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Eyes on leaders in short session

Incoming House Speaker Johnnie Byrd said his agenda for Tuesday's organizational session is simple: swear in the new members, set the rules, give a short speech.

The speech is key.

It won't last long, but when compared to incoming Senate President Jim King's opening words, it will give clues about how well the two will get along when the regular legislative session begins in March.

A good relationship is crucial this year, when lawmakers will struggle to pass even the basics _ such as a budget _ because of tough economic times and a series of constitutional amendments that have tied their hands.

But if Plant City Republican Byrd and Jacksonville Republican King do little more than nod at each other over the fourth floor rotunda that separates the two legislative chambers, that could be an improvement from the relationship of their predecessors.

The animosity between former House Speaker Tom Feeney and Senate President John McKay, although masked with talk about the importance of the two chambers' independence, paralyzed the Legislature at times.

The static forced taxpayers to pay for two extra special sessions when the House and Senate failed to agree, once on budget cuts and another time on an update of state education laws.

But most observers say the affable King and earnest Byrd are far more likely to hammer out compromises that both chambers can live with.

King said that it's a shame that outside forces, including the economy and a series of expensive constitutional amendments, will dictate what sort of programs the Legislature can work on.

"If I had my druthers, I'd have been dealt a different hand," King said.

His current hand includes paying for reduced class sizes, free prekindergarten for anyone who wants it, additional state court costs, a high-speed train and a large Medicaid budget.

Byrd has a priority to add: He wants to hasten the discovery of a cure for Alzheimer's, the disease that took his father.

Byrd also hopes to persuade House members, 81 of whom are Republican, to adopt a 48-hour "cooling-off period" for all bills.

Currently, lawmakers must wait 72 hours to approve the final version of the state budget. The rule is intended to give them enough time to find and object to anything unseemly that was quietly tucked into the mammoth bill.

Byrd wants to extend such a period to all bills, making sure everyone has a chance to review last-minute amendments.

"I don't think we should pass anything that can't stand the light of day," Byrd said.

King said the Senate already has a rule requiring two-thirds of its members approve last-minute amendments, so he doesn't plan to ask his chamber to adopt a cooling-off rule.

Among the new Tampa Bay area lawmakers to be sworn in to the House Tuesday are Tom Anderson, a retired management consultant and three-time mayor of Dunedin. He'll be joined by Citrus County native and former Republican sheriff Charles Dean, who is replacing Nancy Argenziano. Argenziano is headed to the state Senate, having defeated Democrat incumbent Richard Mitchell.

The area's freshman delegation also includes Ed Homan, an orthopedic surgeon from Temple Terrace who defeated Democrat Sara Romeo and Republican Faye Culp, who's making a political comeback. She represented the district from 1994 to 1998.

Tampa Bay's freshman senators include Dennis Jones of Treasure Island, a long-time House member considered King's likely pick for majority leader, and Paula Dockery of Lakeland, who was unopposed and will represent part of Hernando County.

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