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A Florida Senate story of conscience vs. agenda

In the final days of a lawmaker's tenure, there are usually congratulatory farewells.

Maybe a small token of appreciation and a day's worth of handshakes and hugs. In the case of an outgoing Senate president, there is even a portrait for posterity.

But the best gift of all for a legislator facing a term limit is this:

Freedom.

The freedom to ignore committee assignments, party lines, forthcoming elections and lobbyists in the hall. The freedom to vote without constantly looking over your shoulder.

So what does that mean in real terms?

Consider the situations of Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. They began this legislative session with much in common. Same chamber. Same party. Same end-of-the-line outlook.

Fasano saw it as a chance to vote his conscience. Forget the politics. Forget the wishes of his party's leadership. He would vote on bills based on their merits alone. No quid pro quo. No worrying about how it might play in the governor's office.

Alexander saw it as a chance to bulldoze ahead with his agenda. Forget how much it would cost the taxpayers. Forget how it looked to outsiders. He was going to get his university, and he was going to get his toll road. No compromise. No neutrality.

Call it a Tale of Two Term Limits.

Fasano's outlook had already evolved over his 18 years in the House and the Senate, and the arrival of this latest term limit made it even easier for him to walk his own path.

When Senate President Mike Haridopolos tried to fast track prison privatization last month — after trying to sneak it in through the budget in 2011 — Fasano broke from the party ranks and helped kill the bill.

He did the same thing on Friday with a bill that supposedly would have given parents a greater say in reforming public schools but which looked suspiciously like a way for a national charter school company to line its pockets.

"I'm going to leave Tallahassee pleased that I was able to play a part in stopping some bad legislation,'' Fasano said Friday while taking a break from floor debates. "But I shouldn't have to be grateful for stopping the bad things.

"I wish I was talking about all the good things we did.''

To get a gauge of how much of a role term limits played in this legislative session, consider the votes on the parent trigger bill Friday.

There are almost two dozen Republican senators who are not facing term limits. Only 20 percent of them dared to vote against the party line. Of the eight Republicans who are facing term limits, 50 percent voted against the party line. The trend was similar last month when it came to the prison privatization bill.

Now, might there have been other factors besides term limits? Sure. It could be that younger senators are too nervous to buck the party elders. On the prison bill, there were also some votes that appeared tied to districts that would have been directly affected.

In Fasano's case, he had already clashed with party leaders regarding his loyalty to Charlie Crist over Marco Rubio in a U.S. Senate race in 2010.

Even so, this legislative session was, at times, a barometer of integrity. Fasano followed his heart. Others, such as Alexander, followed an agenda.

"Senator Alexander plays that game very well, but that wasn't what bothered me the most,'' Fasano said Friday in between floor debates. "What concerned me even more was that leadership allowed him to play that game exactly the way he wanted to play.

"In all my years, I can't remember a Senate president or House speaker allowing his or her budget chairman to do the things Senator Alexander was able to get away with. It has been very sad to see. Very concerning. Very disturbing.''

Fasano has not yet decided on his next step. He is waiting for redistricting maps to become official before deciding whether to attempt a return to the state House. He might also consider a run at Congress.

In the meantime, as he listened to the invocation on his final day in the Senate on Friday, Fasano reflected on his own departure, as well as those of other term-limited lawmakers.

"I was excited that it was the last day of the Haridopolos/Alexander leadership group,'' Fasano said. "They can't push through any more legislation that will hurt the people — and I mean that sincerely — back home.''

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

A Florida Senate story of conscience vs. agenda 03/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 10, 2012 6:37pm]
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