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What can we look for from the Florida Legislature in 2013?
Joe Saunders
Judging by the responses Florida Voices received from the leaders of the Florida House and Senate to this question, a short, and very obvious, answer is: “heat. And a lot of it.” Senate President Don Gaetz wants to “lash higher education to the realities of the economy” and takes aim at ethical misconduct at the local level. Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, meanwhile, sets his beginning in what sounds like a fairly rancorous committee meeting on “Obamacare” in Florida then heads into property insurance. In the House, Minority Leader Perry Thurston makes no bones about standing “first and foremost” for fixing Florida's voting problems. Meanwhile, in his Organization Session speech excerpted here, House Speaker Will Weatherford covers a lot of ground but at one point reminds Democrats that bipartisanship is a “two-way” street, and asks if they would use their “power and position to surprise and embarrass the majority in order to grab a good headline?” So, it's not even the beginning yet, and we're already into a new anthropology war, Obamacare and accusations of voter suppression versus grandstanding to “grab a good headline.” What can we look for from the Legislature in 2013? Heat. And a lot of it.
Don Gaetz
Florida Senate President, R-Niceville

Last week, our Senate committees began the hard work of sifting through and refining the proposals each senator will make in the next two months. Thousands of bills will be filed, hundreds of meetings will be conducted, and dozens of hours of public testimony and debate will take place before we see the fruit of this labor realized as new laws governing our state.

As we begin this process, there are a number of serious issues facing Florida, a few of which I outlined during the Organization Session last month.

We need to work hard to make Florida a better place for moms and dads to keep their jobs or get better jobs. I cannot go home to Niceville with the excuse that I did nothing about job growth and blame the Democrats. If my neighbors’ children come home from college or university with $30,000 in debt and a degree that doesn’t qualify them for a real job, I won’t get by pointing fingers at the governor. We need to work together to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy so Florida’s sons and daughters will be prepared with college and university degrees that lead to high-pay, high demand jobs.

We also need to raise the standard of ethical conduct in local and state government. In my medium-sized North Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the Tourism Development Council director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money … the tax collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison. That’s just my county.

We need to make sure Floridians never again have to stand in lines for six and seven hours to vote. Floridians should never again have to wonder if their ballots were miscoded or misprinted or miscounted. Floridians shouldn’t be embarrassed that while most counties in our state run flawless elections, some counties keep running flawed elections. This isn’t a Third World country. America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.

Finally, it is our constitutional duty is to fashion a budget.

It is true that Florida has achieved 27 months of positive job growth. Also, Florida has had the largest drop in unemployment of any state in the nation, unemployment among veterans has been cut by more than half, and consumer confidence is at a five-year high. But it’s also true that either the retirement litigation currently before the state Supreme Court or the “fiscal cliff” that the Congress and president have brought on themselves could force Florida down into billions of dollars of red ink. Consequently, I will ask our appropriations committees to undertake a much more intensive budget review than ever before.

Different from past Senate practice, I have asked every senator to serve on two appropriations committees to take advantage of everyone’s insights, everyone’s skills to make sure the maximum value is squeezed from every dollar extracted from the pockets of our taxpayers and the cash registers of our businesses.

Ultimately, I believe the 2012-2014 Senate will be judged by whether we have helped or hurt or been irrelevant to the slow, steady, permanent recovery of Florida’s economy. We will be judged by whether it is more or less likely that a high school or college or university graduate can count on his education as the passport to a job. And we will be judged by what we do to reform the way we run elections and raise the standards of ethical conduct from the courthouse to the state house. You will be that judge, and I hope you will hold us accountable.


Chris Smith
Florida Senate Minority Leader, D-Fort Lauderdale

It was the first day of the first week of Senate committee hearings and “Obamacare,” the nation’s new affordable health care law – already deliberated, debated, litigated, procrastinated, and ultimately, upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court – was under attack once again.

In the audience of the special select committee to implement Obamacare was a cadre of opponents, primarily tea party members, who felt compelled to boo and hiss at senators with no agenda other than to carry out their constitutional obligations in service to the people of Florida. The committee, by the way, consisted of a broad spectrum of senators all appointed by Senate President Don Gaetz, a conservative Republican and no fan of the new health-care law.

Despite the disruptions and to their credit, committee members, many of whom I know had also opposed Obamacare, held to the bipartisanship promised by President Gaetz. Because they, too, recognized the duty inherent in the oath of office they each took last month and the mission with which they were now tasked.

Perhaps there is hope for the 2013 Legislative Session after all.

Implementation of Obamacare was one of three priorities I identified for the Senate Democratic Caucus; education and property insurance were the other two.

Along the campaign trail this past year, as I went door-to-door, Floridians weren’t as much concerned with being taxed out of their homes as they were being insured out of their homes. And for good reason. We have seen our property insurance rates double, triple, and in some cases, quadruple. And all of these hikes come on the heels of yet another hurricane-free year.

Ironically, as much as there has been a push to remove the reins from the insurance industry, Tallahassee has been less reluctant to relinquish control to local educators over their own school districts. That needs to change. Both the governor and legislative leaders need to shift some of that power back to those local boards who know best how to educate their kids; Tallahassee should be a conduit, not a bottleneck, to making sure the systems flow together so that our kids get the high quality education they deserve.

With an unemployment rate that continues to remain stubbornly high, job creation and economic development will also remain top priorities. So too will criminal justice and elections reform.

