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Webster not leaving Florida Legislature quietly

Term limits are pushing Dan Webster out of the Legislature after 28 years. For some of his colleagues, he's not leaving quietly enough.

On Monday, Webster begins the last week of a political career that has taken him down a very long road, from obscure back-bencher to House Republican leader. He was the first Republican speaker in more than a century and is now the Senate majority leader.

Webster, an air-conditioning contractor and father of six from suburban Orlando, will turn 59 on Sunday. He is respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, but that doesn't mean they agree with him.

It's fitting that in his final days he is leading the charge on two highly charged issues that have largely defined his career. Both issues have also split the Senate.

One, transportation, is bricks-and-mortar and involves the state's purchase of CSX's rail line for an Orlando commuter rail. The other, abortion, is moral and personal.

On Friday, Webster postponed a debate on his bill (SB 2400) that would require an ultrasound be performed on a woman before she undergoes a first-trimester abortion, and that she be shown the image of the fetus or sign a form declining to see it.

Supporters say it's simply a clarification of Florida's "informed consent" abortion law. Opponents say it undermines a woman's right to an abortion.

By delaying a vote, it looked like Webster may not have the 21 votes needed for passage. Even he puts his chances at 50-50. But to the dismay of some of his Republican colleagues, he wants a recorded vote in an election year, and risks a highly public rebuke by his colleagues.

"This body was created, just like every legislative body, for discussion," Webster said. "There's nothing wrong with a clash of ideas as long as it's not personal."

At least six of the chamber's 26 Republicans are said to oppose Webster's bill, including Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, who aimed some pointed questions at Webster in Thursday's debate. But two Democrats are expected to vote yes, leaving the final vote unclear. Gov. Charlie Crist has not said whether he'd sign it.

It's not an easy vote for Republican Jeff Atwater, a Senate president-in-waiting who is facing a Democratic challenger in a pro-choice South Florida district.

"Nobody wins in this, because nobody wants abortions. Nobody likes abortions," said Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, an opponent. "There are people who feel strongly about a woman's right vs. some other people who feel that the fetus must be protected at all costs, and that's a debate that when it starts, it's going to be very emotional."

The transportation bill (SB 1978) is less emotional but still controversial and overloaded with higher tolls for the Florida Turnpike and "road rage" penalties. Critics mostly call it a giveaway to CSX for a commuter system that endangers union railroad jobs. A provision shielding CSX workers from negligence lawsuits for freight trips along the commuter rail line is especially unpopular in the Senate, which is more supportive of trial lawyers than the House.

If Webster can get both of his priorities out of the Senate, he will deserve all the accolades he's sure to hear after he makes his farewell speech.

• • •

A postscript to last week's column about priorities in Tallahassee: In addition to a $418-million prison building program, the Legislature has agreed to spend $31-million to continue drug and alcohol abuse programs in state prisons for one more year.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Webster not leaving Florida Legislature quietly 04/25/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 27, 2008 9:32am]
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