Crash course for 54 new lawmakers at Florida Capitol

Nov 15, 2010

The following article was published in the St. Petersburg Times on November 15, 2010: 


Crash course for 54 new lawmakers at Florida Capitol

By Steve Bousquet

As one of dozens of newly elected state lawmakers, Rep. Doug Broxson of Milton wants to improve the lives of everyday Floridians.

But during freshmen orientation last week at the Capitol, he had a more pressing concern: “Where are the bathrooms?” he asked.

With nearly one of every three lawmakers a newcomer, a lot of people are asking that question. When the Legislature convenes for a special session Tuesday, 54 members will be freshmen.

The high turnover reflects the continuing impact of term limits, approved by voters in 1992 and restricting most lawmakers to eight years in office.

In the House, 41 of 160 members are new and most are Republicans. Many have never held office; they are literally learning their way. And lobbyists, whose stock in trade is forging relationships with lawmakers, are walking the halls clutching cheat-sheet booklets featuring mug shots of all newcomers.

Like most of his new colleagues, Rep. James Grant, a 28-year-old Tampa Republican, said his goal is to improve and diversify Florida’s economy.

“For far too long, we’ve relied on population growth,” said Grant, whose father, John Grant, served in the Senate. “We’ve got to look to the future.”

The new Legislature will immediately confront another large budget shortfall and the challenge of helping a new governor create jobs. Looming on the horizon is the politically charged task of redrawing all legislative and congressional districts for 2012.

“We’re going to have a lot of difficult decisions to make,” said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican.

Nuñez, director of external affairs at two HCA hospitals in Miami-Dade County, wants to put her health care expertise to work reforming the state’s increasingly costly Medicaid program.

Miami-Dade, which in recent years has boasted a budget chairman and a speaker, has the most newcomers in the House with nine. Hillsborough is second with five, all Republicans.

Lawmakers serve part time and are paid $29,697 a year.

Seniority still matters, even in a revolving-door Capitol, and coveted committee chairmanships go to lawmakers with the most experience.

“I know there’s a pecking order,” said Broxson, an insurance broker in the western Panhandle. “I’m going to be a good listener, a good learner and wait my turn.”

The 40-member Senate will welcome 13 new members. All but two have previously served in the House or Senate, which will enable the Senate to maintain its advantage in experience over the House, which also absorbed 44 newcomers in 2008.

Former Sens. Gwen Margolis of Aventura and Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor will return to a different Senate than the one they left several years ago.

“There’s a lot more propensity to follow the leadership, on both sides,” said Latvala, a Republican known for an outspoken style in his first tenure from 1994 to 2002. “Leadership control is stronger, not just in the House but in the Senate as well.”

Republicans padded their majorities in the recent election to 28-12 in the Senate and 81-39 in the House.

The two-thirds’ majorities give the GOP power to override a governor’s vetoes and prevent the Democratic minority from using procedural maneuvers to thwart or slow the Republican agenda.

The new House freshmen spent two days at orientation sessions last week at which they were given a crash course on everything from filing amendments to fraternizing with lobbyists.

“I will not draft your grandmother’s will, so please don’t ask me,” House counsel George Levesque said as he briefed the freshmen on laws and rules on conflicts of interest and a ban on accepting anything of value from a lobbyist. He advised lawmakers to open their doors if a reporter seeks admission to a private conversation.

“The safe policy is to let them in,” Levesque said.

The freshmen got laptop computers, parking spaces and office assignments, and plenty of free advice from their more seasoned colleagues.

“The cameras are always on you, and they can paint a lasting impression,” said Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Republican from Miami and the new House majority leader.

He told the freshmen about a lawmaker once caught playing Solitaire on his computer instead of reading the bill being debated by the House.

Among the newcomers: Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, a former state insurance commissioner in Iowa; Rep. Greg Steube, R-Bradenton, an Iraq war veteran; Rep. Pat Rooney, R-Palm Beach Gardens, brother of U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney; and Rep. John Patrick Julien, D-North Miami Beach, a native of Haiti and father of five who served three terms as a city council member.

Three House members are back after serving eight years and sitting out a term, as the term-limits law requires: Democrat Irv Slosberg of Boca Raton and Republicans Gayle Harrell of Port St. Lucie and Dennis Baxley of Ocala.

Baxley is one of a half-dozen House freshmen to express interest in being anointed speaker-designate for the 2016-18 term.

“I believe in recycling,” Baxley joked about his return. “I’m the ‘green’ candidate.”


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