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Capitol showdown nothing if not murky

You gotta love a good constitutional showdown now and then. This week's session of our Legislature has the seeds for two.

The first issue is the power of the Legislature to override a veto of the governor. Even our House and Senate do not agree on how much they have.

The second issue is exactly how much power our governor has to force the Legislature to do anything at all, such as build more schools, the topic of this week's session.

First, the veto.

Last spring the Legislature approved a law that banned a form of late-term abortion known as "partial-birth" abortion. Gov. Lawton Chiles vetoed it.

The Constitution is clear on what had to happen next. The governor filed his veto with Secretary of State Sandra Mortham. She dutifully reported it to the Legislature "at its next regular or special session," in this case the special session that started Monday.

This is where things get murky. The next paragraph of the Constitution says that it takes a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to override the governor's veto. But that's all it says. It doesn't say anything about when.

Must the Legislature vote on the override in this session? After all, the secretary of state had to report the veto at the next "regular or special" session.

On the other hand, could the Legislature wait until its next regular annual session in the spring?

Nobody knows for sure. The Senate believes the Legislature must act now. Even if the Constitution doesn't spell it out, the Senate has used its very next session to act on the past 228 vetoes, going back to 1968. Precedent counts. A Senate lawyer warns: "Use it or lose it."

The House believes it can wait. But if the House is correct, then how long can the wait last? How far back can the Legislature reach? Can we rewrite history?

Another oddity is that both the state House that passed this bill, and some of those who oppose it, want to wait until the spring for the override vote. The opponents hope the Legislature will wait and then lose in court.

As for why the House wants to wait _ well, who knows? Maybe the House wants to focus its heart and soul on the important matter of building schools. Certainly, no one would be so crass as to delay this emotional issue to keep it alive well into the election year. Certainly not.

The second constitutional issue will come up if the Legislature fails to do anything this week. Will the governor keep forcing lawmakers to hold more special sessions? His top aides have said he will.

Can he do that? This question, unlike the veto issue, has come up before. Then-Gov. Bob Martinez called two special sessions on the same subject within a two-week period in 1989.

A state representative, Elvin Martinez of Tampa, sued on the grounds that the Legislature had done its job by considering the issue the first time. But the Florida Supreme Court _ in the wonderfully named case of Martinez vs. Martinez _ upheld a governor's power to call unlimited sessions on the same subject.

Yet leading the Legislature to water does not mean you can make it drink. Only the House and Senate themselves have the power to make their members show up _ by force, if necessary.

In a famous episode of the last century, several dissident members of the state Senate escaped to Georgia to avoid being so captured. They became known as the "Babes in the Woods." However, remember that legislators can be so compelled only if the House and Senate want them back.

No doubt, our modern Legislature will do its best to give the governor a school package that he can accept. No doubt, they will work together and compromise.

But the limits of Chiles' power are hardly academic. Even this week, he ordered the Legislature into session at 9 a.m. Monday. At that appointed hour, not enough House members had bothered to show up, and they decided by themselves to put the whole thing off until 1 p.m. Governor, schmuvernor.