Bill to move up legislative session start date clears first committee

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An empty Capitol building could join blooming flowers and chirping birds as a sign of spring in Tallahassee.

A bill to start the legislative session on the Tuesday following the second Monday in January in even-numbered years (SB 1356) sailed through the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee on Monday, even as it faced concerns from some lawmakers and a tough procedural hurdle, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The measure — sponsored by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami — cleared the panel on an 11-1 vote. But a handful of senators had concerns, including grumbling that moving the start date from March to January could bring the Legislature to Tallahassee when the weather is still chilly.

The bill would have originally just started next year’s session on Jan. 22, but was amended to cover every even-numbered year and set up a formula for determining the start date. So in 2014, for example, the bill would have the Legislature convene on Jan. 14 and end on March 16.

“As I see it, it’s a choice of coming up here and freezing or coming up here and watching the azaleas bloom,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the committee.

But Flores said the bill would give state agencies a chance to better prepare for their budget and would allow legislators to test-drive the idea of an earlier session. The Florida Constitution doesn’t allow the Legislature to change the start date of the session in odd-numbered years.

“I figure if we like the idea, then we can come back and ask for a constitutional amendment,” Flores said. “But I guess we can try it out first.”

She also pointed to last week, when lawmakers cleared three days of any events in order to accommodate Passover and Easter — something an earlier start date would allow the Legislature to avoid.

But Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando and the sole “no” vote, pointed out that other holidays could get in the way — namely, the December holidays that include Hanukah and Christmas, which would eat up much of the month immediately before the session starts.

“I have tremendous concerns over this bill, because I think the net effect will be less time for committee meetings,” Soto said.

But Flores said the Legislature could hold its meetings before December, and she said paring back committee schedules wouldn’t necessarily be all bad.

“It also maybe would have committee chairmen really look at the issue of things that are done in committee and whether or not we need umpteen number of presentations on issues that some of us may already know a lot about,” she said.

The bill doesn’t have a House companion, but Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said supporters hoped to get someone in the other chamber to sponsor a committee bill.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.