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Former lawmakers return for Florida Capitol reunion

In Tallahassee, it's the return of the dinosaurs.

Dozens of former senators and representatives are back for a reunion this week.

They are the people captured in dozens of black-and-white pictures that line the Capitol walls, wearing loud leisure suits with mutton-chop sideburns and bouffant hairdos.

"The older they get, the better they look," says Bruce Smathers, a former senator from Jacksonville.

The presence of the dinosaurs is a reminder of just how much things have changed.

For starters, many returning old-timers are Democrats who served in an era before term limits.

In those days, lawmakers kept bottles of bourbon in their offices to quench their thirsts while they cut one backroom deal after another.

Today they drink bottled water, and the dealmaking is not nearly as interesting.

At night, they ate and drank to their fill, and the lobbyists paid for every bit of it.

That's illegal now.

But today's lawmakers can legally accept a check for $100,000 from a lobbyist for a political committee, an idea that the wiliest rascals of the 1970s and '80s hadn't thought of.

For the next couple of days, there will be plenty of laughing and reminiscing, but the good old days weren't all that great.

Not all that's memorable about the Florida Legislature was good for democracy:

• In 1987, a deal to broaden the sales tax to include professional services was sealed over pizza and beer at a lobbyist's townhouse. The tax later was repealed, and no Legislature since has had the nerve to tackle Florida's creaky tax structure. It's tax policy evasion on a grand scale.

• In 1991, scandal engulfed the Capitol amid revelations that lawmakers took expensive gifts and trips from lobbyists to hunting lodges, resorts and hotels, and even the French Riviera. Two dozen lawmakers pleaded no contest to misdemeanors.

• In 1992, a redistricting map drawn by Democrats sealed their demise by improving Republican chances in many suburban districts and paving the way for the GOP's complete takeover in 1996.

• In 1994, on the last night of the session, a stealth deal by Gov. Lawton Chiles and Senate Democrats resulted in secret passage of a landmark law that allows Florida to recover billions of dollars in health-related costs from tobacco companies.

• In 2000, the true impact of the voter-approved "Eight is Enough" term limit law began to appear, eight years after it went into effect, and Florida's Capitol has had a revolving door at its entrance ever since.

With an eye on the clock, House members jockey for key leadership posts before casting their first vote. There's more institutional knowledge in one little corner of the Senate than in the entire 120-member House.

The reunion partying began Monday night as Gov. Rick Scott hosted a casual wine-and-cheese reception at the Governor's Mansion.

If a lot of the old-timers looked familiar to newcomer Scott, there's a good reason: Many never really left.

They found lucrative careers as lobbyists, working the system they knew so well from the inside.

Come to think of it, some things don't change that much after all.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com.

Former lawmakers return for Florida Capitol reunion 02/06/12 [Last modified: Monday, February 6, 2012 6:34pm]

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