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Legislators strain to cut deals

Legislators worked feverishly Thursday on a deal to settle three key issues, but as the night wore on the plan began to unravel.

After a session marked by hostility between House and Senate leaders, both sides struggled to bridge differences over tax reform, redistricting and Cabinet reorganization.

If the tenuous deal holds today, Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney each will get what they want: for McKay, a review of tax exemptions; for Feeney, a congressional seat he can win.

But even at that, the session could end today or be extended without a budget agreement. Lawmakers might return next week to work on spending differences.

By late Thursday, the deal that evolved earlier in the day under Gov. Jeb Bush's guidance was beginning to unravel.

House Democrats, angry at a redistricting map they said could cost several members their seats, voted in unison to prevent Republicans from considering a tax proposal meant to appease McKay.

"We want a new House map," said Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. He said the districts of Rep. Sara Romeo, D-Lutz, and two South Florida Democrats would have to be redrawn for the tax plan to get the 80 votes it needs.

But Republicans responded by placing the tax reform issue on a different bill _ one that was farther along in the legislative process and didn't need a two-thirds vote. A final vote is expected today.

The dealmaking also sparked a new feud within the Republican Party. Comptroller Bob Milligan suddenly announced he will challenge fellow Republican Tom Gallagher for the powerful new post of chief financial officer.

Milligan doesn't like how the Legislature plans to structure the job, arguing it wrongly mixes politics with the regulation of banking and insurance.

Gallagher, one of the best-known names in Florida Republican circles, already has raised $1.2-million for the campaign, and GOP leaders had hoped to coax Milligan into running for Congress. Instead, two Republican stars will battle each other for one of the few statewide elected posts in Florida.

Even with the drama of Milligan's decision, the dealmaking during the penultimate day of the 2002 Legislature overshadowed everything else.

It has been a session in which lawmakers are pushing a record number of new exemptions to open government laws. On Thursday, virtually every major deal was cut out of public view.

McKay had denied for weeks that the big issues were connected, but Thursday's developments showed how intertwined they really were. Fighting the clock, fueled by adrenaline and worried about a voter backlash against Republican control of the Legislature, legislators struck deal after deal:

+ The House offered McKay a review of all sales tax exemptions over three years, beginning in 2003. A 12-member panel of six senators and six House members could eliminate tax breaks with a majority vote, unless the full Legislature reinstated them.

+ The Senate offered Feeney a tailor-made congressional seat that links equal portions of Seminole, Orange, Volusia and Brevard counties.

+ The House tentatively accepted a Senate bill structuring the job of chief financial officer that voters created in 1998 to streamline the Cabinet.

"It's falling together," said a smiling Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, as he left the House leadership office. "I think that map will probably make (Feeney) happy, and he's doing some things to make the Senate happy."

"They're close," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, shuttling in and out of the Senate.

What was not close was an agreement on a $49-billion budget. The Senate wants to spend about $500-million more than the House, mostly for public education and human services. The Senate achieves that partly by opposing a tax break the House adopted, worth $272-million to corporations.

"It's the one thing I can guarantee we can't resolve," Feeney said of the budget. "But we're trying to minimize the differences."

The session was expected to be dominated by a partisan battle over redrawing district lines for Congress and the Legislature. Instead, McKay's unceasing demand for an overhaul of tax policy, and Feeney's equally adamant opposition, brought the session to a virtual standstill.

McKay's call for a ballot proposal dealing with eliminating tax exemptions was widely declared dead weeks ago, after vehement opposition from Feeney, Bush and a coalition of business organizations.

But McKay insisted that "substantive tax reform" would be a part of any deal, and it now appears he was right. One sign that McKay regained the upper hand is that business lobbyists are infuriated by the tax proposal the House is considering.

"It's a 12-member, unicameral Legislature, appointed by the presiding officers, to write substantive tax law without an opportunity for gubernatorial oversight," said lobbyist J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who represents accountants. "We fought a war with the British over this."

It took a bit of procedural treachery for the Senate Republicans to get their new map of congressional districts in position to pass it today. With Democrats apparently not paying attention, Republicans waived the rules and clock so they can amend a congressional map without requiring approval of two-thirds of the Senate members.

What Republicans didn't plan on was a brawl in their own ranks as Bush seeks to become the first Republican ever re-elected governor of Florida.

Milligan had threatened for months that he would run for chief financial officer if the job was not structured to his liking. As word spread of the pending deal, he made his move.

No Democrats are running for the post, setting up a decisive Republican primary between the two men whose jobs were merged into the one.

Milligan, 68, said his candidacy is "about principle, and trying to do what is right." He has been a maverick since unseating a Democratic incumbent comptroller who outspent him 10 to 1 in 1994.

"Bob Milligan will undoubtably have a following," said former state Republican Party chairman Tom Slade. "He is recognized as perhaps the most nonpolitical person ever to occupy political office in Florida."

Gallagher was philosophical about his new opponent. "I would rather not have one, of course, but when you have a comptroller and treasurer, there is a good chance they will be in a race against each other," he said.

The House originally wanted the governor to appoint an independent department head to regulate banking and insurance. Supporters, including Milligan, said that would keep those regulators from being influenced by campaign contributions.

The Senate wanted regulators to report to the chief financial officer.

Now the House is backing a new proposal as a compromise: The chief financial officer would supervise all aspects of banking and insurance except regulation. Two division directors appointed by the governor would handle that.

_ Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.