Power struggle


Published: Wednesday, January 22, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 10:00 p.m.
Back when the Democrats were in control of the Florida Legislature, the House and the Senate tended to get into all kinds of institutional fights. Considering the Democrats' long-standing reputation for being disorganized, Legislature watchers assumed it was just a Democratic thing.
Apparently not. Now that the Republicans are in firm control of both houses, the House and Senate seem to get into just as many fights as before. It's a power thing, not a partisan thing. And it's getting worse.
Last week, in a move that Senate President Jim King took as a warning of things to come, House members of a joint budget committee blocked the spending of several federal grants, including one that King himself had taken the lead role in obtaining. It was a $1 million grant - projected to be the first of five such grants - from the Centers for Disease Control for a women's health-awareness program.
"I don't know whether this was a message being sent or not, but if so, I can't imagine why you'd put women's health at risk for political reasons," King told the St. Petersburg Times later. "Unless I am missing a subtlety that I haven't seen or understood, I thought it was a mistake. I thought it was treating Florida's women poorly."
House Speaker Johnnie Byrd accused King of "demagoguery" and said his complaints were a "smoke screen."
And the first legislative session under these two presiding officers hasn't even begun yet. That won't happen until March 4.
The bickering between King, R-Jacksonville, and Byrd, R-Plant City, is reminiscent of the two-year political scrapping between their Republican predecessors, Senate President John McKay of Bradenton and House Speaker Tom Feeney of Orlando.
In one memorable incident, McKay ordered Byrd, who was Feeney's top lieutenant, out of the Senate chamber. Those kinds of confrontations aren't easily forgotten.
Both King and Byrd are trying to establish the positions of their respective houses on gut issues, particularly taxation. King seems to believe that some new taxes will be necessary to balance this year's budget, but Byrd has drawn a line in the sand against more taxes, preferring to cut new and existing programs.
Taxes also were the main dividing line between the Senate and House for the past two years, with McKay pushing for an expansion of the state sales tax to meet projected revenue needs caused by the state's rapid population growth.
Another Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, is the man in the middle of these fights. He expressed support for accepting the federal grants - which will be reconsidered next month - but he has insisted that new taxes won't be needed this year. Bush has, however, said that a variety of circumstances may force a tax increase in 2004 or beyond.
The Democrats have almost no role in this fight. They control only about one-third of the legislative seats, so they can sit on the sidelines and watch the majority party tussle among themselves.
That can be kind of fun, of course, but the Republicans will attest that it's better to be in the majority, despite all the headaches it can cause.

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