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Legislative session melts down, finally ends just before 4 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Sine Die on the 2011 legislative session came at 3:35 a.m. Saturday when the Florida Senate approved a tax package that became an odd point of contention in a day of odd points of contention.

Bitter and exhausted Republicans had officially extended the session into overtime late Friday as the House and Senate began killing each other's bills unexpectedly.

"It's an enormous power struggle," said Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico. She blamed the meltdown on the proliferation of what are known as conference reports, which are the product of joint House-Senate committees.

In all, legislative leaders wanted rank-and-file lawmakers to pass 44 of them. Some of the legislation was decided in the final days, involved few lawmakers and made major policy changes that irked those who weren't on the inside. It was a powder keg. And despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers of the Legislature, they ran out of time and patience with each other.

"It just didn't work out," Senate President Mike Haridopolos said after midnight. "We would rather get it right then get out on time."

Earlier Haridopolos seemed confident that the session would end on time and that he would be able to hit the campaign trail in his bid for the U.S. Senate. He had said some of the emotions had been "rough" earlier in session.

The revolt came unexpectedly — with a proposal to deregulate commercial interior designers. It was a priority of the House. But a coalition of Republican and Democratic senators — increasingly frustrated with House Speaker Dean Cannon — just couldn't stomach the idea that the lower chamber was calling the shots.

One of the deans of the Senate, Dennis Jones, pointed out that the House bill hadn't even been heard in the House. What's more, the chairman and staff director of the House committee overseeing the deregulation bill, never had the courtesy to call him.

Jones, R-Seminole, pointed out that a third of the Florida House membership have been in office less than a year.

"We need to send a message back to the House. Don't send us bills we've had no chance to discuss," Jones said. "Don't come around the back door and expect us to swallow it."

The Senate came to life, albeit after the House has called the shots throughout the session, forcing the Senate to take a growth-management overhaul in a tough-to-amend conforming bill. Also, Cannon refused to back off of the major components of his Medicaid reform bill, which the Senate essentially swallowed. Cannon wouldn't even let the Senate rename a program for the sick, which remains the "Medically Needy."

The deregulation bill failed 32 to 6 — only Haridopolos and his leadership team voted yes.

"Leadership went down there," Haridopolos said, almost laughing.

But the rank-and-file senators weren't done. After the deregulation bill died in the Senate, the House started to buzz. Then came another Senate smackdown.

"They killed mold remediation!" Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, said on the House floor. It was another House priority bill.

Soon after, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher (a former House speaker and lobbyist who knows the drill) filed an amendment to extend session until 6 p.m. Saturday. The 60-day session was supposed to end at midnight Friday.

At 11:43 p.m., the Senate unanimously voted to extend.

The sergeants put away the ceremonial handkerchiefs that are usually dropped to mark the end of session. Capitol staffers began removing stanchions and a podium where new Gov. Rick Scott was to celebrate on on-time finish to the session with Haridopolos and Cannon. Twenty minutes later, the House cast a voice vote to extend session. Only budget-related conference reports would be considered.

Just after midnight, once the session was officially in overtime, Scott left the building and went home to sleep in the Governor's Mansion.

"The governor's headed to bed," Scott's spokesman, Brian Burgess said. "He's disappointed we won't be able to do a simultaneous hankie drop. He's got to get some rest and get ready for a big day tomorrow."

Then, the Senate was poised to kill yet another bill. At least 22 senators cast nay votes, but Haridopolos finally regained control and refused to lock the board. He then postponed the vote.

The House responded to the Senate by unanimously voting down the Senate's bill concerning Citizens Property Insurance. The vote was unanimous. Cannon began talking about killing off priority bills of the Senate, specifically an accounting measure pushed by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander on behalf of state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. Cannon and Alexander clashed two weeks ago, when the senator accused the speaker of "gamesmanship."

Rep. Will Weatherford, a future House speaker, told fellow representatives that Cannon wasn't happy. He then urged members to vote down another Senate measure.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, complained that the Senate scuttled his health regulation bill by loading it up with amendments. He specifically called out Sen. Jack Latvala, saying the St. Petersburg Republican tried to break a deal over regulating pill mills to help workers compensation doctors. Latvala denied it. He said the amendment he tacked on to the bill, HB 119, was sought by the Florida Medical Association to prevent the over-regulation of family doctors and other physicians who don't frequently prescribe pain medication.

As the House exacted its revenge, the Florida Senate finished the one constitutional task assigned to the Legislature: passing a budget for the state. Final vote: 31-8.

The House took up a slew of bills but didn't pass the budget.

Haridopolos said he'd sleep in his office and called members to return at 10 a.m. House members, looking aimless, chatted and took turns posing for pictures on the floor. By 1:33 a.m., Cannon was clearly entertained, as he returned to the podium with a smile.

By contrast, Haridopolos wasn't smiling. "I've done everything in my power to make sure we didn't go in a ditch, even though people weren't saying the nicest things about us,'' he told reporters.

The House hadn't planned it this way. House leaders thought they had figured out a way to outsmart the Senate Rules chairman by refusing to accept a giant economic development conforming bill and strip it of everything but Thrasher's proposal to allow parimutuels to install slot-like coin operated machines. They would then take the bulk of that bill and attach it to HB 143, a bill related to tax credit.

But the Senate got suspicious. Thrasher's resolution to extend the session into overtime only allowed the budget and budget conforming bills to be taken up past midnight. That wouldn't work for the House because HB 143 wasn't a conforming bill. So the House was stuck. The clock struck midnight and the only way to get back was to return and pass HB 7203 unaltered.

Undaunted, the House waived the rules, took up HB 143, amended it with the HB 7203 minus the coin-operated games. The amendment passed 79-39. The bill passed 118-0. Time to sine die.

Legislative session melts down, finally ends just before 4 a.m. 05/07/11 [Last modified: Saturday, May 7, 2011 4:52am]
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