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Wallace returns to thick of debate

House Speaker Peter Wallace returned to his lawmaking duties from a two-week camping trip and landed in the middle of a partisan battle between Gov. Lawton Chiles and Senate President Jim Scott over health care reform.

The squabbling, he said, made him long for the Utah wilderness where he skimmed down river rapids and slept under the stars.

"I'm getting re-acclimated and shaving is something that comes at a later time," he said, explaining the scraggly blond beard that grew during his separation from razor blades.

Despite Republican leaders' unequivocal rejection of his health care plan, Chiles said Tuesday he will bring lawmakers back to Tallahassee to take up the proposal.

"There will be a special session," the governor said. "It will be late July or early August, and there may be more than one special session."

The day before, Scott sent Chiles a letter urging him to drop his proposal to expand health coverage using federal and state money. Chiles argues that if Florida enacts a plan using a federal waiver of Medicaid rules, the state could avoid devastating cuts when Congress doles out Medicaid money in block grants. Scott said he talked with Republican Congressional leaders last week and learned that was not so.

Wallace came back into town as the battle raged.

"The (Senate) president's letter is alarming for Floridians," he said. "I believe he is saying there is a substantial potential Florida will be harmed by congressional action on block grants."

Wallace, who supports Chiles' health care reform plan, said he talked with the governor earlier about the prospects for a special session.

"He knows I have concern about heading into a special session when we don't have a sense of a successful outcome," he said.

The issue, he said, "is exceedingly political. The history has set that tone, and we've never been able to break free of it. At first it had a lot to do with gubernatorial politics, and it seems to have gotten drawn into national politics."

Chiles and Scott are "far apart," Wallace acknowledged. "Yea far. Real far. Like from here to Utah."

Wallace also announced his priorities for the legislative session. They include:

Reform of the Baker Act, the law governing psychiatric commitment, to make sure the rights of elderly Floridians are protected.

Taking a look at prison staffing to make sure prison guards and other corrections workers are safe. Laws passed this year will greatly increase the number of inmates in exisiting prisons.

Cut the waiting list for state-subsidized day care for working families who can't afford private day care.

Make sure high school graduates master basic academic skills before entering community colleges.

Ensure an adequate drinking water supply to coastal areas.

Increase the use of managed care among welfare recipients and state employees to reduce costs.

Strengthen the underground fuel tanks clean-up program.

Review banking legislation and economic development incentives.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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