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Byrd takes gavel as House speaker

Republicans celebrated historic gains in the Legislature on Monday by choosing Rep. Johnnie Byrd Jr., a Plant City lawyer, to be House speaker for the next two years.

Byrd immediately drew a hard line against new taxes. He vowed to govern with a "clear, concise and succinct vision" of leadership, based on "less taxes, less regulation, more personal freedom, more individual responsibility and family empowerment."

Lawmakers face hard choices because of slumping tax revenues and massive new demands on the budget, especially the expensive class size initiative. But Byrd said it would be a mistake if Republicans embrace taxes.

"Some will say that times have changed," Byrd said, "that we have a budget crisis. We've got some education reforms we have to do. Maybe we ought to think about raising taxes, or even maybe some get-rich-quick schemes that will add to government coffers. I say this: I say that if the principles that got us here were good enough to get us here, they're good enough to take us through the challenges ahead."

The soft-spoken Byrd, 51, who often wears a bemused smile, was praised by colleagues for his honesty and devotion to God. The praise flowed freely, and only Rep. Gaston Cantens of Miami was candid enough to admit the obvious: that Byrd alone will decide which committees lawmakers will serve on and the fate of many of their bills. Nobody wants to be on a House speaker's bad side.

The caucus of gleeful, back-slapping House Republicans met two weeks after an election that swelled their ranks to 81 in the 120-member House, what state GOP chairman Al Cardenas called "this miracle."

"Now that you're the majority party, never forget that people in Florida will judge us by results. The results have been outstanding," said Cardenas, who will step down in January.

Scarcely more than a decade ago, in 1990, Democrats held a 74-46 advantage, recalled Byrd's predecessor as speaker, Tom Feeney. In that same 12 years, Feeney went from back-bencher to speaker to newly minted Congress member, elected two weeks ago.

But Byrd's rise has been faster. His ascension to the speakership, one of the three most powerful political offices in state government, dramatically reflects how term limits have transformed Capitol culture. A native of Brewton, Ala., Byrd did not move to Florida until 1988 and was first elected to the House only six years ago.

Byrd is one of only eight House members with as much as six years of experience. The Byrd House may be one of the least experienced in state history. The 30 newcomers join 56 who were elected in 2000, meaning nearly three-quarters of members have less than two years of experience.

Byrd has called the House the "entry-level Legislature," noting a trend in which most first-year senators begin with eight years of experience in the House.

Of the 81 House Republicans, 68 are men and 13 are women. Twelve are Hispanics.

The GOP caucus also chose Rep. Lindsay Harrington, a real estate broker from Punta Gorda, as House speaker pro tempore under Byrd. Clerk of the House John Phelps and sergeant at arms Earnest Sumner were reappointed for two-year terms.

Today, in a one-day organizational session, all 160 lawmakers will take the oath of office, and the 39 House Democrats will elect Rep. Doug Wiles, a St. Augustine insurance agent, to be House minority leader for the 2002-04 term.

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