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Lawmakers take off the gloves as tensions mount

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House spiralled 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 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," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after nearly 12 hours of procedural gamesmanship and stall tactics by Democrats unhappy with a legislative impasse 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 been a mostly 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 nonprofit 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,'' Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said as Republicans jeered. "It is outrageous, improper and, in my opinion, borders on unethical."

Two minutes later, 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 Democrat 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.

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.

Times/Herald reporters Katie Sanders, Tia Mitchell, Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo contributed to this report.

Lawmakers take off the gloves as tensions mount 05/01/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 2, 2013 12:39am]

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