The old capitol building (foreground) and the new one (background)
It's not exactly a wasteland, but the fourth floor of the Capitol is noticeably barren as the clock – slowly – ticks down on the legislative session.
In typical years, the terrazzo floors between the House and Senate chambers are a beehive of activity during the final days of the session, with lobbyists scurrying to slip Hail Mary amendments into the bills remaining in action. The cacophony is deafening as lobbyists monitor television screens showing the action inside the chambers and jostle to powwow with lawmakers and staffers.
Not this year. The rotunda is draped in an almost eerie malaise, and some lobbyists have even packed up and gone home instead of waiting for the traditional "hanky drop" that marks the session's denouement.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli has sent his members home early every day this week and delayed floor activity until after noon on Wednesday and Thursday. Meanwhile, the Senate has spent hours each day bidding adieu to term-limited members.
The atmospheric ennui is even more marked after the explosive end to last year's session, when the House gaveled down early and left the Senate like a jilted lover at the altar.
"It is as empty on a Wednesday as I have seen in my career. It is as calm in both chambers as I've seen in a decade," longtime lobbyist Billy Rubin said mid-week.
Veterans like Rubin credit House and Senate leaders – who've balked at legislative bill "trains" and ninth-hour amendments – for some of the quietude.
That creates a double-edged sword for some lobbyists, who want to use the bills to get in – or kill – something they've failed to achieve during the previous eight weeks.
For those who've accomplished what they wanted, "it helps their bills from being weighed down and destroyed," said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist with a long list of clients.
On the other hand, he added, "If you have something you need to do at the last minute, the process is not going to let you sneak things on."
The advent of technology – which allows anyone to watch the proceedings online and gives lobbyists and lawmakers the ability to communicate via text or email, even during floor sessions – is also a factor, said lobbyist Alison Dudley.
"The old days when you would pull people outside of the ropes by the front door, you just don't see it as much," she said.
But insiders can expect a crescendo of activity before lawmakers pass the budget and the gavels come down Friday afternoon or evening, predicted veteran lobbyist Brian Ballard. As of Thursday, legislative packages dealing with transportation, health care and education had yet to be finalized.
"Friday will be a lot of major panic for a lot of people. Most things will either get done under the wire or not get done at all," Ballard said.
OLD CAPITOL BUILDING ON SPECIAL SESSION STANDBY
Since he took office in 2011, rumors have swirled about the possibility of Gov. Rick Scott vetoing the entire state budget, and the same "what ifs" are buzzing around the Capitol again this year. A handful of insiders are also speculating that Scott could force lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for a special session on gambling after they failed to sign off on a $3 billion deal the governor struck with the Seminole Tribe late last year.
But if lawmakers do have to come back to town, they'll find it a little cramped, at least on the Senate side.
Senate President Andy Gardiner doesn't anticipate a repeat of last year – when lawmakers had to return to the Capitol for three special sessions – but he's put the curators of the Old Capitol on notice that the museum might once again be the site of some bill-making, in the event of a special session this spring or summer.
The current Senate chamber will undergo a $4.9 million facelift, set to start next week, so Gardiner's contingency plan is to convene in the old chamber across the courtyard.
Gardiner said he's advised those running the museum to "save space for us for a while, just in case."
In a Jan. 6 memo to lawmakers, Gardiner noted the Senate chamber has received only "minimal" modifications since the new building was completed in 1977.
"Over the last four decades, the carpet has been replaced, the senators' chairs along with the gallery seating were replaced, and senators' desks were modified to accommodate changes in technology," Gardiner said in the memo. "Currently, our carpet is again in serious need of replacement and the HVAC units are outdated. Asbestos removal and compliance with current ADA requirements will also necessitate some remodeling."
The renovations were initially planned more than a decade ago, under the leadership of then-President Jim King. But the makeover was put on hold in favor of changes to the Senate Office Building.