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Marching in lockstep

When the Florida Legislature convenes in two weeks, two men will wield almost uncheckable power over a conservative agenda of no taxes, budget cuts, teacher performance, Medicaid and pension reform.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, a lawyer from Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Merritt Island college professor who is running for U.S. Senate, are poised to dominate the debate over the state's budget and job crisis.

Unlike previous presiding officers, Cannon and Haridopolos consolidated their power on the strength of a veto-proof majority delivered by the Republican landslide in November. They strengthened that clout by steering millions of dollars in campaign cash to the political campaigns of newcomers who now owe their elections in large part to them.

Each has assigned a pecking-order status to members — giving their favorites the most coveted office space, the most sought-after committee assignments, and even the most convenient parking spots. And, working with a small circle of advisers, each can determine which of Gov. Rick Scott's proposals stay in the budget, and which get killed.

It is a fact of life many young lawmakers learn to accept. If they want anything, they must go along with leadership. The risk of being outspoken is worse than being ostracized — it means their proposals could die — because term limits, the skyrocketing cost of political campaigns and legislative inexperience concentrates power into the hands of presiding officers who may or may not tolerate dissent.

"Most people would think that with 40 senators and 120 House members, that we all go up to Tallahassee representing the districts that elect us, and that there's independent thought — that people read bills and vote their consciences," said Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican. "But it doesn't work that way."

After 16 years in the Legislature, the last eight in the Senate, Dockery's refusal to support all of Haridopolos' agenda left her exiled on a second-floor office alongside freshman Democrats. She's also the only senior senator without a committee chairmanship.

She laments that members too often ask "Where's leadership on this?" before they take a position on an issue. "That's emblematic of everything that's wrong with Tallahassee,'' Dockery said. "It shouldn't matter where leadership is. All the votes of all the members should mean something."

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Legislative leaders consolidate their power by raising campaign contributions and steering it to favorite candidates. Once in office, they can reward the industries and lobbyists who helped them by deciding which issues get a vote and which don't.

Haridopolos created a political committee during the 2010 campaign season and — defying Senate tradition — waded into hotly contested Senate Republican primaries. His hand-picked candidates won them all. Cannon recruited candidates in open seats and also used his political committee to target five Democrats in weak seats and defeat them.

Former Rep. Carl Domino, a West Palm Beach Republican and business executive who lost to Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale in a Senate primary, blames his defeat on the injection of more than $900,000 into Bogdanoff's campaign by Haridopolos' political committee and the Republican Party.

During eight years in the House, Domino said leadership squelched many ideas because it wasn't in line with their agenda. "Because the House and Senate are so overwhelmingly Republican, they never have to listen to anyone because there is rarely going to be a close vote," he said.

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While campaign contributions have increasingly concentrated power in the speaker, the president and their deputies, the lobbyists who raise money and the eight-year limit on legislative terms also play a role.

As the former Senate Rules Committee chairman, Miami Republican Alex Villalobos said legislators who lack experience and staff increasingly rely on veteran lobbyists for information. He said he found hundreds of examples of provisions tucked into bills that legislators agreed to carry for lobbyists but didn't know about.

Former Rep. Baxter Troutman, a Winter Haven Republican who retired last year, said he often "had my wings clipped" when he failed to follow leadership. House leaders routinely give each member a limit of six bills to file each year and then ask them for their top five budget priorities, he said.

"When it comes to the tough votes, they hold those issues hostage,'' Troutman said.

Sen. Steve Wise, a Jacksonville Republican and 22-year veteran of the Legislature, concedes that the presiding officers and their top deputies control the agenda. "If you're a chairman of a committee you get a lot done, but, if you're not then you don't," he said.

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Although Wise is a respected expert on education and is chairman of the Senate education budget committee, he has never been picked to be in the presiding officer's inner circle.

For Haridopolos, that list includes Sens. J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, Don Gaetz of Nice-ville, Andy Gardiner of Orlando, John Thrasher of St. Augustine and Joe Negron of Stuart — all but Alexander are vying to become a Senate president one day.

Cannon's inner circle includes Reps. Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel, Denise Grimsley of Lake Placid, Gary Aubuchon of Cape Coral, Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, and Chris Dorworth of Oviedo. Weatherford has already been picked to succeed Cannon in 2012 and Dorworth in 2014.

For Democrats, leadership's clout also creates partisan cohesion that locks out independent thought, said Rep. Mark Pafford, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

When Pafford was first elected two years ago, he was optimistic that his party's minority status could still influence debate. "That ended last year,'' he said, when Republicans broke rank on a bill that would have taken $250 million from a health options fund for retired state workers. Thirty minutes after Republican joined Democrats to defeat the measure, "they twisted some arms and we lost the vote,'' Pafford said.

Pafford believes that the lock-step control over the agenda also squashes any talk of finding new revenue through tax reform. That, in turn, colors every debate from health care to oil drilling, he said. "We refuse to have discussion that mature people would have when we are facing a changing world and depending on a tax structure from 1969.''

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Few current legislators would speak on the record about the effects of the concentration of power on the legislative agenda, fearful that any negative comments could provoke leaders to kill their bills.

Haridopolos and Cannon say the system is designed to give the presiding officers a disproportionate amount of power but, while they are in office, they each say the agenda will be driven by members, not them.

"The strength of a presiding officer has more to do with how they conduct their office than how they raise money,'' Cannon said.

Haridopolos, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2012, believes that while many members think power is more concentrated in presiding officers than before, it is "perception, not reality."

"The powers that I have as Senate president are no different for the most part than they've had for 30 to 40 years,'' he said. He said that he operates one of the most open Senates in history, puts people on the committees they want to serve, and gives every bill a hearing through at least three committees. He has been commended by Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich for his even-handedness and by more moderate Republicans for being flexible.

Haridopolos acknowledged that the outspoken Dockery was punished but he disagrees with lawmakers who complain that his office controls the agenda: "I don't think being heavy-handed works," he said.

Domino is sanguine about his experience but doubts the power will shift until Republicans in Florida take some losses. "Like Obama, who now has got to work with Republicans to get anything passed, it's going to take more of a balance in the Legislature to get them to listen to everyone."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Marching in lockstep 02/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 3:44pm]

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