Broward's mostly Democratic delegation didn't play the political odd man out this year in the Republican-led Legislature.
BY BREANNE GILPATRICK
Broward lawmakers had more success than in past years getting their heavily Democratic voices heard over the Republican din in the state Capitol.
They didn't get everything they wanted. Legislators still left Tallahassee without property tax relief or a streamlined health insurance program for the state's poor children. Property taxes will be addressed in a special session starting June 12.
But Broward lawmakers did take the lead on issues such as election reform and revised gambling rules, placing a host of bills on the governor's desk by the end of the regular session May 4.
''Broward wasn't ostracized because we had a majority Democratic delegation,'' said state Sen. Nan Rich, a Weston Democrat and chairwoman of the Broward delegation. ``We were a part of the process.''
This year, Broward lawmakers had more clout in the GOP-controlled Legislature thanks to a new governor, calls for bipartisanship from other state leaders and November elections that brought new Democratic faces to Washington and Tallahassee.
The House also benefited from seven more Democrats than last year, including the newest legislator, state Rep. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat who won his seat in an April special election.
''I was very suspicious,'' said Senate Minority Leader Steve Geller, a Cooper City Democrat. 'Everyone kept hearing me say `We are working well thus far, but I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop.' It didn't.''
Throughout the session, Geller and state Sen. Ted Deutch, a Boca Raton Democrat who also represents part of Broward, worked closely with Senate Republicans to craft that chamber's property tax plan, which received unanimous Senate approval.
BOOST FOR GAMING
Geller also passed several laws loosening gambling rules around the state.
One bill, sponsored in the House by state Rep. Jack Seiler, a Wilton Manors Democrat, revises the rules for Broward's new casinos, which began adding Vegas-style slots last year.
The law will allow the county's four parimutuels to add 500 slot machines at each facility and remain open 18 hours a day during the week and 24 hours a day on the weekend. It also will permit the racetracks and jai alai fronton to install ATMs as long as the machines stay off the casino floor.
Another bill allows poker rooms around the state to stay open any 12 hours a day all year. Under current state law they can only be open between noon and midnight on days the parimutuel hosts live racing or jai alai play. The change also permits a $5 maximum bet.
But opponents of gambling expansion blocked proposals that would have allowed televised high-stakes poker tournaments and class II slot machines at all the state's parimutuels.
Florida also will replace its infamous touch-screen voting machines and move up its presidential primary, thanks to legislation sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Fort Lauderdale, and state Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs.
Other Broward-sponsored bills will:
Provide an $8.5 million settlement for former Broward resident Minouche Noel, who was paralyzed during a botched surgery in 1989. The bill by Rich and state Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, will split the money between Noel, now 19, and her parents, who have recently moved with her to Brevard County.
Remove state investment funds from companies that do business with Iran and Sudan. The change has been compared with the boycott that helped end apartheid in South Africa.
Broward delegation members sponsoring the bill include: state Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs; state Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood; state Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. The entire Senate and more than 25 House members also co-sponsored the bill.
Allow certain foster children to get driver's licenses and open bank accounts. The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Rich, also extends their Medicaid eligibility through age 21.
Make it a second-degree misdemeanor for parents to leave a child younger than 6 alone in a car for more than 15 minutes. The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach and state Sen. Mandy Dawson, D-Fort Lauderdale.
They also managed to bring home roughly the same amount of money for local projects as last year, a solid performance given the tight state budget, lawmakers say.
But even with all their success, Seiler said, the ''overriding disappointment'' was the property tax stalemate.
A plan to reform KidCare, the state's health insurance program for low-income children, also died in the final days of session. Numerous lawmakers blamed the breakdown on the rigid rules of Senate President Ken Pruitt and on Dawson, the bill's Senate sponsor.
COMING UP SHORT
Some Broward lawmakers also point out that while many Democratic bills passed, other proposals receiving widespread support in House and Senate committees never made it to the House floor for a vote.
For example, three of seven bills introduced by state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, made it to the House calendar, but never come up for a vote.
One of the bills would have increased penalties for certain video voyeurism offenses. Another would have required that people ticketed for littering perform their community services hours in the same city where they were caught.
''I know it was powdered as all this kumbaya stuff,'' said state Rep. Franklin Sands, a Weston Democrat who has been named the next House minority leader. ``I didn't feel it.''