Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

House Members Work for Influence; Local Delegation Gaining Experience

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

House Members Work for Influence; Local Delegation Gaining Experience

Article excerpt

Byline: Joe Black, Times-Union staff writer

TALLAHASSEE -- Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville, says there was little his House delegation couldn't push through the Legislature at the tail end of the 1990s.

Dubbed the "Jacksonville mafia," the group secured million-dollar Northeast Florida projects such as Cecil Commerce Center and Branan Field-Chaffee Road construction, and left its fingerprints on most other legislative projects.

The delegation benefited from a powerful combination of money and influence. At that time the state's economy was thriving and Duval County's legislative roster included three top budget writers, the House speaker and Senate power to back it all up.

"We were able to just run the show," said Wise, who served in the House from 1988 to 2000. "When you have the money, the hearts and minds will soon follow."

But term limits have forced that influential group out of the House and dwindling state dollars have stopped most individual district projects from making much headway.

Jacksonville members in the House are calling more recent legislative terms a transition, one when they are finding their way into higher positions while fighting for projects with little money available.

"There's a process to get into leadership and that involves time," said Rep. Mike Hogan, chairman of the Duval delegation who was recently elected Duval County tax collector. "We haven't been here that long, but we're moving up."

He added: "But even with those [influential] positions, it would be difficult to have member projects in the budget."


The current Duval House delegation, except Audrey Gibson elected in 2002, first came to Tallahassee three years ago after term limits squeezed out its more tenured members.

Many were players on the 19-member Jacksonville City Council -- two were former council presidents and two others had seats.

But soon after arriving at the Capitol, the Republican-dominated group hardly had much time to court then-House Speaker Tom Feeney for choice committee seats when his decisions were made.

The same went for Johnnie Byrd, who became Feeney's successor with little opposition after the 2000 Legislature first convened.

Halfway through second terms, the Duval House delegation is settling into mid-level posts on policy-driven committees. All the Republican members lead a subcommittee, which are meant to fully vet issues before they go before full committees.

Most Duval lawmakers also have posts on one of the eight appropriations subcommittees, but none hold a coveted chairman post.

"We were just starting to know Speaker Byrd when everything was being decided," said Rep. Dick Kravitz, R-Jacksonville. "He picked people from his area and people he knew. It's good we got where we did."

House Republican Leader Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said the lack of money available for spending this term might give posts such as Rep. Don Davis' Commerce subcommittee chairmanship more leverage and clout than in previous years.

While most budget crafters are spending their time trying to utilize as much as they can from state dollars, policy-driven committees can be given more leeway to direct state operations, he contends.

"They've become experts in their fields and are the ones who know all parts of it," Rubio said. "In the niches they've found, they can influence what we decide for the whole state."

Still, they continue to push for help in the Jacksonville area, such as fixing up the University of North Florida's mold-infested Building 11 that has been largely vacated by staff and students.

Other proposals include increased money for Shands Jacksonville hospital and enrollment growth in Florida Community College at Jacksonville.

A conference committee is expected to meet soon and decide the final spending plan before it is sent to the governor, who has a penchant for using his veto power on projects he doesn't see as benefiting the whole state. …

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