TALLAHASSEE —Midway through the two-month legislative session, a handful of Central Floridas freshman legislators are emerging as leaders.
Rep. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican, has already won a reputation for thoughtful oratory -- and daring. On the sessions second day, Simmons and 14 other freshmen turned back a GOP leadership effort to slash intangibles taxes. The group, including two other Central Florida freshmen, softened the proposed cuts and applied them to more residents, not just the richest investors.
The move brought gasps from Democrats, who have had little success taking on the GOP leadership. "In the first days of the session, they challenged the leadership. Thats pretty remarkable," said Rep. Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, the second-ranking Democrat.
The power and courage of Central Floridas freshmen isnt entirely surprising, given that the House speaker is from Oviedo and freshmen hold 63 of the 120 House seats. Eleven of Central Floridas 19 representatives are freshmen.
Across the Capitol, freshman Sen. Lee Constantine is leading efforts to reform the payday-loan industry. Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, is being congratulated by members of both parties for striking a compromise between high-interest lenders and advocates for the poor.
"Central Florida is really doing well," said House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who enjoys considerable power with a 77-43 Republican majority. "Were off to a good start."
Feeney keeps eye on home
Feeney has handed key committee assignments to Central Florida members, even freshmen, providing them with powerful posts to advance their agendas. Feeney also drilled the freshmen with legislative tutorials before the session began, with the help of the conservative James Madison Institute.
"I think Speaker Feeney has been pretty good to the boys from back home," said Wiles.
Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, for instance, is vice chairman of the Transportation Committee and a deputy whip, a step up on the GOP leadership ladder. Even a Democrat, Rep. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, has been given a choice role by Feeney on the Utilities and Telecommunications Committee.
Democrat gets in on act
Siplin is working to establish himself as a leader by organizing weekly breakfast meetings for freshman legislators.
During one breakfast, after talking with Republicans, Siplin decided to support a Republican effort to eliminate ticket taxes on championship sporting events. Backers of the move convinced him that getting rid of the tax would encourage people to attend and spend money in those communities.
"I heard about this, and thought it would be great for my district, for the Florida Classic and other games played at the Citrus Bowl," said Siplin.
Many freshmen have been able to jump right in.
Simmons, a lawyer with a reputation for reading everything, was joined by Rep. David Mealor of Lake Mary in the early challenge on the intangibles-tax issue. Mealor, a Republican, is not new to politics, having served as mayor of Lake Mary. Likewise, Republican Rep. Frank Attkisson was Kissimmee mayor.
"They may be freshmen, but they know how politics works, and what their communities need," said Feeney.
Jon Steinman can be reached at email@example.com or 850-222-5564.