Session’s Ending: Chess, Poker, Lots of Hide & Seek

May 2, 2013 by

Surely with a Republican governor, Senate and House, the legislative session will run smoothly, and agreement, cooperation and mutual goals will highlight a timely and successful conclusion.

To the average observer, it’s hard to fathom why this is not necessarily the case. Perhaps it’s ego or ambition or even human nature. But after 16 years in the Florida Legislature, I have learned that, despite the good intentions, it gets really interesting during the last week of the legislative session.

Legislators get antsy when their bills aren’t on the agenda or when their budget items are threatened. This is a time of confusion, when rational people don’t act rationally and when fear gives way to strange twists of fate.

Bills that appeared to have died mysteriously come back to life. Legislation that looked like a sure thing takes an unexpected turn for the worse. Brand new issues and spending items appear out of nowhere.

Tempers flare, weariness sets in, and allies turn into opponents. Strange bedfellows emerge. Feelings are hurt, debate gets dramatic, facts get a little fuzzy and deals get broken.

It becomes very difficult to know who is responsible for what, who to trust and what the true intentions are. Things are not always what they seem and even the most seasoned observer doesn’t fully comprehend what is happening.

This distrust and paranoia create the perfect environment for rumor, innuendo and planted ideas to take root.

Instead of a solid roadmap to get there, the act of governing turns into a complex series of contests. The game of politics involves a little chess, a little poker, some dominoes and a whole lot of “hide and seek.” There’s also a lot of inside baseball.

The Art of Chess: First move goes to the Legislature, whose leaders hold up the governor’s priorities until he acts on theirs. Fearing vetoes from the governor, the 2013 Legislature sent him three of its priority bills: ethics, campaign finance and alimony. The timing ensured he would have to act before session ended, allowing time for a legislative override. It also provided time for the Legislature to decide its next move on his priority bills, which legislative leaders are strategically holding back: an across-the-board $2,500 teacher pay raise and a tax cut for manufacturing equipment.

Much like in politics, the art of chess usually lies in a combination of surprise and sacrifice to achieve a sudden advantage.

The governor responds.

The governor hinted at vetoes and waited until the deadline to act. Despite the governor emphatically stating that no one has made the case for increased campaign contribution limits, he signed the campaign finance bill as well as the ethics bill. Knowing the fate of his priority bills hung in the balance might have affected his decision to sign the bills pushed by the Senate president and speaker of the House. He vetoed alimony reform, the third bill, which was not necessarily a top priority of either.

As in chess, the moves will be slow and deliberate. Strategies will continually change depending on each other’s moves. To complicate matters, the Senate and House have separate agendas and don’t act in unison.

Poker Anyone? House Democrats haven’t been dealt a great hand but they do have a few cards to play. During the last week of session, when the House speaker needs total control over his chamber, House Democrats had an ace up their sleeve.

With only 44 members in the 120-member House and upset that the speaker would not accept federal Medicaid funds to provide medical coverage to 1.1 million Floridians, they invoked the extraordinary procedural step of requesting that every bill taken up in the Florida House was to be read in full. Their hope was to draw attention to their desire for House passage of the Senate’s bipartisan health coverage expansion plan.

Rather than fold, the speaker called their bluff and employed an automated reader named Mary to read the bills in their entirety, slowing down the House’s progress and losing some needed control in dealing with the Senate and governor.

The risky move by the Democratic caucus could foster public support but is more likely to result in the loss of budget items and bill movement for its members.

Hide and Seek: When an issue or a spending item becomes too controversial, is not moving or cannot muster enough votes, the game of “hide and seek” begins. This can take several forms, including attaching it to a bill that is moving and hope it flies under the radar; bouncing it between chambers with time running out; or getting it done in the budget conference process.

Historically, when the House and Senate go to conference to work out differences in the budget, they only addressed issues that were in one of the two budgets. A new disturbing trend developed: Brand new issues that had not gone through any committee or public hearing were introduced during conference where they were hidden in plain sight. Conference reports and conforming bills have become the breeding ground for the most mischief.

In the confusion and hectic pace of the last few days of session, with manufactured chaos used to mask their sneaky actions, even the most experienced legislator fails in the “hide and seek” ritual.

Wouldn’t it be refreshing if these games were replaced by a systematic process of moving bills as they become available, giving every bill an up or down vote on its merits, and working together across parties, across chambers and across governmental branches to slowly and deliberately reach consensus on the state’s priorities?

Maybe next year.

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