TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - New leadership now controls Florida's Republican-led Legislature, where the loquacious Don Gaetz presides in the Senate and 33-year-old Will Weatherford steps into the biggest test of his political career as speaker of the 120-member House of Representatives.
With the nine-week session opening Tuesday, the pair agree that lawmakers need to focus on important issues like the budget, education, health care, the proposed expansion of Medicaid, property insurance and election reform and not waste time on the inconsequential, which can burden the process.
"Everybody's making sacrifices to be here," said Weatherford, the second-youngest speaker in state history. "We're not up there to mess around. We're here to make a difference."
The session opens in the shadow of the federal battle over budget cuts between Congress and President Barack Obama, a squabble that seems to concern Gaetz more than Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
"I'm not prepared to put on rose-colored glasses about the budget," Gaetz said. "I'm certainly not prepared to talk about extra money, any extra money, until we see what happens in Washington with sequester."
Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, cited a story about "when the Legislature makes a law it's often a joke. The problem is when the Legislature makes a joke, it's the law."
"We make the jokes," Gaetz conceded. "We pass bills that we don't need to pass."
Republican and Democratic leaders are already questioning some of Gov. Rick Scott's priorities in his $74.2 billion budget proposal, including his push to offer a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise to school teachers and a one-time bonus for state employees. Gaetz and Weatherford have comfortable Republican majorities to help with their goals. The GOP has a 26-14 advantage in the Senate and 76-44 in the House, although Democratic gains in November have eliminated the two-thirds majority the GOP had in both houses.
Scott has reversed his stance in recent weeks on expanding voting opportunities, the expansion of Medicaid and on pay increases for teachers and state workers. His change of heart on the Medicaid issue received a chilly reception by legislative leaders.
"I am personally skeptical that this inflexible law will improve the quality of healthcare in our state and ensure our long-term financial stability," Weatherford said.
Gaetz, who said he supports Scott's candidacy for re-election next year, differs with the governor on Medicaid expansion and some spending priorities.
"I think it's way too early to start talking about extra money," Gaetz said, again referring to the budget battle in Washington.
Politics, naturally, are always center-stage here, although the main characters are new on the legislative front for the next two sessions. Scott has already begun that mid-term pivot on several issues with an eye on boosting his lagging poll numbers with his 2014 re-election bid looming.
The governor and lawmakers appear set to reverse the changes to the state's elections law in 2011 when they approved a measure to reduce early voting days and tougher registration requirements - a move that some saw as an effort to make it more difficult for President Barack Obama to carry the state a second time. Obama still won. A bill is already under way with Scott's blessings to restore more early-voting days.
And while there is plenty of debate over the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and the role it should serve, it's not the only insurance issue that could be discussed. There is also the fraud-plagued no-fault vehicle insurance and the solvency of the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund or "CAT" fund. Lawmakers are likely to go slowly on most, if not all of them this session.
Weatherford believes Citizens is making progress, Gaetz wants to hold off a year before making any final decisions on the state's personal injury protection, or PIP, laws and everyone is hoping that Florida can get through an eighth straight year without a major hurricane.
"We always have insurance issues," said Sam Miller, executive vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, an industry group. "This year they may be more than there usually are."
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