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Freshmen lawmakers in the Florida House found strength in each other

It used to be that freshmen representatives in Tallahassee were to be seen and not heard.

Then came term limits.

If anything positive can be said of the "Eight is Enough" law, it's that House members are on more of an even footing than before. Rookie lawmakers sometimes handle major legislation and actually pass bills.

Three newcomers of the 40-member freshman class in the 120-member House shared their insights and experiences on the just-concluded session.

Republican Rep. Dana Young of Tampa passed nine bills, on subjects ranging from monitoring of mental health providers to security at seaports to allowing the attorney general to fix deficiencies in ballot measures written by the Legislature (the latter bill requires voter approval).

"Passing legislation and creating laws is not easy, and quite frankly, I don't think it should be easy," said Young, a 46-year-old lawyer.

She doesn't think lobbyists have too much influence, said they can be "a good source of information," and sought out the opposing side of an issue when a lobbyist on the other side approached her.

She said she was surprised at the extent she was included in decisions and said of the process: "It is about building relationships and building trust."

Young sponsored a bill that would have dropped a requirement that dog tracks stage at least 100 live events a year to run other moneymaking ventures such as poker rooms. The bill passed the House twice but faltered in the Senate.

Another freshman from Tampa Bay, Republican James Grant of Tampa, said he learned the value of forging alliances with his freshman colleagues: "They became rocks I could lean on in situations — to know we were all in it together," he said.

None of Grant's bills passed. He was disappointed that his top priority failed, to allow the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to use cigarette tax money to pay for construction of clinic and research space.

The 28-year-old Grant made headlines for opposing a House leadership stand to cut funding to the Moffitt Center, and was summarily stripped of his deputy whip position by Speaker Dean Cannon.

"I felt like I had to make that vote based on the legislation I've filed and Moffitt's role in our community," Grant said. "The speaker had no hard feelings. It wasn't a personal thing."

From the perspective of Rep. Jeff Clemens of Palm Beach County, things look different.

Clemens is a back-bencher, a member of the Democratic minority, a team of 39 tenacious lawmakers who could do little more than watch the Republican majority ramrod its ambitious agenda to passage.

"Whether you agree with what they were doing or not, they did a lot of it," said Clemens, 40, a professional musician, former journalist and ex-mayor of Lake Worth.

He said he was shocked at how little vetting some legislation gets, and was frustrated when the GOP majority would issue a massive rewrite of the elections code on the eve of an 8 a.m. meeting.

"I don't think that serves Floridians very well," Clemens said. "Things end up slipping through that shouldn't."

What surprised Clemens the most, he said, is how little time the Legislature spent on measures to actually create jobs in Florida.

"They have the ability to pass any jobs-related package they want — and didn't," he said.

Freshmen lawmakers in the Florida House found strength in each other 05/13/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 13, 2011 11:26pm]
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