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June 29--As with sports rookies, freshmen lawmakers must learn to survive in a new and at times hostile environment, where they compete with hundreds of other state legislators in Tallahassee just to get their bills heard, much less passed.
Winners make the varsity team while losers either sit the bench or get tossed out of the game for good.
The fate of two such Treasure Coast freshmen will be decided in the Nov. 4 election. Florida Reps. Larry Lee Jr., D-Port St. Lucie, and Mary Lynn Magar, R-Tequesta, were elected to newly drawn districts in 2012 and face challengers this year.
Lee and Magar are on opposite sides of the Capitol's power spectrum. She is in the majority party, which leads both legislative chambers, while he's one of the 44 Democrats serving in the 120-member House.
After two years, first-term lawmakers typically haven't had enough time to learn the ropes and establish themselves, said Carol Weissert, a Florida State University political science professor. With a four-term limit, they must work fast to be successful.
"A legislator coming in has a short period of time to get clout," Weissert said. "We used to say it took six years for legislators to learn the ropes ... but then you're on your way out."
In her first session, Magar, the vice president of a medical diagnosis service company, passed three bills, including one that aligned with one of Gov. Rick Scott's 2013 priorities: expanding manufacturing tax exemptions. She also was appointed vice chair of the House health care budget committee.
"As a freshman, I was lucky to carry the governor's priority," said Magar, whose District 82 covers Martin and Palm Beach counties and is largely Republican. "Also, being vice chair of the health care appropriations committee, I was able to get a closer look at the budget. It piqued my interest."
Her opponent, Democrat Mary Higgins, a caseworker, said one of Magar's pitfalls was voting for 30-year no-bid leases for sugar growers in the Everglades in 2013. All Treasure Coast legislators voted for the bill except Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City.
Higgins also pointed out Magar said at the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers' On the Record lagoon forum this month she opposes Amendment 1, which will allow voters to decide in November whether to set aside money from existing tax sources for 20 years to buy land for conservation and restoration.
"I knew I needed to get the conversation going and give voters a choice," Higgins said of her decision to run in a largely Republican district. "I know it's a long shot. I know that I will be outspent."
Lee, an insurance agency owner who has worked as a community leader in St. Lucie County for 35 years, hasn't been as successful as Magar in creating new laws.
Still, his record -- one bill passed in two years -- is similar to other freshmen Democratic House members.
Lee said it is frustrating to be in the minority party because the GOP leadership decides which bills get heard and who heads committees. Being a good lawmaker goes beyond drafting bills, he said, adding he has worked with Republicans and Democrats on such items as Negron's $231.9 million funding package for projects that will help the Indian River Lagoon.
"I knew when I went to Tallahassee I was in the minority party and I knew I had to build bridges with the Republican majority," Lee said.
Voting for the 30-year sugar leases was a mistake, he said. Since then he has selected advisers to educate him on lagoon issues. This year, Lee voted against a controversial bill that would have prohibited local governments from imposing some environmental regulations.
Lee's opponent in District 84, which covers part of St. Lucie and leans slightly more Democratic, is Robert Siedlecki, a Republican and former chief of staff at the state Department of Health who moved to Port St. Lucie from Tallahassee two months ago.
Being in the majority party means he could get appointed as a ranking committee member, which would give him more clout to pass bills. He wants to lower business taxes to attract jobs to the county, he said.
"I do believe a person can be the most vulnerable the first time they are running for re-election," Siedlecki said. "I think Larry Lee is a nice guy. I just don't think he's effective in the district."
If re-elected, Lee said he wants to reintroduce a bill that died this session to create a literacy program for at-risk children in Fort Pierce, attract businesses to the Port of Fort Pierce by creating a port authority, and recruit more biotech institutes to the Treasure Coast Research Park off Interstate 95.
Magar said she will start working on bills this summer to help small businesses and to overhaul the state's water policies, which is a priority for incoming Speaker Steve Crisafulli.
Whether they've built enough clout to get bills passed in their second term remains to be seen.
Weissert said political clout comes down to being an expert in one subject and working with other members to achieve common goals. Magar is focused on small businesses and Lee on the insurance industry and social issues.
The committees lawmakers serve on also determines how they can influence policy. Some committees, such as budgetary control, are more important than others, Weissert said. The House speaker and the Senate president are in charge of those appointments, which normally follow party lines.
In the end, lawmakers have to use their first term to learn the legislative process and how to get ahead in the game of politics, Weissert said.
"The first term is the learning term," she said, "but then you don't want to waste two years."
Bills introduced by Reps. Larry Lee Jr. and Mary Lynn Magar that became law
A law that provides the payee of a bad check with an alternative way to collect the debt by allowing the payee to collect the money without sending a demand letter as previously required by law.
A law that allows dentists who volunteer to provide services to indigent people to accept reimbursement for dental laboratory costs without being considered to have accepted compensation. Those dentists contract with the state to provide services under the Access to Health Care Act.
A law that expands eligibility for manufacturing tax exemptions by eliminating a requirement that businesses must increase productivity by at least five percent and also allows a manufacturer to receive a tax exemption for equipment upgrades at an existing facility.
A law that allows insurers to post certain types of insurance policies on the their website instead of mailing or delivering the policy to the insured, as it was previously required. Insurers must notify each policyholder of his or her right to request and obtain a paper or electronic copy of the policy without charge.
Source: Florida House of Representatives
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