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Legislative reins hard to hold and to release

On the surface, life in the Legislature is warm and fuzzy.

"I'm happy," House Speaker Daniel Webster said Friday as he reviewed the week with reporters. "I'm happy because so far we've had a successful session."

A few minutes later similar words came from Minority Leader Buzz Ritchie.

"I think we've had a good first two weeks," Ritchie told reporters.

Strange words coming from the men who lead the 61 Republicans and 59 Democrats in a House both parties want to control.

Below the surface, things are not as sweet. Sometimes tempers flare and you can tell readily that Republicans are unaccustomed to governing and Democrats are having trouble letting go. It might be harder to have power and lose it than it is to suddenly gain power you never had.

Take last week. Trouble came at the end of a meeting of the House Financial Services Committee, the group that handles insurance and banking issues.

Rep. R. Z. "Sandy" Safley, R-Clearwater, is chairman of the committee. He was appointed after Republicans gained control in November. Rep. John Cosgrove, D-Miami, who for years was chairman of the old Insurance Committee, was not appointed to Safley's committee.

Cosgrove has long considered making a run for state insurance commissioner, so you can imagine how mad he was. He repeatedly asked Webster to put him on the committee and, when he didn't, started going to all the meetings.

Cosgrove sits up at the committee table with the members, a privilege long extended to other legislators when they visit committees. Ritchie has asked some Democrats to visit committees to keep informed on important issues, but he says he didn't have to ask Cosgrove to keep up on insurance.

"I couldn't keep him away from that issue, if I had a team of horses," Ritchie said last week. "But we haven't tried to discourage him."

It was obvious that this situation ultimately would blow up. Last week, it did.

Safley was hearing from witnesses on a complex bill. When the meeting began, he advised everyone the session was a workshop and amendments would not be considered. Cosgrove was a little late and didn't hear the ground rules.

As the meeting neared an end, Cosgrove interrupted and asked to speak.

"Thank you for interrupting, I'll get back to you," Safley said as he called on lobbyist Frank White to speak.

Cosgrove obviously was unhappy and complained aloud as White spoke.

"We're going through the amendments next week," Safley told Cosgrove.

"I thought the purpose of the workshop was to discuss the bill," Cosgrove complained, adding that he might want to file amendments but wasn't sure until he got a few questions answered.

"If you like, I'll go out there and fill out a speaker's request form and stand there like every lobbyist who is paid, rather than as an elected official," Cosgrove responded.

"I appreciate the vitriolic speech," Safley replied. "But let me be real specific. I have invited you on numerous occasions to work with this committee. I know you wanted to serve on this committee. . . . We welcome all the input we can get. The notion that you should go out in the audience and prepare a card like a lobbyist is absolutely uncalled for."

Safley then offered to sit down with Cosgrove after the meeting and discuss his ideas.

"I want to share them with the public," Cosgrove retorted. "That's why I came to this meeting. That's why I was elected by the people of my district. If I have to go to your office and share issues privately, I find that to be offensive. That's insulting."

That's when Rep. Fred Lippman, D-Hollywood, tried to make peace. It didn't work. Safley, barely maintaining his composure, adjourned the meeting, leaving Cosgrove in mid-speech.

This committee could charge admission.