Republicans entered the 2011 legislative session with a trifecta of sorts that has not been seen in decades.
Despite registering less than half of voters in Florida, Republicans held veto-proof majorities in both chambers and were welcoming a conservative governor, who though largely unknown was at least publicly on their side.
But when the final curtain fell at 3:35 a.m. Saturday, the majority party looked more like the vanquished foe than the party in charge as leaders pointed fingers and lamented what might have been.
It’s hard to remind yourself during the final frenzied hours of any legislative session that most Floridians would have a hard time naming more than a couple of House and Senate members, much less follow the inside baseball world that comes to a head on Day 60 of any legislative session. But there were some fundamental issues raised late last Friday night that dealt far more with how things get done in an era of term limits, neophyte state lawmakers and the increasingly few who pull the strings. That trend may have been turned.
Though never a utopian, egalitarian world where each elected official holds the same amount of clout, term limits have concentrated power in the hands of fewer and fewer members — the fortunate or earnest few who have gotten beyond Legislation 101 and other introductory classes and taken the advance courses that allow them to get things done.
One disturbing trend that blew up Friday night, an atmosphere already primed for emotional diversion after a few drinks and 60 days of intense work, was an increasing practice of taking controversial issues out of the firing line of debate and tucking them into legislation that lawmakers have to pass and cannot change.
These so called “budget conforming bills” used to be simple affairs, a few pages of language to tie policy decisions successful on their own merits with the budget that lawmakers have to pass every year.
This year, more than 40 such bills totaling 2,200 pages were presented to lawmakers as “take it or leave it” propositions, a series of ultimatums that has been chafing Democrats since session started but was becoming increasingly bothersome for moderate Republicans, who weren’t part of the insider group.
These GOP members were not part of the cadre that crafted these formerly technical bills that now included such provisions as giving tax breaks to a failing gambling industry sector, deregulating professions and at one point loosen state control over local growth decisions (a measure that was removed earlier).
In the end, they said enough. Led by veterans like Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, moderate Republicans started voting no on the conforming bills that had grown a little too controversial. The uprising seemed to take leaders in both chambers by surprise and toppled the house of cards erected to finish out the session.
“I pray that when we have the closing night of our session next year that your leadership will show us we can turn the clock back on our trend and get back to the days when the substantive law of the Senate was done on the floor of the Senate and in the committees of the Senate,” Latvala said in a message that may set the tone for future sessions.
Email Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.