As the final days of the legislative session unfold, Times news artist Don Morris takes his sketchbook to the state capital and puts shading pencil to sketch paper to record what he saw as he watched the Legislature (the show) work through the budget (the dough).
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Waiting to hear results of budget negotiations, Part 1
I've been waiting with about 40 people in Room 301. It's 7:30 p.m.The committee was supposed to meet at 5, but the time has been changed twice. The dark-haired man in front of me knows a lot of people. He greets them as they walk by his aisle seat. Committee members begin to arrive. Smoothly, the man in front of me stands up and stops the taller man who is passing by. They greet and immediately begin to whisper. They draw closer as one talks softly in the other's ear. Each man looks over the other's shoulder and surveys the room. Now they're so close I'm feeling awkward. Does anyone else notice this very private exchange? Nope. I find out later that the guy in front of me was Ron Book, one of Tallahassee's most prominent lobbyists. The other man was state Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah.
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Thursday, April 18: House floor debate
House Bill 701 is being debated. The bill seeks to stop the abuse of electronic benefit transfer cards, which transfer government benefits to retail accounts. This is a classic ideological battle as Republicans in general accuse holders of EBT cards of abusing them to drink and gamble. Democrats say that only a handful of card holders misuse them and that this bill is just another slap in the face of poor people. Representatives are arguing about who is more mean-spirited and more compassionate, and who's most respectful of taxpayers and how their money is spent. Republicans control the House and sit in the front of the room. Democrats sit near the exit in the back. They refer to each other as "my colleague in the back row" or the "member from the front row." In this debate, strip clubs are called "adult establishments," casinos are called "gambling institutions" and bars are called "alcohol institutions."
"So let's not just pick on poor people. Let's expand this bill. Let's make sure that anybody, including ourselves, who get paid by taxpayer dollars also cannot use any of our money that we get paid in any of these institutions either," Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, says.
"Anything is not a good number when you're misusing it. The other back-row person said maybe they (card users) work there and they are buying a Coke. My research says that a Coke in a strip club costs $7 to $10," Rep. Tom Goodson, R-Titusville, says.
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Friday, April 19: Room 301, Senate Office Building
Waiting to hear results of budget negotiations, Part 2
"Are we okay?" the white-haired man winks as he greets lobbyist Ron Book. This looked like one of those "we know something no one else knows" winks. The winker is state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, the House transportation and economic development chairman. These two seem to genuinely like each other. Hooper takes his seat up front at a microphone and waits for the meeting to start.
LOBBYIST JACK CORY
"That's it. They snuck out on us," Jack Cory tells a colleague, but it's not clear who "they" are. Cory has been a lobbyist for more than 30 years. He has been perched at the exit of the House and greeting representatives as they leave. He grabs his rolling briefcase and walks alone to the elevator.
RICHARD OSMAN GOES TO TALLAHASSEE
Richard Osman, 69, of Cape Coralis on vacation visiting his daughter in Tallahassee. She's at work, so he figured he'd sit in on a few budget meetings. The thing that bothers him most about the Legislature? The Mercedes-Benzes parked crooked and taking up two parking spaces. He asks if I want to go up to the 22nd floor to look out over Tallahassee. We step out of the elevator and see school kids everywhere. He immediately begins explaining to seventh-grader Jameka McAffee where to look for the Supreme Court building. I look away and when I turn back, they're up on the ledge with faces pressed against glass trying to peer directly below.
Mother and child (and dad) reunions
"Ah! Here you are," the lobbyist says as he sees his wife and young daughter step off the elevator. All embrace. It's after 7 on Friday night and he has been waiting for a late meeting. She heads to the restroom and leaves him with his tiny daughter. Just then the elevator door opens and another mother steps out pushing a stroller. The mothers look at each other and laugh.
"YOU DON'T HAVE THAT MUCH HAIR!" cracks a passing lawmaker to House Sergeant at Arms Earnest Sumner, who is retiring after 44 years. Sculptor Michael Jernigan has been commissioned by lawmakers and lobbyists to sculpt a bust of Sumner. It's paid for with private money - $800 for each sponsorship. Jernigan works at the center of the lower-level lobby where his artwork can be scrutinized by everyone, especially Sumner, who seems to be inspecting the bust every time I walk by.
Uh, we'll take the stairs
Five young pages who look to be around seventh grade rush to the elevator that's about to open. The door opens. The pages spin and retreat quickly as though the elevator was full of snakes. Actually it was full of squealing middle school-age girls.
ANTHONY KNOX, 60, Tony's CAPITOL SHOE SHINE
"I've been doing this since 1988 and I've seen and heard a lot. And I don't tell anyone," he says. "Back when I started, they pulled me aside and told me, 'Tony, you can shine a lot of shoes here and you will hear a lot. You cannot ever, ever talk about it. It's private.'" Tony is running for governor on the "Christian ticket." He tells me there are more than 12,000 party members. His favorite governor? "Jeb Bush. He was a good man. When I told him I was running for governor he said, 'Tony, you'll make a good governor.'" I ask what he thinks of Rick Scott. "I haven't had a chance to speak to him. He is a nice man. He has some really nice boots and I could shine them."
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Thursday, April 18, Room 412, Knott Building,the largest committee room in the Legislature, the scene of many big political battles.
Budget Conference introductory meeting
It's a lot more fun budgeting when there's money to spend. House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz preside over a joint kickoff ceremony for the coming week of budget negotiations. It feels like a pep rally. Each talks of the other as though they're best friends. The session will end Friday.