, and central time is 45 minutes away. It looks and feels more like Georgia than most of Florida. It's picturesque with rolling hills, towering oaks and canopy roads and it's the football-crazy home of the 'Noles. But there isn't a beach or palm tree within 50 miles. The airport is notorious for a lack of flights, many of which go through Atlanta before circling back to Tampa, Orlando or Miami. The area is called the Big Bend because it's nestled in a place where the rest of Florida connects to the Panhandle.

LANGUAGE

The Legislature speaks in a language that's foreign to many Floridians. A bill can be a joint resolution, the daily order of business is a special order calendar, and there really is a committee on joint administrative procedures. It is layer upon layer of parliamentary rules that dictate how a bill is introduced, amended, passed or defeated. A basic lesson for every freshman lawmaker is that the most skillful among them are those who know the rules the best. And when lawmakers want to get their way as quickly as possible, they simply waive the rules and plunge ahead.

LOBBYISTS

By their numbers alone, they're a force: More than 3,300 lobbyists registered to lobby the Legislature last year, more than 20 for every member of the House and Senate. Unlike lawmakers, lobbyists are not subject to term limits, and many spend decades mastering their craft, building relationships, raising money and even walking door-to-door in the midsummer heat in lawmakers' campaigns. The average Joe is no match for a well-connected lobbyist, whose specialty is having ready access to the powerful. Lobbyists complained when the Legislature forced them to disclose their fees several years ago, but now they compete with each other to see who can show the highest fees and the most clients.

LIMITS

Term limits of eight years for most lawmakers have sapped the Legislature of much of its institutional wisdom and long-range vision. But another limit — time — plays a critical role. The annual session is 60 days, and it's actually less with light schedules on many Mondays and Fridays. Lawmakers seem perpetually in a hurry; the clock is ticking up until the ceremonial dropping of handkerchiefs by sergeants-at-arms that brings each session to an end. Every session has a moment when lawmakers are wasting time on something trivial and the speaker warns, "Your bills are dying, people!" Before they know it, they've run out of time. The clock also is a powerful weapon that skillful lawmakers and lobbyists use to great effect to kill legislation they don't like.

• One-fourth of all legislators (40 of 160) are lawyers.

• A commemorative plaque in the Capitol lobby honors former Sen. Lee Weissenborn of Miami, who in

the 1970s tried to move the capital to Orlando. The capital not only stayed put in Tallahassee, but the senator's idea hastened construction of the 22-story Capitol building.

• House members have their own private dining room in the Capitol, off-limits to press and public,

admissable by a pass key. They pay for their food.

• The 120 House members can file only six bills in each session, but the 40 senators can file as many bills

as they want, and most file dozens every year.

• Legislators can vote on matters even when they have a direct financial conflict of interest. They must

disclose the conflict in writing within 15 days.

• The "Dean of the Legislature," Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, has served in five different decades despite term limits. She was elected to the House in 1974, five years before House Speaker Will Weatherford was born.

How the Florida Legislature really works 02/28/14 [Last modified: Friday, February 28, 2014 6:10pm]
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