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Nancy Smith

Democrats' Stunt No Triumph for Democracy

May 1, 2013 - 6:00pm

Last week's five hours of debate on the House insurance plan apparently wasn't enough democracy for the Democrats.

Better to monopolize the floor with constitutionally sanctioned silliness in the name of free speech, and put at risk a slew of bills on the special order calendar.

With 57 days down and three to go.

Here's the rub:

When a partisan protest in the House of Representatives focuses on one piece of legislation, as it did on Wednesday -- slowing the process of bill reviews to a crawl -- key issues are going to get short-sheeted like camp cots at a middle school sleepover.

That's what happened Wednesday. Democrats exercised their right to stall for attention and Republicans exercised theirs to hire Mary the Auto-Reader for the bargain price of $40 to rip through bill readings like a barker at a tobacco auction. Frankly, the 44 House Democrats left them little choice.

Imagine yourself a representative caught in the deliberate slowdown. You are required to pass a budget before the session ends. And you've got to review all the bills coming over from the Senate. Imagine yourself trying to focus on months and weeks of work on bills and resolutions of consequence to large chunks of Florida's 19.32 million residents. Some examples:

  • SB 134: Meetings of District School Boards. Requiring district school boards to convene one meeting each quarter during the evening hours.
  • SB 390: Veterans' Organizations. Prohibiting a business entity from advertising or holding itself out to the public as a veterans' organization.
  • SB 50: Requiring that a member of the public be given a reasonable opportunity to be heard by a board or commission before it takes official action on a proposition.
  • CS/CS/HB 253: Protection of Vulnerable Adults: Reduces minimum amount of theft from a person 65 years of age or older that constitutes felony of a third degree; revises terminology to prohibit specified offenses against vulnerable adults.

Not enormous bills, admittedly. But each of concern to a great many Floridians. And these are only a small sample.

It didn't help that in the thick of it Wednesday morning, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Dramaticus Maxima, brought her circus act to town. The idea, as she climbed aboard her imaginary magical unicycle, was to pitch for Medicaid expansion before the TV cameras. Wasserman Schultz is nothing if not entertaining. One of the more memorable lines of her visit was her characterization of House Republicans as spoiled children who are stomping their feet and insisting because they didnt get their way that they are not going to let anyone benefit from the outcome and its just irresponsible.

Wasserman Schultz could just as well have been talking about House Democrats. The tantrum was in full cry on both sides of the aisle.

Later, during the rush-hour traffic jam on the House floor, hearing a result on the manufacturing sales tax exemption they didn't like, some among the media forgot that the exercise of free speech can turn around and bite them on the kiester. For example, Reporter Aaon Deslatte, Orlando Sentinel: "Florida House Republicans rammed through a 96-page tax bill with no debate Wednesday night and a potentially illegal tax-break for manufacturers ..." Sorry to single out Deslatte. Other reporters also chose the "rammed through with no debate" line, or a facsimile thereof, for that little touch of hyperbole.

Even some of the legislators wanted it both ways. From Mary Ellen Klas' story on the risky manufacturing sales tax exemption vote in the Herald/Times:

"This is just an abuse of the system, said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek as Republicans jeered. I dont really think its funny. We invoke the constitutional privilege thats there for both sides. Its there to protect against what you are trying to do right now. It is outrageous, improper and, in my opinion borders on unethical.

(Rep. Carlos) Trujillo (R-Miami) responded: "Just as you have the right to invoke the constitutional rules to stall democracy, we have the right to invoke the constitutional rules to promote it,'' he said. "To accuse the speaker and my colleagues of being unethical is very unbecoming for a person of prestige like yourself."

Then there was Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He wanted it all. In the morning he was smiling at the camera and congratulating the Democrats for their quasi-filibuster on Medicaid expansion -- and in the afternoon he was criticizing the House for spending less than three minutes on the bill that slipped the manufacturing sales tax exemption through.

"I have great concerns that the people of Florida will not know what the impact is on them," the Herald/Times quoted Fasano saying.

I have those concerns myself.

House Democrats remind me of the unions in England back in the 1960s. Their annual strike the week before Christmas invariably blew up in their face. If the Dems win anything beyond solidarity from their time-wasting stunt -- anything at all, however intangible -- I will be completely amazed.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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