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Key House legislators meet secretly

Key lawmakers in the state House opened debate on the most important public policy issue facing Florida, school crowding, with a secret meeting Sunday night.

The dinner session was at the headquarters of a prominent Tallahassee lobbying group, the Florida Restaurant Association.

In attendance: House Republican Leader Jim King; Republican John Thrasher, the incoming House speaker and current rules chairman; and Republican state Rep. Ken Pruitt, chairman of the committee that will lead the way in pushing the GOP's plan to ease school crowding.

The Legislature convenes today for a special session on building new schools and moving children out of thousands of portables.

Democrats from both chambers and Senate Republicans also met Sunday night but gave notice last week to allow news reporters and the public to attend.

In contrast, House Republicans and Democrats on Pruitt's committee failed to provide notice. When reporters discovered the meeting, they were allowed in. Afterward, Pruitt and other GOP leaders argued with reporters about whether the meeting violated Florida's open government laws.

The state Constitution demands open government, but the Legislature writes its own rules. It was unclear Sunday night whether the secret meeting violated House rules, but it appeared to violate one provision requiring 14-day notice before committee meetings held before legislative sessions.

In any case, the gathering went against House Speaker Daniel Webster's calls for openness in the Legislature.

Webster did not attend the meeting but was walking in the dark outside Sunday night one block from the Capitol trying to find it. He heard it was at a widely known downtown restaurant but gave up his search after finding the restaurant empty.

"It's a very sad way to start the legislative session," said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, an advocacy group that fights for open government.

"Why can't the public be privy to the information our legislators are getting? It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me."

Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, acknowledged he did not provide public notice, saying he organized the meeting late last week as an informational gathering for lawmakers.

After an inquiry from reporters, he said he did not know who provided dinner but promised to pay for it out of his own pocket.

He also said the committee did not discuss legislation. But as reporters watched, a proposed education bill was distributed, and lawmakers asked questions and debated it.

"I'll take the heat for it," Pruitt said of the meeting. "I'm the one who called it."

It was not clear Sunday night whether the Florida Restaurant Association has taken a position on how the state should pay to ease school crowding. King said it was common for legislators to hold meetings at the offices of lobbying groups such as the restaurant association or the Florida Medical Association.

Meanwhile Sunday night, Gov. Lawton Chiles addressed House and Senate Democrats, saying the state's residents are expecting a $3.3-billion solution this week to school crowding.

"I think the people understand this issue pretty well," Chiles said. "The people know that there's a problem."

At issue, however, is the size of the problem. While Chiles and legislative Democrats put the price tag at more than $3-billion, Republicans say the problems can be fixed for a lot less.

Webster proposed a $1.5-billion plan last week.

"For anyone to say we've got to come up with $3.3-billion over the next five years, they're not living in reality," said Thrasher, R-Orange Park.

In the Senate, Education Committee Chairman John Grant, R-Tampa, said he is not going to be satisfied unless there are significant solutions.

"I will go home and do nothing before I will come up with a meaningless plan just to grandstand for the public," said Grant, who will hold a marathon education meeting today to review proposed bills.

Even as the Legislature convenes, there is still division over key aspects of a solution, including what funds will be used to build schools, how portable classrooms will figure into the equation, and whether school boards will be able to tax their districts to build schools without asking for voter approval.

In the backdrop is politics.

With the 1998 statewide campaigns already beginning, both Republicans and Democrats are eager to look good but get out of town quickly.

House Speaker Webster said he and Senate President Toni Jennings want to finish by Thursday, a day earlier than Chiles requested. Generally, special sessions cost $40,000 a day.

"I don't think any of us want to be up here," said Senate Democratic Leader Ken Jenne. "I don't like special sessions. They're expensive. But we'll be up here as long as it takes."

_ Times staff writer T. Christian Miller contributed to this report.