Split legislative sessions into two parts



One idea floating around the current legislative session is to turn Florida’s part-time Legislature into a full-time job. To be fair, in reality, most of those serving in the Florida House and Senate are working full-time and then some.

The Florida Legislature meets each year for a 60-day session, generally in March and April. Historically, in nonelection years legislators are also in the state Capitol for committee meetings — a week in September, October and November, two weeks in December and January and three weeks in February.

Special sessions to deal with redistricting, budget shortfalls, oil spills and other timely events add even more Tallahassee time to legislative schedules.

When not in Tallahassee, legislators are rightfully expected to spend time in their districts at events and holding office hours. District sizes vary greatly. While a House seat might be contained in one large county, my Senate district included parts of five counties. Some rural districts had as many as 13 counties. That’s a lot of travel.

And the job pays a “hefty” salary — $29,687.

The case can be made for a full-time legislature like several other large states have or a higher salary, as many other states pay.

But since most Republicans believe in less, not more, government and many voters believe their life and liberty are in peril when the Legislature is in session, perhaps it makes more sense for the Legislature to spend less, rather than more, time in Tallahassee.

Some states meet only once every two years, which would leave more time for legislators to spend listening to constituents in the district and less time to tinker with the budget and policy changes. This not only allows for greater continuity of policy but surely would restore the balance of influence back to those they represent.

But Florida is a big state with complex and capricious issues. With 19 million residents, more than 80 million tourists, a $70 billion budget and a volatile hurricane season, meeting every other year, while a tempting thought, would no doubt result in numerous special sessions being called by legislative leaders who are magnetically attracted to Tallahassee.

The real problem is that legislators spend too much time in Tallahassee. During that time, lawmakers are formulating policy and crafting a budget. Oftentimes a change in policy conflicts with current or proposed law, causing the proliferation of hideous creatures called conforming bills. Once used sparingly, they have become prolific last-minute vehicles for all means of chicanery.

The budgetary process with conference committee reports, conforming bills and proviso language is ripe for mischief and anonymous policy and spending changes. Many of these wind up as headlines in the news media, or as lawsuits in the state courts.

In 2011 the legislative session blew up in the wee hours of the last night on the Senate floor over the unprecedented use of so-called conforming bills — in that session 43 totaling 2,200 pages. Experienced senators, including a former Senate president, complained about the misuse of these bills that allowed little to no scrutiny of their contents.

The “trust me” plea of the appropriations chair offered little comfort to those who like to know what’s in the bills before they cast a vote. “Trust but verify” is a safe policy. The rationale given for these last-minute changes that avoid committee scrutiny is that these are changes needed to conform the law to items in the budget. Unfortunately, on occasion they have contained unrelated or unnecessary special interest favors or pet projects.

The solution is to split the session into two parts.

The first session would be for budget writing only, allowing all 40 senators and 120 representatives to actively participate in the only requirement legislators have — to pass a balanced annual budget. This session could be held in April or May as the fiscal year begins on July 1. An added benefit would be a later-than-usual revenue projection for more accurate numbers.

The second session would be held for new issues and policy changes truly needed to implement the budget.

Separating the time in Tallahassee into two distinct sessions would lead to greater accountability, transparency and deliberation. It would allow greater interaction at home between lawmakers and their constituents prior to each session.

But the greatest benefit is that it would allow legislators to vote their conscience on policy issues without fear of losing an appropriation in the process. Yes, hard to believe, but deals are made and votes are traded in order to bring home the bacon.

While it is impossible to remove the politics from politics, separating the policy from the money decisions empowers all legislators to be more involved, more independent and more ethical in performing their elected duties.

Just a thought.

Paula Dockery was term-limited as a Republican state senator from Lakeland after 16 years in the Florida Legislature.

© Florida Voices

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