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Without the lobbyists, lawmakers plod on dully

You know what they needed up here this week?

Mean, evil, fat-cat lobbyists.

That's how the Legislature usually settles a "crisis." Everybody hollers and postures for a while, and then the affected parties cut a deal.

Maybe it's the insurance companies versus the trial lawyers. Maybe it's the cable TV guys and the phone companies.

Whoever it is, they whack the baby in half and give a script to the Legislature, which enacts the deal and congratulates itself. Crisis over.

This did not happened this week as our Legislature met to address a "crisis" of school crowding.

The lobby between the House and Senate on the fourth floor of the Capitol has been ghostly quiet.

I did run into a lobbyist for many interests who will not be identified, except that he looks kind of like Mr. French from Family Affair. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

"Nothing," he grinned. "Just making sure nobody suddenly proposes a tax on one of my clients."

So the Legislature has been working in a near-vacuum. The only outside forces have been the governor, who called this special session in the first place, and those packets of the day's newspaper articles everybody gets.

There is no imposing phalanx of teachers here. Maybe they are happy with the $250 apiece they might get to buy crayons and stuff. There were some school board folks up here earlier but most are gone.

As for the public _ pfffft. Zip. A few letters from school kids are taped up on the walls, but otherwise the joint looks like the Legislature is not here at all.

Those members of the Legislature not involved in the deal-making sit idly in their offices. No one admits to wasting time. But absent the crush of lobbyists and citizens, they mostly wait.

The result of all this is lackluster.

Our Legislature, especially the House _ which, remember, is run by conservative, business-savvy Republicans _ wants to:

Rack up debt by borrowing a couple billion dollars, and paying it back with the state lottery.

Divvy up part of that cash among the counties in a time-honored, pork-barrel manner.

Create a whole new state bureaucracy to boss around the counties as they beg for their share of the rest.

Most bizarre of all is that portable classrooms, leaky roofs and swamped lunchrooms _ the reason we are here _ are not what are driving the decision.

They are not saying, "Okay, here's what we've got, and here's how big the class sizes are, and that's how we're going to fix it."

Portable classrooms are addressed deep in the fine print. Here is the gist of it: Unless they are falling apart, or scheduled to be replaced anyway, we're still going to count them as equal to classrooms made of bricks and mortar.

And everybody will be happy.

Borrow the dough and spread it around. Give the University of South Florida a little cash, people are happy. A little more to Florida A&M, other people are happy. Stick a few million into a school in Speaker Dan Webster's district, and he's happy as heck.

Big Dade and Broward get most of the whole enchilada, so they're happy. The Legislature even stuck in a line that might as well have said, "A little pot of cash to buy off the small counties, too."

The big question is whether Gov. Lawton Chiles will be happy. This is not a wholesale reform. But it does get him most of the way toward the $3.3-billion that his study commission recommended. Why not declare victory and get out? The governor can say he led the way, the Legislature can say it didn't raise taxes, and the school boards get a little more cash. Nobody gets hurt in the next election.

Now, if somebody had just pointed out that new schools need a lot of telephones, electricity and insurance, and promised that each one would hire its own lawyer, things might be different.