In this last week of the 2018 legislative session, there will be many impassioned pleas made by legislators on the floor of the House and Senate urging their colleagues to vote a certain way on a bill–whether it involves school safety or the budget. Most likely those pleas will fall on deaf ears. Usually, lawmakers have already made up their minds as to how they’ll vote long before they walk onto the chamber floor and push a button recording their vote.
That hasn’t always been the case.There have been moments when a legislative issue was actually decided in the middle of a floor debate. One of those moments came nearly 22 years ago next week and it had an enormous financial impact on the future of Florida.
It was March 13, 1996.
The Florida Senate was prepared to override a veto by the late-Gov. Lawton Chiles involving one of the more controversial laws enacted by lawmakers in recent Florida history.
Just a couple of years earlier, Chiles and a group of lawmakers in the Senate managed to slip a 22-page amendment onto a Medicaid bill. Not knowing what it was, most lawmakers voted for the legislation.
What few seemed to realize was that the 22-page amendment would provide the legal basis by which Florida would sue the tobacco industry to recover $1.4 billion dollars the state had spent treating Medicaid patients who suffered from smoking-related illnesses.
It was called the Medicaid Third Party Liability Act and it stripped tobacco companies of the legal defenses historically used to fight lawsuits brought by smokers. By time lawmakers figured out what they did, the bill had become law and being used to sue tobacco companies.
The Republican-controlled Legislature voted to repeal the law. Chiles vetoed the repeal,setting up a veto override vote on March 13, 1996.
Senators spent more than three hours that day debating the override before Republican leaders realized they had lost a key vote. Republican Ginny Brown-Waite had changed her mind during the debate and would vote against the override.
As she spoke, the Senate grew still as it waited to hear how she would vote . The focus was on Brown-Waite and her words.
“I was awake all last night laboring over this,” Brown-Waite told members. “This is the vote that I’m going to be proud of. My mom had emphysema and cancer. I had a sister who died of cancer. I can’t sit here any longer and play the tobacco game.”
”I’m tired of playing the tobacco game,” Brown-Waite said. ”And that’s what all this is, and we know it.”
Brown-Waite toured a pulmonary-crisis ward during a stay in the hospital just before the Senate debate. She said tobacco companies should pay for the damage their product causes.
The Crystal River Republican was the vote Chiles needed to prevent the override and keep the anti-tobacco law on the books. Her announcement shocked supporters of repealing the law.
A veteran member of the Capitol Press Corps remembers that day well. Mike Vasilinda, a television reporter with Capitol News Service, was in the chamber when Brown-Waite changed her position on the veto override.
“It was a total surprise, I think to an awful lot of members on the Senate floor that they thought they had a reliable vote and they didn’t,” Vasilinda recalls.
Brown-Waite’s announcement had a snowball effect. It was followed by the defection of then-Sen. W.D. Childers, R-Pensacola, a longtime political friend of Chiles who was believed to be the architect of the tobacco amendment.
Childers stood on the Senate floor and accused some of his colleagues of lying, insisting those lawmakers knew exactly what they were doing when they passed the amendment two years earlier.
”Some of you have come to me with tears in your eyes begging me not to tell others,” Childers said to members.
With tobacco proponents realizing their ship was sinking before them on the Senate floor, the late-Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, the sponsor of the motion to override the Chiles veto, asked to have the motion withdrawn.
The tobacco issue was defeated and Florida went on to collect billions of dollars from cigarette makers as part of a settlement with big tobacco. The settlement money has been used to pay for such things as medical services and anti-smoking campaigns directed at the public.
No one saw it coming, but it did and it played out on the Senate floor before the public. It was real-life politics. It was an interaction between lawmakers that is unlikely to be seen again in the current legislative process.
Today, the process is more scripted. Vasilinda agrees and blames it on term limits.
“I can’t recall it happening much since term limits because everything is so scripted these days and I think that’s a window into the past when things were a lot less scripted,” he said
This week will see a lot of important issues come up on the floor of the House and Senate. Again, there will be many impassioned arguments from lawmakers urging their colleagues to vote one way or another on those issues. They will be sincere and genuine. But, there will not be a debate like the one that took place 22 years ago. It’s just not likely to happen in the current legislative process.