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Plan cuts back House operations

Incoming House Speaker T.K. Wetherell is dramatically reducing the number of House committees and cutting staff in a tentative plan that is likely to save at least $1-million. Wetherell's plan is in sharp contrast to the way House Speaker Tom Gustafson has been running things during the past two years _ a period in which overall House spending has spiraled from $29-million to $45-million.

House members learned about Wetherell's plan in a letter they received Monday. In it, Wetherell described the changes, saying they are occurring "with malice toward none" and will substantially cut the number of committee and subcommittee chairmanships that can be awarded to members.

Wetherell will delete five committees and 34 subcommittees, eliminating many of the meetings that have posed problems for legislators in the past few years. It will mean a staff reduction of at least 40 of the 310 Tallahassee-based House jobs, but some of those employees are likely to be eligible for other vacancies.

The new organizational plan returns the House to 28 standing committees and 51 subcommittees, a plan that lies somewhere between the organizations run by former Speakers James Harold Thompson and Jon Mills from 1986 to 1988.

Mills operated the House with 28 committees, but added about 80 subcommittees to the organizational plan Thompson used. Gustafson added committees and subcommittees and passed out chairmanships as rewards in a heated battle to gain the speaker's chair in 1988.

Wetherell, who was selected to become the next speaker without a bitter internal struggle, also is eliminating a division of the House that Gustafson created to handle newsletters for members and other publicity functions. Instead, some duties that the division handled will be taken over by the House data processing offices.

Gustafson created the Division of Economic Research, Information and Communications out of the data processing division, boosting the budget from $61,000 to $1-million. The unit dispensed more than 5-million newsletters for Gustafson and operated a toll-free line for radio stations that wanted canned interviews with members.

Wetherell also is reducing the size of the staff inthe speaker's office.

Wetherell said he isn't implying any criticism of Gustafson's regime, but thinks the House cannot justify spending levels when the state is being forced to cut other expenditures.

"I'm just saying there is a different way of doing it," Wetherell said Monday.

Gustafson didn't return a telephone call and aide Steve Sauls said he has not seen Wetherell's plans.

The initial reaction from other members was to heartily endorse a change that will eliminate dozens of committee meetings from legislative schedules.

"I am very much in favor of what he is doing," said Rep. John Long, D-Land O'Lakes. "We had too many committees and subcommittees. We were stretched too thin. It was impossible to do all we were being asked to do."

Rep. John Renke, R-New Port Richey, the new House minority leader, said he also is pleased.

"We got too bogged down in meetings last year," Renke said. "We never got anything accomplished for talking about what we were going to do."

Renke said the House also needs to be sure that committees get to work on legislation enough in advance to provide the House with bills to consider in the early days of next year's legislative session.

"None of the bills had actually gotten through committee when (the) session started," Renke said. "That left everything to the last few days."

Wetherell told members that the changes reflect requests of many House members who wanted "a leaner and more responsive organizational structure."

Among committee changes are:

Consolidating the Public Transportation and Highway Safety and Construction committees into a Transportation Committee that has two subcommittees. The change also eliminates four additional subcommittees that existed in the 1988-90 sessions.

Elimination of a Youth Committee and its three subcommittees with those duties assigned to the Health and Rehabilitative Services Committee.

Elimination of the Science, Industry & Technology Committee and its three subcommittees and the assignment of the Public Service Commission and the Department of the Lottery to a Regulated Services & Technology Committee that will have public utility and lottery subcommittees.

Elimination of the Environmental Regulation Committee and its three subcommittees with those duties assigned to the Natural Resources Committee.

The creation of a Committee on Vocational and Technical Education with no subcommittees.