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Clock winds down on Florida lawmakers

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida lawmakers close the 60-day session today, proposals for major education reform and a $650-million commuter rail plan for Orlando appear off the track.

Both could be victims to the ticking clock and disagreements between leading Republican lawmakers.

Little legislation came to a close Thursday, insuring that lobbyists huddled outside the two chambers in the Capitol rotunda will still be there today to corral legislators as they shop proposals between chambers, trying to find agreement.

The only must-pass legislation: the $66.2-billion budget for 2008-09.

"People are tired, it's late in the session," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "I don't recall a session where something in the end didn't blow up."

Lessening today's workload was a late evening vote by the House, 77-44, to approve the budget. The Senate is expected to approve the measure today and send it to the governor, who has the power to veto line items.

House Republicans called the spending plan responsible and boasted it contained no new taxes in a very difficult year. Democrats criticized cuts to public education and health care.

Also approved in late-night action Thursday was a new state anthem for Florida, Florida, Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky — a tune chosen last year during a statewide contest. The same bill (SB 1558) also removes racially offensive lyrics from the state song, Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).

Unclear is what will happen to proposals to overhaul education standards and governance.

The plans — addressing charter school finances, teacher ethics, curriculum, private school vouchers and the state's grading of high schools — seemed to be headed to passage until earlier this week.

Then Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, put the bills together into one bill (HB 7045), a move House members say doesn't reflect the compromises the two chambers had agreed to.

"We cannot pass that package. It is not acceptable to us," said Rep. Trey Traviesa, R-Tampa. "The Senate can either send the individual bills to the governor or come back to us. It's Gaetz's call. That's the only way out of the slog we're in."

Also in jeopardy — and some say already dead — is the push by Senate president Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, to restore an elected education commissioner and shrink the size and scope of the Board of Governors that oversees public universities.

The Senate has already voted to put the measure on the November ballot. But Republican House leaders can't muster the three-fifths vote they need to pass it.

"We tried; we tried hard," said House Majority Whip Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. "The support's just not there."

But it's the Senate that is more likely to stall a pending deal between the state and CSX railroad for commuter rail in Orlando, a plan that seemed all but assured weeks ago.

CSX is supposed to sell 61.5 miles of Orlando-area train tracks to Florida, but will still run freight on the route — and increase it elsewhere with state-funded improvements. Under the deal, the Legislature must exempt CSX from liability for any damages it causes by using the commuter tracks.

But critics, including Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, have gathered momentum throughout the session as more problems with the plan surfaced.

The cost jumped from $491-million because of increases for railroad overpasses. Powerful trial attorneys raised concerns over state taxpayers bearing CSX's burden and other immunity protections. Even bundling in goodies for other lawmakers failed to improve its chances.

Talks continued Thursday night to win support after an attempt to save the project in a large transportation bill (SB 1978/HB 1399) was abandoned in the Senate. Dockery and opponents had enough support to halt it before a vote, causing sponsor Sen. Carey Baker to hold it till today.

According to the contract, that liability protection is supposed to be settled by June 2009, allowing another session's work next year, if CSX goes along.

"If we have a (transportation) bill at all, it will be slimmed down," said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, a supporter who added it "would have to have nothing to do with commuter rail."

Tallahassee Bureau Chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Clock winds down on Florida lawmakers 05/01/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 6, 2008 1:35pm]
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