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Capital's not for faint hearts or weak stomachs

I learned a valuable lesson when I was in the military:

Never volunteer.

But my memory, like my patience, is getting shorter.

The next thing I knew I was on my way to spend five days in Tallahassee. My mission: to track down the legislators who represent Hernando and Citrus counties to see what they were up to, and at the same time soak up as much of the lawmaking atmosphere as I could stomach.

Luckily, I have a strong stomach.

While I have spent a considerable amount of time traipsing around legislative halls in other states where I've worked, this was my first opportunity to venture into the political bowels of Florida's capital.

I think I do a pretty good job of keeping up with what's happening in the state Legislature. I read, I listen and I discuss the issues, just as anyone who tries to stay informed does.

I often have been appalled at what I read about Florida legislators. You've read about it, too. Their inaction. Their inability to reach consensus. Their tendency to put partisan politics above public policy. Their ambidextrous talent of grabbing headlines with one hand while the other picks your pocket.

But what I saw and heard in Tallahassee last week exceeded my most jaded expectations. And, if recent history repeats itself, the worst is yet to come.

Florida's is like other legislatures in many ways, but it seems the shenanigans are carried a step further in many instances.

For example, there's the usual bartering of votes going on between the legislators. It's the run-of-the-mill sort of dealing that we've come to expect from those we pay to help make our world a better place to live. It usually goes like this: "You sign on as a co-sponsor to my bill, and I'll help get your bill out of my committee," etc.

But in Florida, it appears to be used more often as a weapon, rather than a tool to facilitate compromise. Then the bartering process begins to sound more like a threat: "Support my bill, or forget about me support-ing anything you're sponsoring."

Sadly, the merit of the bill itself becomes more or less an afterthought.

Then there are the lobbyists. Like politicians, there are good ones and there are bad ones. Rightly or wrongly, lobbyist is pretty much a dirty word in everyone's vocabulary _ except politicians'.

I've never faulted lobbyists for pleading their cases to lawmakers. It's their job, after all, and they are being paid to protect their special interests. It's only when their behavior borders on bribery that I get concerned.

But in Florida, it seems that many legislators don't take the time to independently research an issue in deciding how to vote on a bill. They rely much too heavily on the condensed, subjective views of lobbyists to provide them with the information they need.

That may be due, in part, to the almost maddening pace. Senators and representatives dash from room to room and from building to building to sit in committee hearings, or to meet with lobbyists, and sometimes even constituents. Their days begin early and go well into the night, especially if they are prone to attend one of the host of receptions they are invited to by various special interest groups.

As I roamed the halls of the Capitol and the adjoining Senate and House office buildings, I felt like I was one of thousands of little fish who, like Jonah, were living in the belly of the biblical whale.

Legislators, their aides and the scores of state employees who serve as liaisons between the executive and judicial branches of state government, scurried up and down the halls, and up and down in elevators, all the while clutching seemingly invaluable stacks of papers. Each is a cog in a self-perpetuating wheel.

I suppose there is some order to this confusion, but the whole process reminds me of a dog chasing its tail.

On Friday, as I discussed my visit with a colleague, he chimed in with an axiom he had heard many years ago: "There's two things in life that normal people shouldn't see: how sausage is made and how laws are made."

I grew up on a farm, so I've seen how sausage is made.

And I've spent most of my adult life as a journalist, so I've seen how laws are made.

This is what I've learned: If improperly prepared, either can make you sick to your stomach. But laws last longer than food poisoning.

It's good to be back home.