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Backroom Briefing: Balance of Power

November 20, 2014 - 6:00pm

As they organized this week for the 2015 legislative session, both parties began facing the new realities in the Florida House: With a two-thirds majority in place, Republicans can do pretty much what they want for the next two years.

It's not an entirely new phenomenon. After the last Republican wave, in 2010, the GOP also had a supermajority. Through the 2012 election -- where President Barack Obama helped power Democratic turnout -- and a special election, Democrats eventually whittled that down to a 75-45 majority before six seats were swept away this year.

The current balance of power sits at 80-38. Former GOP Rep. James Grant will be favored to win back his Tampa-area seat when a special election is held because of a legal fight that stemmed from questions about a write-in candidate's eligibility to run. And Democrats will almost certainly regain the seat of former Rep. Reggie Fullwood, a Jacksonville Democrat who faces a special election because of a paperwork snafu this summer during qualifying.

In any case, the GOP will run the chamber. They can even dispense with most Democratic protests, such as the infamous 2013 "reading of the bills" by a computer, when the minority party used an arcane rule to force pieces of legislation to be read in full, grinding the chamber almost to a halt.

For now, new House Speaker Steve Crisafull, R-Meritt Island, said his party will be judicious in the use of its power.

"Though Republicans now hold 80 seats, I believe we must be humble with our majority," Crisafulli said in a speech during Tuesday's organization session. "We must be fair and respect the legitimate concerns of the minority party. I absolutely welcome robust debate on the issues between the majority and the minority parties."

It could be a pragmatic concession as much as anything else. Republicans did not gain a supermajority in the Florida Senate, and even when they had one in 2011 and 2012, Senate GOP moderates helped kill some of the more radical ideas, such as then-House Speaker Dean Cannon's push to split the Florida Supreme Court into two different panels.

Democrats concede they can't do as much as they have in the last two years to make life difficult for Republicans. But new House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said his party is not entirely powerless.

"We may not be able to slow a particular item down or make a statement by reading bills, but this is our process also," he said. "I've been there before with 39. And you can do a lot when you study, when you're nimble, when you know what you're voting on, what you're debating."

Pafford said his party might have to pick where to try to impact legislation -- citing something that many lobbyists and other Capitol observers know all too well.

"The committee process, that's usually I think where we probably have the best ability to be part of bills," he said. "Once things get on the floor, sometimes it's more theater."


Amendment 2, which would have provided the broad use of medical marijuana in Florida, went up in smoke when it failed to get the support of 60 percent of voters. But it did get 57.6 percent of the vote earlier this month, perhaps enough to make lawmakers a little edgy.

Both Crisafulli and Pafford said it's likely that someone will propose a bill to expand the use of medical marijuana, after the Legislature voted in the spring to allow a non-euphoric strain of the drug, commonly known as "Charlotte's Web," to be used by some patients.

Supporters of the low-THC, high-CBD strains of cannabis believe the substance can eliminate or dramatically reduce life-threatening seizures in children with severe forms of epilepsy. Under the new law, patients with other spasm-causing diseases or cancer would also be eligible for the strains of marijuana if their doctors order it, and if their doctors say they have exhausted all other treatments.

Crisafulli refused to rule out another medical pot bill in a discussion with reporters -- though he might just have been in a conciliatory mood, given that he also refused to rule out taking a vote on Medicaid expansion, something that is highly unlikely.

"There are members that have talked about it, certainly because of the vote that took place this cycle," Crisafulli said. "We're going to look at all options. Last year we felt we made great strides with Charlotte's Web, a low-THC form of medical marijuana, and we'll look to other medical professionals for the future."

Some Republicans have always maintained that their objections to Amendment 2 were that it was written too broadly and could have led to more widespread use of pot than its supporters let on. Whether there's an appetite to take another marijuana vote, though, is an open question.

TWEET OF THE WEEK: "Potential headlines: Lawmakers begin making content for 2016 mailers, television ads" -- Matt Dixon (@mdixon55), statehouse bureau chief for EW Scripps, during the organization session.

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