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Deal loosens legislative logjam

In the final hours of the 2002 Legislature, Senate President John McKay finally got what he wanted: an agreement on tax reform.

It wasn't as ambitious as his original proposal, but he took what he could get, declaring victory in the waning hours of the session.

The deal sent legislators home, but only temporarily. They will have to return April 2 for a series of special sessions, called by Gov. Jeb Bush, to address the state budget, Cabinet reorganization and revisions to the education code.

Friday's 30-9 Senate vote followed a 74-43 House vote in the early morning hours. McKay got what he wanted by giving House Speaker Tom Feeney what he wanted: a congressional seat he can win.

The deal proved crucial to breaking a logjam that had virtually halted the passage of all bills.

Lawmakers continued debating bills late into the night, exchanging hostile barbs that have been a hallmark of the 2002 session.

The tax plan came together after Gov. Jeb Bush urged House Republicans to accept it as part of a compromise to end the session.

"I told them it was important to get the work of the Legislature done. I told them we need to get things done and these things were tied together," Bush said.

The result: Voters will be asked in November to create a special panel of 12 legislators _ six from the House and six from the Senate _ to study tax breaks and vote for exemptions. A tax break would disappear two years later unless the Legislature voted to reinstate it.

"It's a comprehensive review of all tax exemptions," said Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who shepherded the measure through the Senate. "It allows the people of Florida to decide whether or not they are happy with their current tax system and whether or not they would like an improvement."

The plan bore little resemblance McKay's original, far-reaching proposal to reduce the sales tax and eliminate hundreds of tax exemptions. But that idea was rejected by the House and criticized by Bush and a coalition of lobbyists for businesses.

Almost immediately, business organizations whose services are tax-exempt began discussing a strategy to oppose the measure.

"It is the right thing to do," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach. "The Republican leadership understands this is what has to be done to fund the critical needs of our state."

But the concept didn't sound right to Sen. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami. He worried that an antitax House would choose six staunch conservatives to review tax exemptions. "I think this is a fixed deck they're handing the Florida Senate, and I think we're going to get snookered in the end," Meek said.

Meanwhile, the House approved a plan to regulate insurance and banking in Florida, a mammoth decision that came after four years of feuding over the new chief financial officer's duties.

But late Friday, the Senate rejected the proposal.

The Cabinet post was created by voters in 1998 to reduce the size of the state Cabinet. The House wanted the people who regulate banking and insurance to be insulated from the influence of campaign contributions to the chief financial officer. The Senate version had regulators under the chief financial officer's control.

The two chambers had tentatively agreed to a compromise that still favors the Senate but sparked a feud between Republican Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher and Republican Comptroller Bob Milligan, who plan to oppose each other for the new job. Under the compromise, the new officer would supervise all aspects of banking and insurance except regulation. Two division directors appointed by the governor would handle that.

House leaders urged members to pass the bill, even though they called the proposal flawed and criticized the Senate for forcing them to approve the bill.

"We have to do what is good, maybe not perfect," said Rep. Johnnie Byrd, a Plant City Republican who is poised to become the next speaker of the House if the Republicans retain control. "Don't let perfection get in the way of what is good."

Bush had supported the House version but on Friday said the compromise was a good one.

Late Friday, the House and Senate clashed over a rewrite of the state's education laws. The measure is a priority for the governor and aligns Florida's laws with the new kindergarten-through-graduate school system.

But instead of allowing a handful of senators to attend a conference committee meeting with House members to resolve differences, McKay forced senators to vote on the tax amendment.

The House appointees to the conference committee waited for two hours for their Senate counterparts, who appeared only after Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey and Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Miami, went to the Senate floor to fetch them.

McKay's decision so angered Bush that he sent Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan to deliver a message.

McKay needed to finish the education bill, Brogan said. "We would consider that a good faith effort. . . . Or do they want to come back on Monday?" Brogan added. Bush has the authority to call lawmakers back into special session.

Senators complained that they only received the House's nearly 1,800-page education bill at 2 p.m., giving them almost no time to review it.

Lawmakers agreed to leave the budget unresolved until later this spring. The Senate plan spends about $500-million more than the House, and there are other disagreements about tax issues.

Lawmakers also passed a growth management bill aimed at better coordinating new development with school capacity. But the bill was far less sweeping than a measure Bush backed last year that would allow local communities to reject development proposals in areas with overcrowded schools. This year's version mainly improves coordination between local governments and school boards.

Another key environmental bill, locking in funding for Everglades restoration, also passed the Legislature, but with an amendment widely condemned by environmentalists. The state and federal government are sharing the cost of the $8-billion restoration project, and lawmakers agreed to issue up to $100-million in bonds annually for that purpose.

Environmentalists cheered the funding but denounced an amendment barring people not directly affected by a proposed development from challenging it.