With only hours to go in its 60-day session, the Florida Legislature finally started taking up its most significant work late Friday night.
Not long before midnight, they approved sweeping reforms of the welfare system, restricting recipients to a lifetime limit of four years. And they unanimously passed major reforms of a law _ the Baker Act _ that has been used to confine helpless elderly people in mental institutions.
Senators also voted for a bill that thousands of coastal homeowners are relying on to keep their insurance carriers from dumping them. The House was expected to follow suit on the bill that extends for three years a moratorium on cancellations that has been in place since Hurricane Andrew blew into South Florida in 1992.
"This is a victory for consumers," said Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson after the Senate vote.
Meanwhile, legislators stalled over letting kids pray aloud at school events, and forcing students to work harder to earn a public high school diploma.
They managed to approve legislation supporters hope will lead to a cease-fire in the Tampa Bay water wars.
They were poised to okay a major economic development package to pump up the state's business climate, while privatizing the state Department of Commerce.
They honed in on the only bill they really had to pass: the $39.8-billion budget that adds some money to the public schools but at the expense of the poorest Floridians.
And as the evening wore on, it looked as if legislators would not act on a threat to eliminate a law that has helped the state sue the nation's major tobacco companies for $1.4-billion in health care costs.
As the day started, legislative leaders knew there would be a rough ride ahead.
"Buckle up, let's go," said House Speaker Peter Wallace Friday morning as he met with key staffers to discuss the agenda.
But it didn't take long for plans to run amok, as negotiations on virtually every major bill bogged down.
Instead of acting on major issues, legislators spent much of the day taking up local bills and non-controversial measures with frequent recesses. Leaders met behind the scenes trying to work out their differences so they could get the bills to the floor.
On behalf of clients who pay them huge fees, lobbyists scrambled to pass or block just one more bill.
_ More coverage, Section B and 1E