Intent on wiping their chambers clean of the toxic atmosphere that has permeated politics in the state Capitol and beyond for more than two years, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have made ethics, elections and campaign finance reform their top priorities for the 2013 legislative session that begins on Tuesday.
“My top priority is not a policy issue. It’s to create a tone,” said Weatherford, who, at age 33, is one of the youngest House speakers in Florida history.
Weatherford’s meteoric rise began in 2002 when the former Jacksonville University football player went to work as an aide to former state Rep. Allen Bense in Bense’s successful campaign for House speaker. He later became Bense’s legislative aide and married his boss’ daughter, Courtenay, with whom he has three daughters under age 5. Six years after first being elected to the House himself, the affable Republican from Wesley Chapel is now one of the three most powerful men in state politics.
Gaetz, an acerbic and shrewd businessman from the Panhandle and one of the legislature’s wealthiest members with a net fortune of about $25 million, also emphasizes atmosphere — speaking frequently of voters’ dissatisfaction with Washington and pointing out that deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadaffi had a higher popularity rating than Congress at the time he was killed.
“Congress has dissolved into a pile of partisan ooze,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. “They can’t pass a Mother’s Day resolution without finger-pointing. And the less we’re like that, then the more people will give some amount of credit to our education policies, our economic policies, our environmental policies.”
So it’s perhaps not surprising that Gaetz and Weatherford have made a big show of their mutual admiration and respect. The duo set a precedent with a joint legislative agenda for the session, a departure from previous leaders who, sometimes spurred by personal ambitions, have largely had their chambers pursue different paths.
Amiable, not BFFs
While Gaetz said he is an enthusiastic supporter of Weatherford, he doesn’t expect his House counterpart to be his best buddy.
“My 30-year-old son does not play with his 3-year-old daughter. We’re in different generations. I don’t have the expectation that Mike had that Will Weatherford and I are going to hold hands in the warm spring rain,” Gaetz said, referring somewhat sardonically to the relationship of his predecessor, Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, with former House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
The fractious two-year tenure of Haridopolos and Cannon may be best remembered for an overtime session meltdown in 2011 that ended with a disappointed Haridopolos on the verge of tears. The finger-pointing that followed created an animosity between the chambers that Gaetz and Weatherford hope to erase.
In the Senate, Haridopolos advanced a conservative agenda as he planned a statewide run for U.S. Senate, which he abandoned midway through last year’s session. And Cannon set up shop as a Tallahassee lobbyist after leaving office in November, letting his intentions be known even as he ruled the chamber. Like all legislators, Cannon and Haridopolos, who also recently registered as a lobbyist, are restricted to lobbying the executive branch for two years.
Battles in both houses
Gaetz also presides over a GOP caucus in the Senate that last year was embroiled in a leadership battle over who should be selected to succeed him in two years. In that environment, a splinter group of moderate Republicans joined with Democrats to block several GOP priority measures, including a prison privatization plan and a bill that would have allowed parents to take over failing schools.
In an attempt to encourage bipartisanship, Gaetz has appointed Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat, as vice chairwoman of two critical committees, elections and affordable health care.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale gives Gaetz credit for starting off right, saying, “Everybody’s trying to work together.”
But, Smith adds, that is in part a reaction to the drubbing Florida voters gave the GOP in the 2012 elections that returned President Barack Obama to the White House and weakened the GOP stronghold in both legislative chambers and the U.S. House.
“No one’s going to change totally. But it (the election) does give them a little pause,” Smith said. “It sent the message that Democrats and others are rising up and can vote you out.”
Weatherford likewise saw Chris Dorworth, the Republican slated to follow in his footsteps as speaker, defeated in November by a Democrat who never previously held office after reports about Dorworth’s personal financial problems.
Both Gaetz and Weatherford also pick up the gavels in the wake of scandals that rocked the Republican Party of Florida and the state House.
Former House Speaker Ray Sansom was forced to resign in 2009 after being charged with conspiracy and grant theft. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against Sansom.
In 2010, former RPOF chairman Jim Greer was charged with theft and money laundering charges, some of which he pleaded guilty to last month.
Civility from new players?
With a new crop of senators and freshmen making up more than one-third of the House, Gaetz and Weatherford have a clean slate and an atmosphere conducive to a more cordial relationship, said lobbyist Brian Ballard.
“No one’s running for statewide office at the end of their speakership or presidency. So that’s kind of nice,” Ballard said.
Gaetz and Weatherford will be “more pragmatic, not worrying about how is this going to affect the tea party… . It’s helpful for getting a lot of things done,” Ballard said.
In addition to the situations with Sansom and Greer, Gaetz’s focus on ethics reform is a reaction to a series of disgraces in his hometown Okaloosa County that included a corrupt county sheriff, a disgraced tax collector and a local tourism development director who committed suicide after stealing millions of dollars in BP oil spill funds.
Gaetz said his father, Jerry, a former mayor of Rugby, N.D., set the standard for how elected officials should behave. He recalled that when city workers planted a massive evergreen tree dug up for a road project in his family’s front yard, his father reimbursed Rugby for three times the tree’s value.
“My county has to cleanse itself. But I remember the evergreen tree,” said Gaetz, whose son Matt serves in the House under Weatherford. “My community expects me to do this. If I did anything less, I would have a hard time going home.”
Weatherford believes the ethical lapses can’t be resolved without changing the state’s campaign finance laws. He wants to boost current $500 campaign contribution limits to $10,000 and eliminate political committees that Florida elected officials are allowed to use to pay for meals, entertainment and travel. Gaetz, though, says the Senate won’t support “a five-figure” contribution limit because it will do nothing to eliminate big donors’ clout.
National notoriety about Florida voters waiting up to eight hours to cast their ballots in the 2012 election also put election reform at the top of the agenda for the two presiding officers.
Beyond ethics, campaign finance and elections reform, the pair appear to have, for now at least, a relatively modest agenda.
Less worry on budget
Blessed with a state budget that has grown for the first time in six years, they are not as pressed to make the major cuts as their recent predecessors have been. But citing concern about future budgets, Weatherford is intent on closing the state’s $122 billion pension fund to new employees and instead requiring them to enroll in a defined contribution plan. He says the current defined benefit system, with about 145,000 future and current participants, is unsustainable and could require a massive taxpayer bailout in the not-too-distant future.
And, after ignoring the Affordable Care Act since its passage more than three years ago, the Legislature must also make critical decisions this year about the federal health care law. They face looming deadlines to align state insurance regulation laws with federal health care marketplaces, and they have to choose whether to participate in the expansion of the federal-state Medicaid program, something Gov. Rick Scott recently endorsed.
Weatherford’s criticism of Scott’s support for the expansion sparked rumors that he might launch a primary run against Scott, who is seeking reelection next year.
Weatherford laughed off the speculation.
“I’m busy enough trying to be the speaker of the House,” he said. “I’m not thinking about any of that stuff right now. I’m thinking about the agenda we have for the next 60 days and trying to pass some significant policy out of the Florida House.”
Keeping Watch on Power
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