Lawmakers have an ambitious agenda for their 2006 session: solving insurance problems, saving school vouchers, making plans for $3.2-billion in extra tax revenue, protecting businesses from lawsuits, cutting taxes and more.
Many also have enterprising plans after the 60-day session that begins March 7: running for higher offices or simply just keeping the seats they have.
The combined goals usually make for a session where a lot gets done without a lot of acrimony. Many bills will be voter-friendly legislation on issues like taxes and crime.
"The reality is that on our best day, this is still a political process," said Senate President Tom Lee, who is running for chief financial officer. "The good news is that it's a democratic process where we all have to go back and seek approval from the voters to continue our public service. Unfortunately, there are times when that gives rise to pandering."
There is a lot of pressure this year to take a look at the operations of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-created insurance company for people who can't get homeowners coverage elsewhere.
Republican leaders have also said they would try to find a way to overcome a Supreme Court ruling that school vouchers were unconstitutional. Gov. Jeb Bush has also proposed $1.5-billion in tax cuts ahead of his last session in office.
But lawmakers will also be trumpeting a few bills with election season in mind.
"There will be some voter-friendly, or shall we say patronizing, legislation," lobbyist Brian Ballard said. "We'll see some trash, but most of it will be pretty good."
For example, one proposal could save Floridians $300 if they buy a car or a home entertainment system. The state's sales tax would be suspended on the first $5,000 of just about any item purchased during a week that happens to fall a month before the primary election. Previous tax holidays have been primarily targeted toward back-to-school and hurricane supplies.
It's proposed by Rep. Joe Negron, a Republican candidate for attorney general who is in a tough primary with former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum and two other state lawmakers, Sen. Burt Saunders and Rep. Everett Rice.
Negron rebuffed suggestions that the proposal is a gimmick to win votes.
"If we were doing something new and different, that may be a legitimate point, but this is just a continuation of a philosophy we've had from the beginning," said Negron, pointing out many of the Republican cuts passed over the last seven years.
House Speaker Allan Bense defended the idea, saying he asked Negron to come up with a creative tax cut proposal.
Bense, though, did say politics can get in the way of the session.
"From time to time I've got to visit with a member or two," Bense said, adding that the message is usually, "Let's focus on session. After May the 5th you can have all the fun and games you want to with your race, but let's not do that now."
Here's a sampling of what some other candidates for higher office have proposed:
Rep. Randy Johnson, who is challenging Lee for the Republican nomination for chief financial officer, wants to repeal the constitutional amendment that allowed slot machines in Broward County. He also hopes to change election laws to limit the use of soft money in elections - a bill seemingly targeted at Lee, who was set to tap into soft money he raised before promising in January not to use it for his campaign.
Rice is seeking an amendment to protect property owners from eminent domain land seizures. Senate Democratic Leader Les Miller and Saunders have bills that add restrictions to where sex offenders can live.
Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, the sole Democrat in the attorney general's race, wants an amendment to ban oil and natural gas drilling 200 miles off the state's coast, an issue that's in federal, not state hands. Democratic Sen. Ron Klein has a similar measure asking Florida's members of Congress to oppose drilling - something 24 of the state's 25 U.S. House members are already doing.
Notably, Sen. Rod Smith, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, doesn't have any bills that would make a big splash as he campaigns. That's by design, Smith implied. In a Legislature where Republicans outnumber their counterparts two to one, he knows his proposals could be opposed simply because he's seeking higher office.
"There are some bills this year where I've actually said to people, "This year I'm a little more of a lightning rod,' " said Smith, adding that he's told some folks he would support a bill, but suggested a different sponsor.
Other lawmakers seeking higher office include Republican Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Nancy Detert, who are running for Congress. And that doesn't include a host of state representatives seeking to move up to the Senate.
Part of politics is also returning favors, as Lee is doing this year. One of his priorities is getting the Senate to take up Bense's goal of getting rid of a law that can require someone partially responsible in a negligence lawsuit to pay all of the damages if other responsible parties can't.
Bense helped Lee in December with his push to ban lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers.
"He's helped me with ethics reform, and what goes around comes around," Lee said.
LAWMAKERS LOOKING FOR HIGHER OFFICE
Sen. ROD SMITH, D-Alachua: governor.
Senate President TOM LEE, R-Valrico: chief financial officer.
Rep. RANDY JOHNSON, R-Celebration: chief financial officer.
Senate Minority Leader LES MILLER, D-Tampa: Congress.
Rep. GUS BILIRAKIS, R-Palm Harbor: Congress.
Sen. RON KLEIN, D-Delray Beach: Congress.
Rep. NANCY DETERT, R-Venice: Congress.
Sen. WALTER "SKIP" CAMPBELL, D-Fort Lauderdale: attorney general.
Rep. JOE NEGRON, R-Stuart: attorney general.
Sen. BURT SAUNDERS, R-Naples: attorney general.
Rep. EVERETT RICE, R-Indian Shores: attorney general.