A Look Inside Session’s Last Day

Mar 15, 2012 by

To help chronicle my final year in the Florida Legislature, I kept a journal of the session’s last day, both in my notes and live on Twitter. We were supposed to start at 8:30 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m., but we ended closer to midnight after passing the budget, 31 conforming bills, seven local bills, 62 bills on special order and six bills on third reading. Hope you enjoy a glimpse inside the Senate Chamber.

8:30: Senators gather as session is supposed to start.

9:00: Session gets started late, and members still have not been given copies of the 570 pages of amendments to the 29 conforming bills they expect us to vote on today…this should be interesting. I’m multitasking — voting on bills that are up while reading almost 600 pages of 29 conforming bills whose language just became available. And I’m tweeting.

10:00: We learn the Florida Supreme Court has thrown out the Senate redistricting maps passed early in the session. The court found a “number of districts that are clearly less compact than other districts, with visually bizarre and unusual shapes.” All of the “leadership team” disappears from the Senate floor.

11:00: HB 7087 comes over as an orphan House Bill. An orphan bill has no Senate companion and has not been heard in any Senate committee. This is very odd. The bill has a $77 million impact the first year and $110 million the following year. It offers a hodgepodge of tax breaks. 46 pages. Much like a conforming bill, but they are handling it like a regular bill. I will support, but don’t like the process or lack thereof.

11:30: Going through bills quickly…bill after bill.

Noon: The highly controversial Parent Trigger Bill (SB1718,) which would allow private corporations to convert low-performing public schools into private charter schools if a majority of parents signed petitions, is brought up on third reading. We spent a couple of hours on it last night on second reading. They’ve allotted 30 minutes for questions and one hour for debate. My role: to make sure the votes are there, our people are in their seats and have the info they need, and be prepared for any procedural antics. Similar to the night before, just as this bill comes up, leadership brings food to the members’ lounge to distract hungry opponents. (No break for lunch.)

12:30: Still on Parent Trigger bill. I ask some questions, but the answers I receive are totally unacceptable and inaccurate.

1:30: Parent Trigger Bill drags on. Excellent debate against the bill by many senators, including Nancy Detert, Dennis Jones, Arthenia Joyner, Evelyn Lynn, Maria Sachs, Nan Rich and Bill Montford.

2:00: Sen. Benacquisto, the sponsor, begins to close on the parent trigger bill.

2:11: Board is open, members vote, the chamber is silent as vote is announced. Bill is defeated on a 20-20 tie, despite leadership pressure to support it. Twelve Democrats are joined by eight Republicans in opposition. Media and supporters look surprised. Opponents celebrate a hard-fought victory. Hugs are exchanged.

2:15: Rumors circulate about an effort to switch a vote and reconsider the parent trigger bill. Senators are lobbied. Phone calls are made to Sen. Alan Hays, our sleeper vote. We are ready. We have another potential sleeper vote.

3:00: Senate goes into five-minute recess because the budget chairman does not know when the Senate is allowed to take up the budget or the conforming bills. Rules Chair John Thrasher is at the rostrum and also is not sure. Staff is scrambling. Momentary confusion.

3:30: Florida Polytech Conforming bill, to make USF’s Lakeland campus an independent university, comes up (SB 1994). Passes 36-4. Questions allowed. Sens. Steve Oelrich, Mike Fasano and I ask several each. No debate allowed. No one looks happy about voting for it, but it is the Budget Committee chairman’s top priority.

4:00: Local bill calendar comes up with seven bills and my Lake County Hospital District is one of them. Sen. Hays was holding it up, but decided to release it, for which I was grateful.

4:08: Thought I passed my local bill, but as my aide was writing a press release, it came to light that even though Sen. Hays had agreed to withdraw his five hostile amendments, when the Secretary’s staff took up the calendar today, without saying anything, they adopted all the amendments. So now we have to reconsider the vote by which the bill passed, bring the bill back up, remove the amendments and vote it out, again. Insanity.

4:25: The Senate spends more time on amendments relating to dyeing baby chicks and bunnies, Sen. Bogdanoff’s issue. More bills heard and voted on.

4:44: My local bill actually passes. WOO HOO. Had already passed the House before the debacle, so now it will go to the governor.

5:00: Senate takes up a bill (SB824/HB599) and throws many questionable amendments on it, including language to give Amtrak immunity from liability on state-owned tracks.

5:27: We’ve been in recess now for some time as leadership tries to work members on the PIP bill, which reduces soft-tissue injury services (such as chiropractic care and massages) in an effort to reduce costs for mandatory no-fault auto insurance. The lieutenant governor is in the back of the Senate Chamber trying to convince senators to support the House version instead of the Senate version that unanimously passed the night before. The governor is working it as well. At this time, the votes are not there.

6:37: We are flying through conforming bills. Members don’t know what’s in them because they were just released the night before and never went through Senate committees. I’m getting tons of calls, tweets, e-mails and Facebook messages from people thanking me for my vote against the parent trigger bill.

6:58: I hear SB 1998 being read and realize there is a bunch of transportation policy being created in this conforming bill. I start asking questions. The bill is TP’d, or temporarily postponed, and may or may not come back up.

8:10: The Senate takes up the PIP bill after hours of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting on the part of the governor and lieutenant governor. What does this have to do with job creation? Being told the House is waiting to pass the Polytech conforming bill until after the Senate passes the House version of the PIP Reform bill. A trade in the works?

8:48: The Polytech bill passes the House, 86-31. The Senate is still debating the House version of the PIP Reform bill.

9:20: Senators are tired and hungry after 12 hours on the Senate floor. Styrofoam cups start appearing throughout the chamber. Coffee perhaps?

9:40: The House version of PIP passes, 21-19. The governor appears on the Senate floor to celebrate. He thanks President Mike Haridopolos and other members who voted yes.

9:51: House Bill 5009 is up. It is a confusing bill that some claim is a sweetheart deal for UF as reward for supporting the budget chair in the USF Poly independence negotiations. The bill dies. It’s brought back to life in a motion to reconsider after the budget chair scrambles to get Sen. Mike Bennett to change his vote.

10:50: HB 787 has become a train (amendment after amendment offered) and restlessness begins. I start wandering the floor.

11:03: Just now taking up the budget, the one and only bill we must pass. We’re winding down. Bet budget goes fast. I’ll be voting “No,” given its many turkeys and painful cuts.

11:10: Sen. Oelrich delivering great debate against all the turkeys. Budget debate by Sen. Larcenia Bullard? More like second goodbye speech! Thanking everyone… slowing things down a bit.

11:19: Budget passes after 16 minutes with little question, debate or fanfare. A couple more bills and returning messages from the House are voted out. Our work is done.

11:42: Sen. Don Gaetz gives update on court ruling and says we will be back in session for redistricting on Wednesday, March 14.

11:50: We wait for the House to finish its business. We Sine Die, marking the end of the regular session. The ceremonial white hankies are dropped by the sergeants of the House and Senate. Our 15 1/2-hour day is almost over.

12:00: Senators, House members, the governor and lieutenant governor, staff, lobbyists and the media gather in the Capitol rotunda for a brief speech by the governor. Lots of celebrating and goodbyes.

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