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EXTRA: State Lawmakers caught on tape voting for absent colleagues

10:57 AM, Dec 4, 2006   |    comments
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2006 Emmy Nominated: Politics/Government (News)
Dave Bohman, Adam Vance

Dave Bohman was also nominated and won an Emmy for On Camera Talent (Reporter)

Tallahassee, Florida - When the Florida Legislature is in session, you can watch representative Democracy at work.

Every member of the Florida State House represents 140,000 Floridians.

Each member has one vote. Or should have one vote.

But on April 18th, Clearwater Representative Kimberly Berfield pushed the "yes" button of hers, and three other representatives, on a bill she sponsored.

The bill passed.

Everywhere on the State House floor on April 18th and 19th, you could see the empty seats of lawmakers who get credit for voting, because fellow members shuffle to push their buttons.

We showed this practice to a group of St. Petersburg mothers who make up an exercise class. Their jaws dropped, and their eyes widened, when they realized what their lawmakers are up to.

But it is legal according to House rules, as long as a fellow representative gives verbal approval to the colleague casting their votes. We took a tape to our political analyst Lars Hafner, who once served in the state house.

Hafner says it's done to take away a campaign issue during a re-election bid. Our group of St. Petersburg mothers noticed the nameplate on an empty chair during a vote where Frank Farkas, (R) St. Petersburg, sits.

So we showed our tape to Representative Farkas. Farkas wasn't at his desk here, but got credit for voting "yes" on a bill that added protection to the oyster beds near Appalachicola.

It was the only bill Farkas was not present for during our three hours this day. But why should he or anyone else miss a single vote during a legislative session?

Farkas and other lawmakers say the 60-day session is so jam packed with work, that they can't be on the House floor for every vote. Yet we were there when the grandson of Representative Stan Jordan took the House floor to sing "Happy Birthday USA" on April 19th.

The overall tribute to Florida's military took nearly one hour of a six-hour session. And after the tribute ended, more laws were passed, with the help of votes by lawmakers who were not even on the floor.

At the federal level, senators and congressmen aren't allowed to vote for a colleague who is not there. Your local city council member or county commissioner cannot use proxies either.

State House members are instructed as newcomers that the practice should be limited and discrete. I asked Representative Farkas if he thought what we showed on tape was discrete. Representative Farkas says if the outrage is shared by most Floridians, he favors changing the rules.

State Representative Frank Farkas, (R) St. Petersburg:
"Your video does show some holes in the system that obviously need to be looked at. And it's something we need to improve on."

A rules change would be up to a new speaker and a new set of lawmakers headed to the state capitol next year.

Click here to send an email to the next House Speaker, Marco Rubio.

Dave Bohman, Tampa Bay's 10 News

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