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Proposal To Start Legislative Session In January Advances

The Florida legislative session starts in March. But what if it started in January instead? A bill proposing the two-month shift advanced through a committee this week. The seemingly minor time shift is setting off a discussion about how to make Florida’s lawmaking body govern more efficiently.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee takes up issues that affect all Floridians. They include how the state runs elections and how lawmakers must conduct themselves when dealing with lobbyists.

On April 1, a bill came up for consideration that would make a relatively simple change: making the 60-day legislative session start in January instead of March.

“Senator Flores, is this an April Fools?” said Committee Chairman Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), talking to bill sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores (R-Miami).

“It is not. I hope it’s not an April Fools having it on the agenda. This is something that has generated a lot of interest from a lot of different people,” Flores said.

Latvala didn’t seem convinced it was such a hot idea, at first.

“As I see it, it’s a choice of coming up here and freezing or coming up and watching the azaleas bloom,” Latvala said.

But Flores said, there are two good reasons to make it earlier. First: “By starting in January, we won’t ever have the issue that we just had this last week, which is working under a compressed time schedule because of the Passover-Easter break.”

Second, and more importantly, she said, departments and agencies would have much longer to plan. With the session currently ending in May, they have just a couple of months to reorganize after the yearly budgeting process determines how much cash they’ll have. And they have to figure out how to implement the new laws that go into effect on July 1.

Vern Crawford, representing Charlotte County Public Schools, said districts would love more time to process education-law changes after the governor signs them.

“At that point, then you have the State Board of Education going into rulemaking. We have to go into rulemaking. It’s a problem as far as making sure that we’re ready by the start of school, August,” Crawford said.

Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon), a former Senate president, said, this discussion raises questions about a broader issue: whether it’s most efficient to have the House and Senate meet at the same time for just 60 days. He wonders if there might be a better alternative, “As opposed to being under the pressure of 60 days, while we’re in series of committee meetings and, really, in a lot of respects, unable to read the legislation that’s coming down. I mean, really, I’ve got binder after binder.”

Lee said, lawmakers end up putting off most decisions until the end of session.

“I’ve watched this state grow a great deal over time, and the legislative process has begun to look a lot more like a football game, where it’s three and a half hours long but there’s only seven minutes of playing time,” Lee said.

Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) said, he doubts the Florida Legislature is unique. It’s human nature, he said, to cram a lot of work in just before deadline.

“But I think it’s a fantastic idea to have a larger discussion in terms of how we organize the legislative session. And I think that would be a really great topic for us to take up in the coming year,” Clemens said.

Clemens is sponsoring a proposal that would create a full-time legislature instead of the current 60-day session. Proponents of the idea have said it would prevent lawmakers from having other careers that could influence their lawmaking priorities. It would require a constitutional amendment and approval by the voters.

And as for the start date of session, the constitution currently sets it for March, but only in odd-numbered years. In even-numbered years, lawmakers can start the session whenever they want, and Flores wants to start next year, with the 2014 session starting on Jan. 14.

“One of the reasons why I want to bring this issue up was exactly to have this discussion, because this is just one small point, but there are certainly things that we need to look at in general of how we govern the fourth-largest state in the nation,” Flores said.

The bill passed almost unanimously. The only "No" vote came from Sen. Darren Soto (D-Kissimmee). He said, he’s concerned about taking away January and February as a ramp-up time when committees meet before session. And moving committee weeks back to December would conflict with the holiday season, he said.

The bill has a couple more Senate committee stops. And while there’s no House companion yet, senators on the Ethics and Elections Committee said, they’re hoping it finds a sponsor in the other chamber soon.