MIAMI (CBS4)- Lawmakers in a Miami-Dade delegation full of political rookies vowed unity during this year’s legislative session. And they kept their promise, for the most part, in a year when distinct personalities emerged in the crop of new faces.
Members of the delegation, long known for its fractiousness, were still involved in some public skirmishes.
But state representatives and senators stood together on several issues of key importance to the county. They successfully lobbied Gov. Rick Scott to release some $35 million in state money for Jackson Memorial Hospital and made sure the state budget included more than $55 million in funding to dredge the Port of Miami, according to CBS4 news partner The Miami Herald.
The delegation had smaller budget victories, too, including setting aside dollars for social services such as the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center and shrinking initially proposed cuts to programs such as the New World School of the Arts and the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities.
Those wins came in part because first-year lawmakers, despite their inexperience, tried to get their feet wet in the complicated budget process.
In the past, Miami-Dade freshmen had been notoriously divided over one of the first decisions they have to make after being elected: which colleague to back as future House Speaker.
This year, the county newbies unanimously threw their support behind Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Trinity Republican. The choice may have set the tone for a delegation looking to leave behind its reputation for gamesmanship.
“If the Republicans stay in power like this, then I think that at some point one of these crop of people will make leadership,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon II, a Miami Gardens Democrat and House veteran who served his first year in the Senate this session.
Though Miami-Dade has the state’s largest legislative delegation, its clout in Tallahassee dropped last year after a class of seasoned lawmakers was term-limited out of office. With few members in powerful leadership posts, Miami-Dade legislators in the Republican majority were nevertheless at the center of high-profile legislation.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla shepherded a sweeping elections law overhaul that originated in a subcommittee he chaired. Rep. Erik Fresen pushed through major changes to how teachers are hired, evaluated and paid. Sen. Anitere Flores passed a measure to grow online education.
Flores also headed an illegal immigration proposal that set off a political storm. Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Merritt Island ultimately yanked the bill from Flores after she refused to make it more stringent. The Senate approved the harsher bill, but the House never took it up — in part because the legislative Hispanic caucus, made up chiefly of Miami-Dade lawmakers, formally opposed the measure.
The immigration bill brought Miami-Dade legislators together, but other issues divided them.
On the Senate floor, Diaz de la Portilla derailed an effort by Lopez-Cantera to give lawmakers the power to put Miami-Dade charter amendments on the ballot. In the House, Rep. Ana Rivas Logan upset Democrats and a few Republicans from the delegation with her failed attempt to restructure the Miami-Dade School Board by condensing the number of single-member districts and adding two countywide seats.
And Rep. Daphne Campbell incensed fellow Democrats with her support of bills restricting abortion — a dispute that featured Rep. Scott Randolph, an Orlando Democrat, throwing Campbell’s pen in the trash and a series of tit-for-tats that lasted for days.
There were happier times, however. Rep. Richard Steinberg, a Miami Beach Democrat and self-proclaimed House prankster, hijacked the chamber’s public-address system when the session went into overtime on its last day and played an instrumental version of “The Final Countdown,” the 1986 hit by the band Europe.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle signed off on a proposal by Rep. Luis Garcia, another Miami Beach Democrat, to no longer automatically classify dogs involved in fighting rings as dangerous. Rivas Logan and Sen. Rene Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, teamed up to require property owners who appeal their tax bills to have to pay taxes while their claim is resolved — a move expected to bring in millions to municipal governments next year.
And Rep. Frank Artiles carried a bill giving University of Miami doctors practicing at Jackson long-sought protection from medical malpractice — an effort initially introduced this session by former Rep. Esteban Bovo. Bovo resigned in March to run for Miami-Dade County Commission.
His move means the young county delegation will have one more new face soon. Three candidates and a write-in are vying to replace Bovo in Tuesday’s special election.