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Legislative leaders lay some ground rules

Two new leaders with very different styles took charge of the Legislature Tuesday, warily sizing up each other and a future that may force them to find billions for smaller class sizes without new taxes.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, a reserved "country lawyer" from Plant City, and Senate President Jim King, a gregarious self-made millionaire from Jacksonville, accepted both the pressures and the perks of power. Then they were ushered into Gov. Jeb Bush's spacious formal office, where the hot topic was the voter-approved class size amendment and the many questions surrounding it, especially how to pay for it.

Bush won't say.

"All these problems I consider to be opportunities," Bush said. "I'm excited."

Byrd, 51, is an enigmatic conservative who speaks often of his faith in God and his strong opposition to more taxes. King, 63, is more free-wheeling, a moderate who won't eliminate the possibility of new taxes to pay for a long list of needs.

Despite their different backgrounds and styles, they seem eager to avoid a repeat of the past two years, when Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney governed ugly and fought many battles in public.

"We're not going to do public squabbles," King said. "We're going to go along and get along."

Equally determined to dispel any notion of trouble, Byrd told the House: "Jim King and I are friends. Our wives are friends."

In that spirit of a new beginning, both chambers also passed new rules aimed at ending one of lawmaking's worst abuses: hasty passage of long floor amendments, written by lobbyists who circumvent public review in committee meetings. Many lawmakers admit they have no idea what's in those long amendments before voting on them.

Byrd insisted on a provision that requires a two-day cooling off period before any bill is considered in its final form.

"We should never do anything that cannot stand the light of day," Byrd said, promising to bring "sunshine into places where the shadows have ruled before."

Senators adopted new rules to make it harder for members to amend bills on the floor by requiring a two-thirds vote. If all senators are present, the Republican majority would have to persuade at least one Democrat to go along.

Byrd said he would continue to emphasize finding a cure for Alzheimer's, which claimed his father's life on Election Day four years ago. He wants to direct millions more toward researching the causes.

King's agenda was more specific: "glaring needs" such as workers' compensation, medical malpractice and rampant fraud in the no-fault car insurance market, involving the practice of referrals among doctors, lawyers and chiropractic clinics.

King also said nursing home legislation passed in 2001 has failed its goal of bringing new insurance companies to the state.

The plethora of constitutional amendments also concerns King, who wants to ban the use of paid signature-gatherers by groups pushing changes.

"Before my presidency ends we will enact reforms to our constitutional amendment process that will prohibit special interest groups from holding our state Constitution, the people's document, hostage," King said, drawing applause from the members.

Democrats, their ranks depleted by repeated drubbings at the polls, are at their weakest point in modern history. They hold 14 of 40 seats in the Senate and 39 of 120 in the House. They are virtually powerless to block a Republican tide.

House Democrats squabbled on their first day together over reducing the number of floor leaders from two to one. After a long debate, the new caucus rules passed on a 19-15 vote.

Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, called on her fellow Democrats to take a lesson from successful campaigns in other states.

"I didn't think it could get worse, but it has," Ritter said. "We have no policy, no plan. We need to raise money and determine how each issue coming from the speaker's office will affect us politically."

"We clearly are up against tough odds, but our values are still right," said the House Democrats' new floor leader, Rep. Anne Gannon, D-Delray Beach. "Florida's working families are counting on us to be their voice."

Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, and Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, are the minority leaders of each chamber.

It was a day of pomp and ceremony, new faces mingling with old.

Freshman Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, hobbled in on crutches, sporting a bright blue cast on her right foot. She said she broke it two days before she beat Sen. Richard Mitchell, D-Jasper, falling as she put up campaign signs. She was treated at Seven Rivers Community Hospital's emergency room.

"I sit on the hospital board," Argenziano said. "They were pretty quick."

For the second time in modern times, a married couple is serving in the Legislature. Rep. Ed Bullard, D-Miami, won a second term in the House. His wife, former Rep. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, won a Senate seat.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.