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Politics

Florida Lawmakers: 2015 Special Session a Snap Compared to Some Past

May 10, 2015 - 6:00pm

Three weeks remain until state lawmakers will pack their bags and head back to Tallahassee for a special legislative session to complete the work on Floridas massive $77 billion budget, and as legislators gear up to nail down the specifics, some look back on special sessions past for insight on conflict resolution.

This years special session revolves around an impasse over whether or not Florida should expand Medicaid, an issue which has pitted the House and Gov. Rick Scott against the Senate. The Senate wants to expand Medicaid, while the House and Gov. Scott staunchly oppose it.

At the end of April, when the House realized there would be no agreement on the budget in time to end the regular 60-day session, it adjourned three days early, sealing the deal for a special session this summer.

The term special session can be anxiety-inducing to some, but to seasoned politicos, theyre simply all part of the bargaining political process.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, recalled a time when lawmakers came back not once, not twice, but five times to hammer out the state budget in the middle of a recession. According to the state Constitution, its the only thing lawmakers are required to work out by the end of the legislative session.

In 1992, Sen. Margolis was serving as the states first female Senate president -- and that years session was not a walk around the park.

It was a particularly difficult special session, she explained. We had similar budget problems as we have now ... but it was during a recessionary time so it was even more difficult.

And Margolis knows difficulties. Shes been involved in the Tallahassee politics on-and-off since the 1970s, making her the most seasoned politician walking through the Capitol halls.

Margolis recalled a very different time in Florida politics. In 92, Democrats controlled the state Legislature. There were budget problems then, too -- but on top of that, the two chambers were tied up in a high-profile struggle over redistricting.

At the time, lawmakers couldnt agree on new districts. Republicans, who wanted new districts to account for a surge in Hispanic population, accused Democrats of stalling the process for their own political gain.

Lawmakers couldnt settle the issue immediately. The suit even made its way to a panel of three federal court judges.

Former House member Miguel De Grandy, who was the lead plaintiff in the suit, remembers that infamous session well.

It was a session from hell, he told Sunshine State News. All in all, I spent close to six months in Tallahassee that year.

Sometimes special sessions can bring out the claws in some. De Grandy said the lawsuit in particular resulted in some less-than-pleasant experiences with legislative leaders.

We didnt fare very well, he said. I was basically ostracized. I was sent a message in no uncertain terms: None of your bills are going to pass.

But it was all worth it in the end, said De Grandy. He said legislative leadership could have flunked as many bills as they wanted as long as he was able to get greater representation for the Hispanic community.

In 2003, the Legislature held three special sessions to fix medical malpractice and rising insurance rates in Florida. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush called the emergency session and lawmakers came back to work and finalized a state budget before the states fiscal year began July 1.

There have been countless other special sessions, too -- while theyre not incredibly rare, they still happen. In 2007, the Legislature held a special session dealing with property tax relief. Then after two sessions, the Legislature was able to pass Amendment 1, which provided an additional $25,000 homestead exemption. In 2010, there was a two-hour-long special session so lawmakers could reject Gov. Charlie Crists plan to ban offshore drilling.

But despite the somewhat tumultuous nature of a special session, political observers and lawmakers still remain optimistic about the this year's special legislative session.

Its amazing what a month away from that place will do, said one observer. Theyll have a renewed respect for each other.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, agreed. Galvano, the Senate majority leader, seemed confident the two chambers would reach a resolution.

We get more focused in the special session, he told SSN. You realize things have to get done. I think youll find that its productive. Weve given ourselves plenty of time [to pass a budget.]

Sen. Margolis agreed.

I think well be able to resolve [the budget issue] before the end of the month, said Sen. Margolis. Its different now because its not a recessionary time. We dont have reapportionment. I think its fixable.

Galvano said he wouldnt be surprised if the Legislature reached an agreement before June 20 rolled around.

I dont think well need all of those days, he explained. In my memory, I dont believe weve spent 20 days back-to-back to reach a resolution, but there will be talks prior to that and during that period that might help us spend less time [in Tallahassee]...If were open minded and work together ... well be able to reach a resolution.

Reach Tampa-based reporter Allison Nielsen by email at allison@sunshinestatenews.com or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen


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