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THIS IS NOT A JUNKET, LEGISLATORS INSIST

Policy and politics blend with rubber clown noses and beer at legislators' convention.

It looked bad, traveling out of state for a weeklong conference at taxpayer expense.

Awful even, with a huge state budget deficit and orders that local governments curb spending to make way for property tax cuts. So state Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, went to the people.

"I called up about 10 constituents and stopped people on the street," Reed said. "They said if it helps you to govern, then you need to go."

Three days into the National Conference of State Legislatures in Boston, Reed felt validated. "It's not a junket," she insisted, stepping out of a Tuesday afternoon seminar on leadership. "This is important."

Many of the 40 or so other Florida lawmakers here this week made the same case, pointing to the vast conference agenda, the ideas they came away with, even handwritten meeting notes as evidence of a worthwhile expense.

But they also spent time schmoozing, traipsing around Fenway Park and the historic city. Through it all, Florida lobbyists battled for face time - access that has become even more valuable now that ethics laws prevent them from wining and dining lawmakers.

The gift ban has resulted in fewer lobbyists than years past.

"The law says what you can do so it's trained me to say, 'okay, let's split the check,' " said veteran Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist Keyna Cory.

All told, the total cost to taxpayers will be roughly $70,000, which includes accommodations for about 20 legislative staffers.

"It's not wasted time," Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, said after lunch in the vast exhibition hall of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center on the city's South Side. Coley said she would like to push for legislation that would improve teacher training programs.

The annual conference, expected to draw a record 9,000, offered dizzying menu of seminars, from the dangers of public wi-fi to dealing with children of incarcerated parents and property insurance reform.

The floor of the exhibition hall resembled a carnival. Officials from every imaginable interest group manned 500 booths.

The Beer Institute handed out free samples. Oil giant BP handed out calculators and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey tossed red rubber clown noses at passers-by.

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Rep. Janet Long cracked open a black, vinyl binder and flipped through pages of notes, written in tight cursive on the back of handouts. "I've been writing everything down," she said.

The Seminole Democrat said she intends to develop legislation aimed at boosting higher education standards.

A month ago, Long was not sure she would attend. After her name was included in a story about lawmakers who were traveling at taxpayer expense, she said she would pay her own way if she went at all. Long was virtually the only one to make that decision. Some lawmakers used unspent campaign funds.

"I really believe if you sit there and tell others to tighten their belts, you have to be willing to sacrifice as well," Long said, estimating her expenses at more than $1,000.

The night before, Rep. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, sat in the bleachers at Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox, along with thousands of others. The team was away in Los Angeles, but the field lights were on and the Boston University band played as lawmakers, staff and their families ate free hotdogs, peanuts, cotton candy and drank Harp and Guinness.

The state of Massachusetts - which will get an estimated $18-million boost from the conference - picked up part of the tab and the National Conference of State Legislatures raised money for the rest. The cost: between $300,000 and $500,000.

Tuesday night, the Florida delegation gathered for cocktails and dinner at Skipjack's, a seafood restaurant in Copley Square.

In the morning, they would be back at work: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was on the schedule.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com or (850)224-7263.

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