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Tallahassee's legislative 'dance partners' can't agree on the music

In the word-picture world of Tallahassee, the House speaker and Senate president are called "dance partners."

But this is no Arthur Murray studio. This is real life, where people can lose jobs and where sick kids and the elderly can be denied critical services waiting for the Legislature to act.

The speaker and Senate president must strive for common solutions, even if their visions of the world are totally different.

That's not easy to do, as we're about to see.

While Senate President Jeff Atwater is doing the hip-hop, his dance partner, House Speaker Larry Cretul, is doing the hokey pokey at the other end of the hall.

The state budget is in tatters, and unemployment keeps going up. The Legislature has only a little time to forge a path out of the wilderness.

Atwater acts like a man on a mission. Cretul is counting down the days till adjournment.

This week, a delegation from the League of Women Voters was working the Capitol's halls, seeking tax reform, more money for schools and expansion of early voting.

Before they got to town, they set up meetings with both dance partners.

First stop was Cretul's office, where the speaker told the group his top priority is a budget that's "fair and balanced."

"We do have an uphill climb," Cretul said, "and I'm sure there will be some decisions made that will not be very popular." He referred to the Senate's talk of new taxes as "certain revenue discussions."

Any cuts to schools will be minimal, he said.

When Deirdre Macnab of Orlando lobbied Cretul to close a corporate income tax break that allows big firms to park their Florida profits out of state, he said his own view was to have "minimal or limited taxation."

Jerry Kidder of Gainesville asked Cretul how he felt about expanding the hours and locations for early voting.

"That's one I really don't have strong feelings one way or the other," Cretul replied.

Rebecca Sager argued for an adequate source of revenue to "improve our quality of life in Florida," and Cretul said he felt the current tax system is fine.

The League's meeting with Atwater was half as long and seemed to cover more ground, with Atwater on the edge of his seat, explaining his view that sales tax exemptions need to undergo a review to see if they are justified.

Atwater guaranteed no more cuts to public schools: "We are not going back to the classrooms for more dollars." He aimed high, calling the intellectual capital of Florida's young people "our gift to the universe."

He said he was receptive to expanding early voting, and he endorsed closing that corporate tax break known as "combined reporting" that Cretul said was unnecessary.

"The issue is very real, and we need to address it," Atwater said. "There is no reason that revenue generated in Florida based upon economic activity in Florida should not benefit the infrastructure in Florida. You're right on target."

Atwater flattered his guests, telling them: "Your brand is so strong."

In fairness to Cretul, he didn't seek or expect the speaker's job. But now that he has it, he has to act in the best interest of all Floridians, while finding common ground with Atwater.

At the moment, it's hard to picture these two guys dancing with each other across the marble Capitol Rotunda.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com.

Tallahassee's legislative 'dance partners' can't agree on the music 03/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 27, 2009 10:44pm]

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