Legislature to meet with hint of change in the air
Published: Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE -- With an increase in Democratic lawmakers and a governor now looking toward his re-election, a new Florida Legislature convenes this week, facing many of the same challenges of the past, from a tight budget to the rising cost of health care.
But there may be a new tone in Tallahassee, following an election in which President Barack Obama carried the state and Democrats picked up four seats in the 120-member state House and two seats in the 40-member state Senate.
Republicans remain firmly in control, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, will be installed as the new Senate president in the one-day organizational session on Tuesday, presiding over a chamber for the next two years where the GOP controls 26 of the 40 seats.
Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, will take over the state House, where his party holds a 76-44 advantage.
Gov. Rick Scott, who faces re-election in 2014, will preside over his third legislative session when lawmakers return to Tallahassee in March for their annual 60-day session.
Weatherford, 33, said he will deliberately try to include more Floridians as part of his leadership of the House.
“If there is one thing that I would like to try to achieve (it) is to be an inclusive reformer for the Florida House,” Weatherford said.
“I would like to make sure that we’re working with our friends across the aisle, that we’re allowing everyone’s voice to be heard and to participate. At the same time not let that stifle us from moving forward with real reforms and dealing with the challenges that Florida has before it.”
Weatherford said his goal is for lawmakers to consider opinions from not only political opponents but from ordinary citizens outside the political process.
“As a Legislature, we can do a better job of listening before we act,” he said.
Gaetz, 64, a former Okaloosa school superintendent and health care company executive, said the election outcome will not have much of an impact on the Senate, where members have a reputation for their independence.
“For me as a senator, what it has meant is that I can’t take a single vote for granted,” said Gaetz, adding that he is considering Democrats for committee chairmanships.
State Rep. Perry Thurston, the 51-year-old Plantation attorney who will lead the House Democrats for the next two years, said he expects to see an increase in bipartisanship in the Legislature, although he noted that much of the funding for the Republican legislative races came from conservative sources.
“I still think you’re going to have a conservative Legislature,” he said.
But Thurston and other lawmakers don’t expect to see a repeat of the 2011 session, which saw a plethora of conservative measures. The biggest losers in the session were those groups most often linked to more liberal causes, including teachers, union members, state workers, abortion rights activists and environmentalists.
Several of the measures passed were challenged in court.
Scott, faced with persistently low public approval ratings, has recently moderated his tone and embraced increasing education funding as a priority after sharply cutting the budget his first year.
But GOP lawmakers in the next two years will continue to push issues that they think are needed to curb the cost and size of government.
Weatherford said he wants to end the traditional pension plan for new state employees, requiring them to use a 401(k)-type retirement plan.
“It’s time for us to get real and do what the private sector has done,” Weatherford said.
Lawmakers and Scott are waiting for a state Supreme Court decision on their 2011 measure that required public employees who participate in the state pension plan to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to the retirement fund. An adverse ruling from the court could present a huge financial challenge for the state budget.
But lawmakers will be looking at a number of other issues where bipartisan support can be found.
Weatherford, Gaetz and the Democratic leaders all say they want to review and possibly change Florida’s election laws and procedures in light of the problems in counting the votes in the 2012 general election.
Additionally, they said they will be pushing measures to strengthen the state’s ethics laws, with Weatherford also saying that should also include some campaign-financing reforms.
Gaetz said the top priority he has heard from Floridians during the election remains job growth and the Senate agenda will be geared toward that goal.
He will be pushing efforts to revamp Florida’s state college and universities so that it “lashes our higher educational system closer to the realities and the opportunities of the economy.” That is expected to include financial incentives for schools that promote technology and science degrees — which lawmakers and Scott say have the most potential for economic growth.
The $70 billion state budget also will remain a big challenge for the immediate future.
“We face another year of budget blood, tears, toil and sweat,” Gaetz predicted.
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