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Speaker takes post from feisty lawmaker

State Rep. Nancy Argenziano, a maverick Republican from Crystal River, angered House Speaker Tom Feeney not once, but twice last spring.

She opposed a nursing home bill Feeney supported, and in a moment of frustration, sent a gift-wrapped 25-pound box of cow manure to an opposing lobbyist who had camped out in her office.

Argenziano knew she would pay a steep price for her style of independence, and she did on Wednesday.

Feeney stripped her of her chairmanship of the House Council for Healthy Communities and handed the job to a more collegial Tampa Republican, Rep. Sandra Murman.

Argenziano, 46, a Brooklyn native and motorcyclist first elected in 1996, said she was disappointed that Feeney "had to fall to pressures" and said she has a problem with the "unthinking obedience" Feeney demands.

"He was called a maverick in his younger days," Argenziano said. "I'm starting to think _ am I dealing with Speaker No. 1, or Speaker No. 2? I'd like to get back the speaker that I knew."

Feeney tried to bury the news of Argenziano's demotion by merely listing it in a wrap-up of two dozen changes in committee assignments involving both Republicans and Democrats.

"Nancy Argenziano was appointed to the council with the understanding that her principles and philosophies were in line with the speaker and leadership team," said Feeney's spokesman, Kim Stone. "When she decided to change her philosophy, that made it difficult for the leaders to accomplish their goals."

In a statement, Feeney said: "I am going to decline the invitation to be critical of a friend and a colleague. The changes in committee assignments were designed to advance the interests of Florida by establishing roles in the state House that I believe members will excel in and be comfortable with."

For Feeney, or any presiding officer in the Legislature, the most effective way to punish opponents and reward allies is with prized committee chairmanships that carry real clout and come in handy when it comes to raising campaign money from lobbyists and special interests.

Feeney sent Argenziano a letter of admonishment after the May 2 incident and said at the time he would consider stripping the lawmaker of her chairmanship.

Argenziano had the manure delivered to Jodi Chase, a lobbyist who had camped out in the lawmaker's 11th-floor Capitol office while the House passed the nursing home bill that had pitted nursing homes and business lobbies against trial lawyers.

Argenziano opposed the bill because she felt it was tilted too much in favor of the industry, with limits on lawsuit damages, and that its standards for improving care of nursing home patients were too low.

Chase lobbies for Associated Industries of Florida, a powerful business group that pushed for those limits. Chase declined to comment on Argenziano's demotion Wednesday. "That's the House's business," Chase said.

AIF's president, Jon Shebel, was the first to demand Feeney punish Argenziano immediately over the cow manure episode, calling it "despicable."

But Argenziano had her admirers, too. Nearly half of the members of the House signed a petition, calling the action a free speech issue, and dozens of supporters sent congratulatory notes.

Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, who received a coveted seat on the House Reapportionment Committee from Feeney on Wednesday, said Argenziano's opposition to the nursing home bill was a bigger factor than the manure incident.

"Nancy's a good person," Greenstein said. "But when leadership wants you to do something, you're supposed to fall on your sword, and she didn't. She was very supportive of the trial bar, and I don't think the Republican leadership was."

The day wasn't a total loss for Argenziano: She was one of five House members who won seats on the Fiscal Responsibility Council, which writes the House budget.

Argenziano said Feeney offered her two other committee chairmanships, but she declined them because she felt accepting them would signal that she condoned his removal of her from the council.