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Aggravated condition

The crisis in Tallahassee has outgrown the issue of medical malpractice insurance. As serious as that is _ and no legislator denies it _ Florida's worse problem now is a governor, Jeb Bush, who threatens the Legislature with an endless summer of special sessions until it passes a bill that suits him. His arrogance calls into question whether he has any respect for the separation of powers that represents America's great and unique contribution to the theory and practice of representative democracy.

Bush remarked to journalists Wednesday that the Senate should "focus on the issues" rather than on what he referred to as institutional issues _ "stuff that regular folks outside Tallahassee don't give two hoots about."

So much for the Constitution. And so much for what he thinks you think about it.

Legislators serve the same constituents who chose him, but there is a profound difference in their constitutional responsibilities. As Rules Chairman Tom Lee reminded his colleagues Wednesday, "We are the board of directors. We set the policy, and the governor implements it." The governor has, of course, the right and the duty to propose policy, and the power to veto policy of which he disapproves. But he cannot dictate what policy should be.

Nonetheless, Bush means to bully the Senate into accepting terms that offend most senators. His campaign continued without letup Wednesday despite his acceptance of a superficially more generous limit on the noneconomic damage component of medical malpractice awards. As Lee and other senators quickly noted, there would still be rigid caps of $250,000 per claimant and $500,000 overall on the liability of all doctors involved. Similar limits would apply separately to hospitals and other defendants, regardless of the number of plaintiffs. That's a violation of the citizen's constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. In an analogous case, the Florida Supreme Court has already said so.

The situation is lamentable for the fact that Florida doctors _ and their patients _ must wait longer for the comprehensive legislation on which both houses could swiftly agree if Bush weren't holding everything else hostage to some form of a $250,000 cap. It is dire for the threat it poses to constitutional government in Florida. Bush appears at the moment to hold no more than six votes in his pocket _ those of the six Republican senators who boycotted a historic joint caucus with the Democratic minority Wednesday _ but other Republicans are being subjected to outrageous pressures that their governor appears to be applying through their campaign contributors.

At least one senator, for example, received a letter on the letterhead of Raymond James Financial Inc., of St. Petersburg, bearing the signature of Thomas A. James, chairman and CEO, that said in blunt terms that senators should join in Bush's vendetta against the trial lawyers.

"I and many of my compatriots have committed to only supporting candidates who are not accepting contributions from the plaintiff's bar and are supporting a $250,000 cap as well as other provisions designed to limit the awards and costs of legal actions in this area," the letter said. "If you are aligned with us on these issues, I will contribute as usual."

That's how rough _ and rotten _ it has become in Tallahassee. There is little high ground left there. But for now, the Senate still holds it.

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