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Observers watch for last minute changes to big bills

It’s the final day of the 2012 Florida Legislative session and lawmakers are expecting to work late into the night.  James Call reports lobbyists; reporters and lawmakers themselves are on guard for last-minute amendments that make significant changes to state policy.

A state budget must be passed before lawmakers can close the books on the 2012 annual legislative session.   Questions about the spending plan for next year came up as soon as the Senate convened Friday morning. Here is an exchange between New Port Richey Senator Mike Fasano and Lake Wales Senator JD Alexander, the Senate budget chief. Both are Republicans.

Fasano: "Senator Alexander can you tell us, are the conforming bills available to be looked at, for any member of the public. Are they now on line or somewhere where we can observe them?"

Haridopolos: "Senator from the 17th Senator Alexander you are recognized."

Alexander: "All conforming bills were published the last was published just after 6 pm last night. Earlier ones were published actually some the day before. So there are conforming bills available I think right now."

Conforming bills are how lawmakers wheel and deal after the budget is printed and in a 72-hour cooling off period before a vote can be taken. In recent years they have been use to implement policy changes that either were not heard in committee or were defeated.  Last year Senators revolted when about 50 conforming bills appeared on the final day. Such tactics are why during the final hours of a session everyone appears tense.

 Amendments are another vehicle for lawmakers and lobbyists to slip a proposal pass opponents. Here Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich briefs her members on a late-filed amendment regulating health maintenance organizations.

"And it has to do with the University of Florid and Division of Health and other self-insurance  programs and the students and employees and I think there are some issues with it the least of which is nobody saw it until the 59th day of session but never mind that."

When lawmakers arrived at the Capitol Friday morning 172 bills were still alive on their calendars.  By noon, bills and amendments were bouncing between the two chambers like tennis balls while lobbyists and reporters watched.  Observing the action was AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin. He characterized the 2012 Legislative session as another chapter in the Florida Legislature’s war on the middle class. Exhibit one in his indictment is the proposed $70 billion state budget.

"And look at the cuts that are being made to Higher Ed.  Raising tuition on working people. Look at the cuts in Health Care services around the state.  That is all directly because of the taxing policy that put the wealthiest and powerful people over the advantages of everyone else."

Lawmakers closed a nearly $2billion budget shortfall with spending cuts. The state university system will lose $300 million, health care programs about $400 million and a thousand state jobs will be eliminated.  Lawmakers also implemented hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts for businesses. Melbourne Senator Thad Altman says regardless of where one stands on taxes and spending, the legislature went about its work in a deliberate fashion.

"People’s voices were heard.  Issues were vetted. I think it’s been a great session in the Senate. You know wherever you fall out on the issues I think the process is what is most important. I think the people’s voices are heard and Democracy is followed I think it’s been a great session in that regard."

Once lawmakers close the books on the 2012 session they are expected to return to Tallahassee quickly. The Florida Supreme Court rejected the Senate’s proposed redistricting maps.  Governor Rick Scott has five days to call lawmakers into special session to draw new Senate districts. The maps need to be approved in time for the August primary.