TALLAHASEE —One of the most heavily debated issues of the legislative session centered around a bill co-authored by Rep. David Simmons, a freshman Republican from Altamonte Springs.
After considerable squabbling, Simmons' bill capping punitive damages against nursing homes and boosting the minimum amount of nursing care passed both chambers.
Central Florida lawmakers were key players in many of the 2001 Legislature's most controversial measures. The region's rise in political importance was demonstrated by lawmakers who've risen to positions of power, like House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo.
Since 1996, an Orlando-area politician has been at the center of power in Tallahassee boasting two House speakers and former two-term Senate President Toni Jennings, R-Winter Park. Looking ahead, Central Florida lawmakers are well positioned to continue the trend.
Former House Speaker Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, is working to become Senate president in 2004 and, as chairman of the committee that will draw new congressional and legislative district boundaries, Webster's seen as a favorite for the job.
Central Florida's got two of the most powerful members of the legislature with Speaker Tom Feeney and Senator Dan Webster, said Tom Slade, a lobbyist and former state Republican Party chairman. Feeney, an Oviedo Republican, did his share to bring back money for Central Florida. Armed with a 77 to 43 Republican majority, Feeney never let anyone forget who was in charge - at one point even donning an engineer's hat to remind members he was running the show.
Consider the University of Central Florida, which won more than $30 million for new buildings, classrooms and programs.
That's a statement for why we shouldn't be so parochial, said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader.
South Florida universities won less than half what UCF did.
They're in charge, said Frankel, pointing to the speaker's dais. They get to decide.
Feeney elevated to power a number of local legislators, including Rep. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Simmons - both freshmen.
Gardiner was named a deputy floor whip, a first step toward high-ranking leadership. Simmons was chosen to craft nursing home legislation.
Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, led a number of efforts, including payday loan reform - capping the interest charged on loans secured with a personal check.
It was a good session, but it could have been great, said Constantine, lamenting the last-minute failure of his growth management reform bid, which would have linked new development to school construction.
Constantine is a Tallahassee veteran, having served as a House member from 1992 to 2000. He moved to the Senate this year, leaving the House in the hands of the largest freshman majority in decades -- 63 of the 120 House members.
The freshman class was large enough that even some local Democrats won some battles. Rep. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, helped secure nearly $7million for a new Florida A&M University law school in Orlando.
I kept promoting this to the speaker, and he helped make it happen, said Siplin, who earned Feeney's praise for working across party lines with his weekly breakfast meetings.
Siplin hosted a series of Tuesday morning breakfasts that attracted about a dozen regulars - all freshmen House members from both parties. While these sessions didn't produce any legislation, it did help form bipartisan bonds.
Rep. Joyce Cusack, a freshman Democrat from DeLand, saw two of her bills pass this year, one, giving noncustodial parents equal access to their children's school and medical records, in the first week of session. The other bill extended the amount of time sex criminals could be prosecuted for crimes against youngsters.
Not every legislator scored home runs, however. Rep. Allen Trovillion, R-Winter Park, earned national attention when he told a group of gay students their lifestyle would keep them from entering heaven.
Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, lost a battle on high-speed rail late in the session. He had wanted to set up a committee to study the bullet train idea - mandated by voters last year - but a competing effort to actually begin planning the system prevailed.
Johnson also withdrew his bid to spend $1 million to help develop a West Orange County Airport because of questions on the project.
Central Florida may well stay in the catbird seat if Webster wins his bid for Senate president.
It might take a couple of ballots [to win], but I feel pretty good about it, said Webster, about 30 minutes after Feeney gaveled the session closed late Friday night.
Jon Steinman can be reached at (850) 222-5564 or at firstname.lastname@example.org