Daunting? Yes. Doable? Absolutely. There is no lack of talent in the Florida Senate to conquer these issues once policy takes precedence over partisanship. And I believe those lessons were driven home earlier this year when moderate Republicans joined united Democrats in the Senate to defeat legislation that was all about partisanship over policy.

So far, it seems the Senate president is listening. In a follow-up reply to a prominent tea partier demanding he halt implementation of Obamacare, President Gaetz told the story of one U.S. president who, when confronted with similar demands to defy federal law, opted to stand with the Constitution.

As Democrats, that’s been our position all along.


Will Weatherford
Florida House of Representatives Speaker, R-Wesley Chapel

(Excerpts from Organization Session speech, Nov. 20.)

In speeches like this, people often say, “we are living in unprecedented times.” Perhaps that’s true. It’s not something we can judge, but rather history judges for us.

What I do know is that we are living in a time when the people of Florida expect us to act. Despite our efforts, more than 8 percent of Floridians still cannot find a job. Half of Florida’s homeowners are underwater on their mortgages. More than three and a half-million Floridians are on food stamps. One-third of all Florida high school students do not graduate.

These are problems that are often avoided because they seem insurmountable. Yet, these are problems that we cannot afford to ignore. Florida must take the reins and determine our own destiny ...

While we long for Washington D.C. to put away the pettiness and end the gridlock, we cannot wait for them to figure it out. We cannot expect them to solve our problems. Florida has an opportunity to lead. More importantly, we have an obligation to lead.

We must fulfill the original intent of our federal system of government; letting states like Florida serve as laboratories of our democracy. We will do all we can to find innovative and lasting solutions that can be a model for our nation. Florida should be the haven where hard work is valued, ingenuity is welcomed, and success is widely achievable ...

Over the next two years, there will be many issues that are presented to this legislative body. We will prepare – to the best of our ability – approaches that will be based on the principles of the majority and the legitimate concerns of the minority. We will define success by the degree in which the solution genuinely matches the problem ... Not who gets the credit or the blame. Not the score between the House and Senate.

Because whether we realize it or not, we sometimes lose sight of what really matters. On an individual level and on an institutional level we need to have greater grasp of our purpose, our mission, and our reason for serving. We must have a clear understanding of why we’re here and how our actions will impact our communities and our state.

... We are not here to serve as passive brokers for the special interest groups. We are here to be the chamber of ideas and solutions. We are also here to lead, to govern and to offer bold, transformational ideas. …

Also, we must work together. … I do not have to make a bold statement or a new commitment to work in a bipartisan manner with the minority party. ... What I can commit to is that you will always be treated with fairness and respect – no matter which party you represent.

… You have elected me speaker of this House. Not just the speaker of the Republican majority, but of the entire House – Republicans and Democrats. And I plan to embrace that role.

But let me be clear: bipartisanship is a two way street. There is an opportunity for the loyal opposition. My colleagues on the back row, you have the discretion on how you will engage in this process. Will you use your power and position to surprise and embarrass the majority in order to grab a good headline? Will you challenge us on the policy or politics?

The choice is yours and I have faith you.

I welcome and value the spirited debate and the clash of ideas. It is good and healthy for this process and it produces better solutions. What we all have to understand is that our enemies are not sitting in this chamber or down the hall across the rotunda.

Our enemies are real and they are worthy of the fight. Our enemies are unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, broken systems, broken government and burdensome regulation. These are the enemies that are wreaking havoc on our people and on our state.

I believe that government is not the answer to each of these problems, but our actions can be helpful or hurtful to the individuals who are fighting to achieve the American dream.

Perry Thurston
Florida House of Representatives Minority Leader, D-Plantation

Important business awaits the Florida Legislature, and the 44 members of the Florida House Democratic Caucus are eager to get started. Job creation, education, health care, elections and ethics reform are only a few of the many important subjects that will be addressed in the next legislative session.

House Democratic Caucus members want a positive agenda and a state spending plan that takes Florida forward. I can assure Floridians that we will support legislation that does more than just advocate for conservatives and liberals. Rather, we aim to promote good for all Floridians for a long time to come.

Coming out of this year’s elections, we know there were real problems and big problems. Too many voters stood in very long waiting lines to vote. Too many people may not have been able to exercise their right to vote. And there is uncertainty about whether every Floridian's vote was counted.

All Florida voters, including those in the African-American and Hispanic communities, deserve congratulations for making huge strides to overcome obstacles to voting this year. Democrats in the Legislature warned in 2011, and, frankly, ever since, that changes in election law approved as House Bill 1355 in 2011, are, by and large, a partisan attempt to suppress the vote. Therefore, we are eager to see robust and substantial elections reform in Florida.

First and foremost, we think there needs to be an adequate understanding of just what transpired this election. Through the Legislature’s committee process, we think the House and Senate needs to hear from all the interested parties, such as county governments, election supervisors, civil rights advocacy groups and others. As far as elections reform is considered, the Legislature needs to act deliberately but also without delay. The Florida Legislature must strive to keep Florida elections from always being the butt of late-night television jokes.

As House Democrats, we will prepare and, if necessary, present our own substantial elections reform legislation. However, we are hopeful that the House will develop bipartisan legislation that addresses the real problems, such as long waiting lines and other roadblocks to voting.



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