Special sessions of the Florida Legislature aren’t very special, and as often as not they are ugly and unpredictable.
Sometimes they end with nothing accomplished, triggering protests at the governor’s mansion or leaving lasting tensions that can cost politicians their jobs.
The challenge lawmakers face at the moment is to prevent history from repeating itself.
Special sessions are held when legislators have to work overtime because they haven’t finished their work within the 60 days of a regular session.
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The next one will begin June 1. The House, locked in a stalemate with the Senate over health care spending, abruptly shut down on April 28, ending the regular session three days early with talks on a budget at a standstill.
Legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have three weeks to find common ground. If they don’t have a solution before they go back to the Capitol, things could get worse.
“The one thing we ought to make sure we don’t do is come back here and have to sit around without a plan,” said the Senate’s chief budget writer, Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who endured three special sessions in 2003 in a fight with Gov. Jeb Bush over medical malpractice reforms.
They were known as extra or extraordinary sessions until 1968 when the new state Constitution invoked the word “special.” But history shows that they can end badly:
▪ In July 2010, angry lawmakers took two hours to reject a call for a ban on offshore oil drilling by Gov. Charlie Crist, an independent U.S. Senate candidate. Republican House Speaker Larry Cretul said he was appalled that Crist called a special session with no specific proposal, and as members went home, Crist heaped scorn on a “do-nothing Legislature.”
▪ In 2003, three special sessions were needed for lawmakers to broker a deal with Bush to limit awards for pain and suffering damages in malpractice cases. Bush had gone to the Tampa Bay districts of his fellow Republicans to castigate “wandering senators who need to get back on the reservation,” which made things worse.
▪ In 1989, Gov. Bob Martinez called for a special session on abortion restrictions despite polls showing a majority of Floridians supported abortion rights. Protesters picketed lawmakers’ offices and hung bedsheets on the gates of the governor’s mansion, and Martinez’s proposals failed in a session later cited as a key reason why he lost a re-election bid in 1990.
The complicating factor with the next special session is that it involves the budget — the Legislature’s biggest job and its only constitutional responsibility.
“A special session where there’s a framework established ahead of time tends to be more successful,” said David Hart of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who has watched the Legislature for two decades. “I’m optimistic that we’re going to see this train put back on the tracks.”
The clock will emerge as a factor because the authority to spend money ends June 30, when the fiscal year ends.
Against that backdrop, Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli agree on this much: They will convene a special session from June 1-20. It could be extended until June 30, but by waiting until June to reconvene, lawmakers have left themselves little margin for error.
They have a month before the start of a new fiscal year to settle all terms of the budget, including two major disputes over whether to expand health care to the uninsured and how to plug a $2 billion hole in funding to hospitals in Florida for caring for uninsured patients.
Scott wants $673 million in tax cuts. Every legislator will be seeking money for hometown projects. Lobbyists likely will exert pressure on behalf of clients affected by budget decisions.
Florida’s Capitol is a tense place these days. Relations between the Senate and House have been so rocky that just reaching a starting date was seen as a sign of progress.
“Today marks a very good day for Florida as we have reached agreement on dates for a budget special session,” Crisafulli said in a statement on May 6.
The urgency to reach a broad consensus during the current three-week recess means that talks could take place in private and out of the “sunshine.”
Florida’s Constitution and the rules of the Legislature require that “all prearranged gatherings” between the Senate president and House speaker must be open to the public if “the purpose of which is to agree upon formal legislative action that will be taken at a subsequent time.”
Long-time legislators say it will all eventually work out, as it always does.
“I don’t know how it cannot possibly work out peacefully, but it might go down to the very last minute,” said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura. “It’s a solvable problem.”
Margolis is the only current member of the Legislature who knows what it’s like when a special session goes down to the wire.
She was Senate president in 1992 when Democrats were in control throughout a budget meltdown that lasted for six months. The regular session had begun in January, as it does during years of reapportioning legislative and congressional districts.
By late June, the state was in crisis mode, scrambling to decide services to curtail and state employees deemed “nonessential” were told not to go to work. It was the only time in Florida history that a legislative deadlock jeopardized basic state services.
After an all-night session, Gov. Lawton Chiles signed the budget on July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year, narrowly averting a full-blown crisis.
“The session that would never end has finally ended,” said Senate Republican Leader Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville.
For now in Tallahassee, rank-and-file lawmakers not directly involved in crafting a budget will wait for word of a breakthrough, while struggling to explain to their constituents why they can’t get their work done.
“We have one job and that’s to pass a budget. We need to get that job done,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who represents tens of thousands of state employees, many of whom work in prisons and who will become increasingly alarmed at the possibility of another budget crisis. “I’m disappointed with how the session ended. The taxpayers expect us to do a job, and they didn’t get their money’s worth.”
Florida held its first special legislative session in 1869, and has held 21 in the past 15 years. Highlights of past special sessions:
1931: Horse and dog racing and jai alai are legalized in Florida.
1967: Senate and House districts are redrawn to reflect urban growth following the U.S. Supreme Court’s “one man, one vote” decision as North Florida’s “pork choppers” lose their chokehold on power.
1983: Playing chicken with the calendar, legislators pass a budget June 24 with less than a week left in the fiscal year. Gov. Bob Graham calls them back to work in July to consider higher taxes to fund schools.
1992: Lawmakers pass a budget June 30, hours before the fiscal year ends, and plans are made to close summer school, parks and other “nonessential” services. Gov. Lawton Chiles uses emergency powers to avert a state government shutdown and signs the budget July 1.
2000: With the race for president between George W. Bush and Al Gore deadlocked by recounts and lawsuits, the House suggests appointing a slate of presidential electors to make Bush president. But the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes before lawmakers can act.
Source: Clerk, House of Representatives
WHAT SPECIAL SESSIONS COST
A special session would cost about $75,000 per day, based on the costs of the most recent ones. Here are the costs for the five most recent special sessions.
COST PER DAY
*House session was 4 days, Senate 2 days.
Source: Office of Legislative Services