Thanks for nothing

You can't write about this year's Florida Legislature without discussing the Tom Feeney-John McKay feud. The two Republicans went to Tallahassee in January with opposing agendas -- House Speaker Feeney wanted to carve himself a congressional district, and Senate President McKay wanted to restructure the state's tax system and eliminate dozens of sales-tax breaks.

When Feeney balked at McKay's proposal -- saying he'd never support a "tax increase," no matter how bad schools and social services suffered -- McKay held up Feeney's district. By the end of the session last month, the two weren't even talking. When Gov. Jeb Bush backed Feeney, McKay's Senate derailed Bush's choice to head the state's education system.

In the end, the session was marked less by what lawmakers accomplished than what they didn't: Few substantive laws passed. Only after the Republican Party intervened -- it wanted Republicans, not the courts, to redraw the districts in which state and congressional representatives will run for the next 10 years -- did the stonewall break. Feeney engineered a presumably safe district for himself that includes his Oviedo base, and McKay will put to voters a watered-down version of his sales-tax reform plan in November.

The state's $49 billion budget and Bush's public school reforms weren't finished, however. Even a special session this month failed to complete the work. Two more sessions await.

The deadlock had a silver lining. The session started with a host of short-sighted bills that overreacted to Sept. 11 by curtailing civil liberties and the public's access to government. Most of those died.

But a few bad bills still passed, including ones that swiped at growth management, curtailed local governments that hope to do away with billboard blight, and shackled citizens who speak out against sprawl. And given the chance to take up a few progressive proposals, lawmakers didn't bother.

Thanks for nothing.

Redistricting: Redistricting is obviously a partisan game. Ten years ago, the then Democratic-controlled Legislature couldn't agree to new congressional districts, so the courts stepped in. Republicans didn't want that this time.

Congressmen such as Ric Keller and Clay Shaw -- who both won razor-thin victories in 2000 -- hired lobbyists to create districts that were more secure. Feeney wanted to claim his Seminole County backyard, which moved Keller in another direction. Central Florida's Hispanic population wanted its own district -- but since many Hispanics vote Democrat, that didn't happen.

Predictably, lawsuits followed. The state's top Democrat, Attorney General Bob Butterworth, has asked the state Supreme Court to throw out the proposed districts, saying they illegally gerrymander to protect Republican officeholders.

If the courts agree, the Legislature will try again. If that fails, it'll fall to the courts to resolve one more time.

Roads to nowhere: Environment-alists call House Bill 261 the worst they've ever seen. It primarily restructures the state's Turnpike Authority, but a key Department of Transportation-backed section has slow-growth advocates worried; basically, it lets the state build speculative toll roads in rural areas.

Currently, toll roads can't be built unless they will generate 50 percent of their cost within five years, and all of it within 15. This bill extends those requirements to 12 and 22 years, respectively. Thus, instead of focusing on urban traffic jams, the state can now build roads to nowhere, undermining years of growth-management gains, says Audubon of Florida leader Charles Lee.

DOT spokesman Dick Kane says that because the enterprise still will fall under DOT rules, nothing will be built that counters growth restrictions. Moreover, he says, no roads will go where locals don't want them.

Local Sierra Club chairman Keith Schue doesn't buy it. In his experience, county governments are often pro-growth, even when their constituents aren't. He says the state is opening a Pandora's Box. "There are developers knocking at DOT's door. Land is cheap and they want to develop it."

Last week, Bush signed the bill.

Keeping citizens out: The Legislature did take some positive steps. Sen. Lee Constantine sponsored a law tying sprawl to school and water availability. And in House Bill 813, $100 million a year is provided for the next eight years for Everglades restoration. That law also allows Central Florida to keep more of its rental-car taxes; though Orlando is the rental-car capital of the world, most of the taxes collected here are spread around the state.

But there's a sinister component. Sen. Jim King wants to limit those who can challenge bad developments in court to a select few. Currently, anyone who is adversely affected can sue. King says that right should be limited only to organizations in the affected county with 25 members that have been incorporated for at least a year. Frequent opponents such as the Sierra Club, which is incorporated in California, would be out.

"We see it as the legislature trying to [eliminate] some of the more aggressive [environmental] groups," says Alan Fagaro, the Everglades co-chairman for the organization.

The issue has divided the environmental community, some of whose members say the negatives shouldn't be allowed to jeopardize a bill that still supports the Everglades effort. At press time, Bush had not decided the bill's fate.

Gay rights: Florida's gay-adoption ban was pushed in the spotlight after foster mom Rosie O'Donnell came out. Yet despite highly publicized court challenges -- and even former legislators who said they were wrong to pass the law in the 1970s -- no one proposed a repeal.

The proposed Dignity for All Students Act, which would extend equal-rights protections to gay students, also failed to clear its House and Senate committees. But behind the scenes there was progress, says Equality Florida executive director Nadine Smith.

"The youth lobby day was the largest ever," she says. "[About 100 gay] high school students across the state talked one-on-one with legislators, and garnered more than one dozen new sponsors for the Dignity Act. They met with Gov. Bush Ã? [and] compelled him to put this on his radar screen. All of these are firsts."

