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Tuesday, Oct 21, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Last-minute theatrics common in the Legislature

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The Brandon Chamber of Commerce hosted a luncheon this week where representatives of the Florida Legislature gave their views on the just-completed session.

The Legislature passed 264 of the proposed 1,812 bills. The average total of bills passed in the past 10 years is 338, according to the nonpartisan Florida TaxWatch. So other than passing out plenty of election-year goodies, it didn't seem like a particularly notable session.

But then, near the end of the chat, state Sen. Tom Lee dropped this little jewel on the attendees.

“Be careful when you say this was the lowest number of bills passed” in 13 years, he said. “Some of those bills were hundreds of pages, and no one knows what was in them. They don't have a clue.

“We have trained the lobbyists and legislators to wait until the last minute to file. They wait to see what (proposed bill) has wings, and then they add amendments to must-pass legislation.”

TaxWatch backed up Lee's claim, noting, “The last days became chaotic as some very large amendments were approved, placing issues that were dying in 'must-pass' bills.”

That's where the already complicated business of making laws can go off the rails.

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It can work the other way, too. Politicians can kill bills that seem beneficial by tacking on amendments that force them back to committee reviews.

Is that any way to do business?

Apparently it is in the Legislature.

Take House Bill 5201, for instance. It carries the simple heading of “Medicaid.”

It was an attempt to adjust existing Florida Medicaid rules and definitions into the state's new managed care approach, so you can imagine every word drew intense interest from House members and lobbyists.

A conference committee report on the bill included 11 pages of proposed amendments addressing things such as what qualifies as a rural hospital or a sole community hospital.

It addresses payment formulas. It struck a provision exempting children receiving services in a prescribed pediatric extended care center from mandatory enrollment in the managed care program.

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Absorbing rapid-fire changes as a bill moves toward a final vote can be, as District 58 Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, said, “like drinking from a fire hydrant.”

“All freshmen feel that way,” said Raulerson, who was elected in 2012. “In the last week of the session, things are just flying. There are people always adding stuff on. You're watching bills on the computer screen as they change, listening to leadership, hearing from lobbyists.”

There also is a lot of trading back and forth between House and Senate versions of a bill.

And then it's time to make a quick decision on complicated issues with long-lasting implications. I asked Raulerson if that gives him and other legislators a moment of pause.

“Yes, it certainly should,” he said. “In the end, though, our responsibility is to make the best decision we can for the people who sent us there.”

Lee told the chamber lunch crowd that he'd like to see that process addressed next year to ensure all parts of a bill get a thorough airing. Good luck with that.

Oh, and House Bill 5201 and the amendments?

It passed the House 115-0 at 9:36 p.m. May 2, the last day of the legislative session. It passed the Senate 52 minutes later by a 40-0 vote.

Gov. Rick Scott signed it into law Monday.

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