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Deals and pressures in Tallahassee

As the Constitution Revision Commission was gathering in the Florida Senate chamber to cast its decisive votes six weeks ago, Commissioner Clay Henderson wore the expression of a man being led to the gallows.

"There was a time in my life when I thought I might like to be in the Legislature," he explained. "Now I'm glad I never got the opportunity."

Henderson, a Daytona Beach lawyer who is president of the Florida Audubon Society, did not offer to elaborate. But Capitol gossip soon filled in the blanks.

He had been told of a possible deal: If he would vote against a commission proposal to create an independent redistricting commission, the Legislature might at last be willing to demolish the Rodman Dam and restore the Ocklawaha River to its free-flowing state. Environmentalists have fought for this ever since work stopped on the defunct Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Part of the story strained credibility. Two of the three top guns in the House of Representatives, Speaker-designate John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, and Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, had declared their personal interest in saving the dam, which is popular with people who fish for bass.

But it was also known that Thrasher and other Republican leaders were pulling every possible string to defeat the redistricting proposal, which would keep them from rigging congressional and legislative districts as the Democrats used to do. A test vote had turned up the minimum 22 votes needed to put it on the Nov. 3 ballot.

"It would be a fair statement that everybody was looking for every possible way to change our votes," Henderson said later. "I won't say that anybody made me a hard and fast offer, but there were certainly suggestions floating around. . . ."

He wouldn't say from whom he heard the "suggestions," but he implied that they didn't come directly from any of the handful of legislators who could have actually pulled off such a deal.

"There were legislators talking to other members of the environmental community who were talking to me," he said. "If I felt any pressure, it was from my friends. No legislator put any pressure on me, but . . . the message was that the Oklawaha might be easier if I did the "right' thing.

"This is just one story," he added. "Everybody had pressure on them on this issue."

Henderson said he refused to trace the message to any of the potential dealmakers.

"I made it clear that I wouldn't trade the Constitution for anything," he said.

When I talked to Thrasher, he firmly denied offering any such swap.

"First of all, the Rodman Dam issue is a totally separate issue," he said. "I would never sell the Rodman Dam out for my constituents for the Constitution.

"I did not contact anybody. They are not linked together at all. . . . There was no way I would ever personally link that issue with this one, . . .

"I can't say," he added, "that I didn't talk about some other things."

Though he confessed to no deal, his side did turn two votes against the redistricting commission, putting it on ice for 20 years until the next Constitution Revision.

Henderson said he has a message for that commission:

"Get finished before the Legislature comes into session. . . . You've got to finish your work before they come back into town, because they are the most powerful branch of government."

I had put the story aside, not intending to write it, until Saturday's reports from Tallahassee, about the end of the legislative session the day before, brought it back to mind.

Thrasher, who has a big insurance company constituency in the Jacksonville suburbs, had prevented a floor vote on Rep. Mary Brennan's bill to require health insurance coverage for mental illness. The companies opposed it. So did Thrasher, though he claimed it died only because "We just didn't get to it."

Yet he admitted to my colleague Peter Wallsten that he had asked Gov. Lawton Chiles' chief of staff, Linda Shelley, to "think about" purchasing the passage of the bill, which Chiles strongly supported, for his promise not to veto the business community's big trophy of the session, the misnamed "tort reform" bill that would make it harder for injured people to sue for negligence.

The one had no more to do with the other than did the Rodman Dam and the redistricting commission.

Chiles refused the deal, preserving his option to veto the business relief act. He ought to, if for no other reason than to teach a lesson about when deals are proper and when they're not.