Senate Democrats slapped an amendment to Bush's school bill encouraging, though not requiring, school districts to teach the "horrors of discrimination," including that against gay and lesbian students, says Smith. When the bill died in special session, the amendment did, too. Activists hope that in the next special session, the amendment will stick.

Death penalty: Two years ago, Bush pushed lawmakers to cut back on death-penalty appeals, despite the fact that Florida leads the nation in death-row releases. Had the Florida Supreme Court not shot down those new rules, some of those innocents likely would have met the needle.

Polls show Americans are increasingly troubled by capital punishment. The governor of Illinois even enacted a moratorium following a number of death-row exonerations in that state, and has said he might grant clemency to all of Illinois' condemned before he leaves office. Bush, however, insists his system is A-OK.

This year, lawmakers took up two death-penalty bills. One would have prohibited executing people who were juveniles when they committed their crime. It died in committee. The other, which passed and is awaiting Bush's signature, forces appellate attorneys in capital cases to complete at least 10 hours of education each year to keep them current in the legal-defense field.

Most death-row inmates rely on the state-funded Capital Collateral Representative (CCR) Law Offices to handle their appeals. While conservatives insist CCR keeps inmates well-represented, critics say the state has underfunded the office to undermine the appellate process. The new law doesn't fully address that, but it will force outside attorneys that work for CCR to meet CCR standards.

As for the restrictions on executing juvenile killers, Abe Bonowitz, of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, says it's good that it didn't pass. "The juvenile thing was not about being compassionate," he says. "It was about trying to take away one of our arguments about the amendment."

The amendment to which he refers comes from Sen. Victor Crist, who has been pushing for years to chisel the death penalty into the state's Constitution. If passed, Crist's amendment would permit the execution of children as young as 16. Voters embraced a similar amendment in 1998, but the courts struck it down.

Currently, all Florida death-penalty cases are on hold pending a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it's OK for judges, not juries, to deliver death sentences. Florida is one of nine states with such a system. Some analysts believe the court could throw out all of Florida's 386 death-row cases.

The state hasn't executed anyone since January 2001. If the Supreme Court doesn't toss out the cases this summer, Bonowitz expects Bush to immediately line up two or three executions before the November election. The state currently has three active death warrants.

Billboards and blight: While not a life-and-death issue, let's face it: Billboards are ugly, especially when packed like sardines along city streets. Local governments have tried to regulate them, with the billboard lobby fighting them. Guess which side the Legislature took.

Last week, Bush signed a law handcuffing local governments' ability to keep billboards out. Essentially, if governments want to remove billboards, they have to pay the owners up front.

It's not like billboard owners were losing: If communities ordered billboards down, they had to allow the owners time to recoup their investment first. But no more. Bush said it was a matter of property rights.

And speaking of property rights, the Legislature also passed a bill redefining "blight," giving local governments more power to seize property via eminent domain -- thus paying the appraised value, rather than the frequently higher market value -- and resell it for development. Bush hasn't yet decided on the bill.

Currently, a declaration of "blight" requires properties to meet two of any 15 broad criteria, among them stagnant property values, falling lease rates, and higher vacancy or crime rates than "the remainder of the county or municipality."

Under the bill, if a city can get the other overlapping taxing authorities -- such as the county and school board -- to agree, then a property meeting just one criteria can be declared blighted and seized. Backed by the Florida League of Cities, the bill give local governments virtual carte blanche to bulldoze poor, crime-heavy neighborhoods and start over.

Given Orange County's recent criticism of Orlando's Community Redevelopment Agency, which has mostly focused on dubious "blight" in downtown rather than actual blight in Parramore, the new bill would help the city justify the CRA's activity, says Parramore property owner Phil Cowherd.

Public records: Overall, open-records advocates emerged better than they anticipated. The session began with hundreds of newly proposed Sunshine Law restrictions that picked up where last year's "Earnhardt bill," which restricted public access to autopsy photos, left off. In the end, only nine more exemptions were added. Not only that, but the state's voters will get to decide in November on an amendment that would require a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to remove any more records from public view.

The new exemptions mostly address personal finances in state records. Others are more controversial, such as the exemption that hides Department of Insurance documents of ongoing investigations and another that removes the tax records of audited telecommunications companies from public examination.

"Given what could have happened, it wasn't as bad," says First Amendment Foundation president Barbara Peterson. She credits both the deadlock and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors' "Sunshine Sunday," during which several of the state's large dailies pointed out how often they use public records in their reporting.

After that, "I saw legislators actually begin to debate bills," Peterson says. "Legislators who never really paid attention to [public records law] said, Wait a minute. Some of the bills died as a result."

Equal pay: Perhaps it's not shocking that a white male-dominated Legislature would shelve a bill requiring a study of whether women and minorities are paid less than their counterparts.

Business groups were the main opponents, saying that although women sometimes earn 25 percent less than men with the same experience in the same job, the free market should be left alone. "They think it's a Communist idea," says co-sponsor Rep. Anne Gannon. Since those same groups flood lawmakers' coffers every two years, their voices are heard.

"It's a very bad political climate," she admits. And it's not likely to change anytime soon.

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