Late bills sneak in, impact policies

The amendment is quietly attached to another measure and escapes debate.

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2005 at 11:58 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - There are many ways to pass a bill in the Florida Legislature. One way is a lawmaker files a bill months before the session begins. The bill makes its way through a series of committees where it is discussed and debated. It eventually reaches the House and Senate floor for a final debate and a vote.
But that is a long and arduous journey. Bills can draw opponents and stumble. In fact the majority of bills are never passed.
There's another way to pass a bill. You wait until the last hectic days of the Legislature. As hundreds of bills are moving between the House and Senate, you quietly attach your bill as an amendment to another piece of legislation. If you're skillful enough, the amendment may pass unnoticed until it's too late for your opponents to do anything about it.
A case in point came last year, when lobbyists managed to attach an apparently obscure provision to a Senate bill. But it turned out the amendment greatly weakened the regulation of a type of life insurance investment that has been rife with fraud.
Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher said the amendment removed consumer protections for investors who were putting their money into viatical settlements, which involve the purchase of life insurance policies of the sick and elderly at a discount.
State financial regulators have received hundreds of complaints from Floridians who have lost up to $500 million in viatical investments over the past few years through fraud or misrepresentations.
The average investor was 70 years old and had put up $45,000. Gallagher wants to regulate the investments as securities, which brings stronger licensing requirements for the viatical companies and requires more disclosure of the investment risk. But the amendment, which was added to a bill in the last days of the 2004 session, specifically prohibited that.
Now Gallagher is lobbying furiously in this year's session to pass a bill that would require viatical settlements be regulated as securities, which he said is done in 46 other states.
The viatical issue is a classic example of a last-minute amendment added to a bill that can either dramatically change state policy or reward or punish special interest groups depending on the intent of the proposal. And some lobbyists specialize in the practice.
Gallagher, who has spent more than 30 years in Tallahassee as a Cabinet member and former state lawmaker, said that is one of the reasons why the area outside the Senate and House chambers is so crowded in the last few weeks of the sessions.
"There are certain guys who don't even come here until the last week, looking for some (bill) to put an amendment on," he said.
The value of a last-minute amendment, though, is matter of perspective. One of the most notorious late-hour amendments occurred in 1994, when senators attached another vaguely described amendment to what was a routine Medicaid bill.
It turned out to be a provision that undermined the legal defenses of the tobacco industry, allowing former Gov. Lawton Chiles to sue the cigarette companies and win a multibillion-dollar settlement from an industry that had never lost a liability lawsuit.
As the Florida Legislature enters its last week, Senate President Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he is on the outlook for other last-minute sneak attacks and he has vowed to stop them.
Lee said many of the amendments, which he has blocked, have been drafted by lobbyists and involve issues that were not raised during the committee hearings or are attempts to attach unrelated issues to other bills.
"Some of them are so narrowly drafted that they affect one company, one property owner, one licensee," Lee said. "They're wrong." Lee said he would take "a very, very hard stance" on amendments involving major issues that were never debated in a Senate committee.
"It's got to pass some sort of smell test with me," he said.
Meanwhile, the viatical regulation bill (SB 2412) supported by Gallagher and Gov. Jeb Bush cleared the Senate last week. A similar bill (HB 1437), sponsored by Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, is pending in the House.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, was one of the senators who supported Gallagher's bill despite a heavy lobbying effort by some viatical investment companies to block the legislation.
Alexander, who is a member of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, said he remembers the viatical amendment that popped up near the end of last year's session.
"It was not fully discussed or explained," he said.
But he said the presence of last-minute amendments is not unusual in the legislative process.
"It happens more often than you'd like to see," he said.


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Senate president targets sneak attacks

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