TALLAHASSEE -- On the first day of the annual legislative session, everyone plays nice. The Capitol is filled with families and flower baskets. Lawmakers recline in plush leather chairs as leaders give speeches filled with inspiring words.
Yet on Opening Day, time is already slipping away. The Legislature has just 60 days — starting Tuesday — to write a state budget and pass new laws. When those nine weeks are over, time’s up.
The session moves at a frenetic pace. To an outsider, it looks chaotic, and it’s hard to figure out what’s happening. PolitiFact Florida presents this guide to session basics. We’ll get you ready before you can say "parliamentary procedure."
Bills, bills, bills
The civics-class version of how a bill becomes a law is this: A lawmaker sponsors a bill and finds a co-sponsor in the other chamber. If the bill clears all committees and both chambers, it goes to the governor to sign.
Between the two chambers, lawmakers usually file more than 2,000 bills each year. Already this year, we’ve seen bills to decriminalize 64-ounce containers of beer, ban red light cameras and arm teachers with guns.
House members typically may file up to six bills. Senators have no limit.
For most bills, chances of passage are poor. Only about 15 percent will survive floor fights and the governor’s scrutiny to become law, according to an average of passage rates for the past 12 years from the online bill-tracking service LobbyTools.
Since legislative leaders control the clock and the agenda, they may put priority bills on a fast track right to the chamber floor. Or they can slow a bill down by assigning it to multiple committees.
You can gauge a bill’s chances by the number of committees to which it’s assigned. The normal number is three. If it’s more, the bill is probably in trouble.
Consider SB 196, a measure to create a statewide domestic partnership registry, benefiting same-sex couples. The broad powers of the legislative leaders allow them to send bills to as many committees of jurisdiction as they deem appropriate. SB 196 received five committee stops.
The bill sponsor, Democratic Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, managed to get the bill heard (she chaired the first committee the bill was assigned to). Even with that advantage, she had to postpone a vote on her bill — a move called TP, or temporarily pass — when it was obvious she didn’t have the votes to move it along.
On the floor
While Democrats and Republicans are expected to be on opposite sides, there can also be tensions within a party. Capitol insiders will pay close attention to the dynamic between two top Republicans: the popular young House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel and the professorial Gaetz of Niceville.
They presented a unified front in January, touting a five-point agenda called "Work Plan Florida." But history tells us the congeniality won’t last. Even Gaetz anticipates some tensions ahead. Pension reform, for example, is a big Weatherford priority that Gaetz sees differently.
"We’re not naive that we’re going to hold hands in the warm spring rain," Gaetz said.
Democrats, meanwhile, are in the minority, but they’re not quite as powerless as in years past. With a 76-44 party split in the House, Democrats gained five seats in the 2012 election, enough to take away the Republican supermajority that allowed the GOP to steamroll its agenda for the past two years.