Gaetz, Weatherford Open 2014 Session Backing Governor's Top Priorities
Around the State
The 2014 legislative session began on Tuesday with Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, backing Gov. Rick Scott’s calls for tax cuts, pledging to work together on education and ethics reforms, but diving on giving the children of illegal aliens in-state tuition.
Weatherford spoke first, offering kind words for Scott’s leadership and pledging to fight for the governor’s proposal to roll back $400 million in vehicle registration fees and cutting $100 million in commercial rent taxes.
Despite Scott facing a tough battle for a second term this year. Weatherford urged the House to play down politics during this session.
“Our best and greatest accomplishments – both last year, and in the history of our state and country, have occurred when we worked together,” Weatherford said. “When we consider views not only from our own perspective, but from the perspective of all Floridians. Our modern political environment does not lend itself to such an approach. For example, in Washington, D.C., they pass far more blame than bills. Let’s set a different tone by spending the next 60 days focused on policy, not politics. Let’s hold off on campaigning until May 3rd. Let’s show Florida how it can be done.”
Despite the pledge to lay off politics, Weatherford went all in on Scott’s tax cuts.
“This session we are going to cut taxes, a lot of taxes,” Weatherford said. “In fact, this will be the single largest general revenue tax cut in over 10 years ... we are looking to return $500 million back into the pockets of our taxpayers. It’s our version of a real stimulus plan – one that is good for Florida’s families and Florida’s economy”
Gaetz also went to bat for Scott’s proposal.
“Every dollar in Tallahassee is involuntarily extracted from the pockets and cash registers of the people of Florida,” Gaetz said, noting the leadership of the Florida Senate was clearly on board. “I ask you to stand with Gov. Scott, Speaker Weatherford, President-designate Gardiner, and Budget Chair Negron and cut taxes by $500 million this year. The centerpiece of our tax cut proposal will be a reduction of vehicle fees to help working families who drive their cars and trucks to school and to their jobs. In Washington, the debate is about which taxes to raise. In Florida, the debate is about which taxes to cut.”
Weatherford returned to the subject of state employee pension reform which failed in the Senate last year. This year, Weatherford and Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Brooksville, are offering a new pension reform bill which does not include first responders and clearly defines that current state employees and retirees are not impacted.
“Last year, we put 500 million recurring dollars in the budget to shore up our so-called ‘great’ pension system,” Weatherford said. “Nowhere but government do we rejoice and say, ‘we can almost pay all of our bills.' An 85.9 percent funded plan sounds great, until you realize that’s over $21 billion of unfunded liability.
“I believe if we can solve the problem this year, then in future years we have more money to hire more teachers, to reduce more taxes, and invest more in our infrastructure,” Weatherford added. “May 2014 finally be the year that we disarm this ticking time bomb and secure a better future for our workers and our state."
Gaetz also backed pension reform but noted the problems Weatherford’s proposal had in the Senate last year.
“Pension reform is one of the few issues that divides this Senate,” Gaetz said. “There is nothing to be gained by taking the Senate down the same road as last year with the same results. So, I have asked the proponents of pension reform to compromise, to consider options different from last year’s bill. I ask opponents to unfold their arms, roll up their sleeves and help craft a compromise. Here is the stubborn fact: Annually the Florida Legislature appropriates $500 million to subsidize the unfunded actuarial liability of our pension system. That is $500 million that cannot be spent on the environment, or education, or health care, or left in taxpayers’ own pockets. It is $500 million off the top. For the sake of our future employees, for the sake of our taxpayers, we should not be like Washington. We should look for a solution.”
EDUCATION AND ETHICS REFORMS
Weatherford showcased the agenda he and Gaetz crafted including “the Florida GI Bill” to improve educational opportunities for veterans, efforts against sexual predators, streamlining the state government’s IT and reforming state child services. The speaker also promised to back Gaetz’s government ethics reforms.
“We will continue to put our House in order,” Weatherford said. “Once again, Senate President Gaetz is leading the charge on ethics reform. Today, with your vote, we will pass a residency rule. The people of Florida need to know that their political leaders are playing by the rules. Our Constitution says that members must live in their districts. The trust of the people is the very foundation of our representative government.”
Weatherford called for linking education to businesses to help end “generational poverty.”
“I believe strong families, a quality education and a good paying job are the only ways to disrupt poverty – particularly when it’s generational,” Weatheford said. “The statistics are overwhelming – If you have a full-time job in this country today, there is a 97 percent chance that you are not in poverty. If you have a full-time job or a part-time job, there is a 93 percent chance you are not living in poverty. While our unemployment is dropping, there are still too many Floridians looking for work.
“We live in a society where our next generation cannot pay their student loans,” Weatherford added. “They are not saving for retirement. They aren’t buying homes, they’re moving back home. There is a storm brewing that is easier to ignore than address. But we must act. The answer is a paycheck – not a welfare check – that’s the ticket to economic and personal freedom. Because a job is more than just pay. Work gives us a sense of dignity, of self-actualization, of purpose. If dependency is the deep pit of quicksand, education and the free-enterprise system are the hands that pull us out. But in order to provide sustainable, lasting solutions, we must get beyond the tired and ineffective arguments of income inequality and class warfare. We have to quit dividing.”
Weatherford stressed the need to use education to prepare Florida’s children to enter the future workforce.
“What we know to be true is that it’s not the redistribution of wealth that will restore the rungs on the ladder of opportunity, it’s the redistribution of knowledge,” Weatherford said. “Therefore, we will put significant time and energy into fostering economic opportunity through education. Just as there is no single cause for this problem, so too we will not offer a single solution. We will attack it on many fronts. From increased standards and accountability in our early learning efforts to common-sense reforms in our K-12 system. We’ll simplify school grades to make them more understandable, and thus more meaningful to parents, teachers and children. And we will also work to make sure that children and their parents who are looking for an alternative learning environment will not be turned away.”
The product of home schooling, Weatherford defended school choice and called for more educational options across the Sunshine State. “No child’s future success should be dictated by their zip code,” he said. “ In my opinion, no other issue today personifies freedom, opportunity and the God-given ‘right to rise’ for our children better than the school choice movement! There are 60,000 kids who are receiving scholarships today, primarily minority and overwhelmingly low-income. And there are tens of thousands more whose parents are longing to send them to the school of their choice. Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them. Let us expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
“Florida’s workforce needs are changing at a dynamic and rapid pace. We are requiring our education system to adapt and innovate,” he added. “We are also changing the higher education paradigm: requiring universities to focus on helping students get a job, not just a framed degree. By creating an incentive-based funding model, we will reward universities for efficiency, degree completion, and job placement.”
Gaetz also pushed ethics reforms and efforts to “lash Florida education to the realities and opportunities of the economy." Like the speaker, the Senate president called for more school choice options.
“Now it is time to lift the course limit on career-technical education so more students, from middle school through college, can take more courses and earn more industry certifications,” Gaetz said. “The pathway out of poverty is education – education that qualifies you for a job. Our education committees will ask you to support the Board of Governors in establishing metrics of performance for our state universities and tying funding to that performance, so more students will actually earn degrees and those degrees will qualify graduates for real jobs.
“School choice, financial accountability and student achievement are part of the same transformational policy,” Gaetz continued. “The performance of Tax Credit Scholarship students should be assessed just like the performance of any other child. Why? Because testing is not just about score-carding. It is about measuring academic progress so schools and teachers can customize instruction to meet individual students’ needs, so parents will know how their children are really doing, so taxpayers can be sure how their money is used.”
IN-STATE TUITION FOR THE CHILDREN OF ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS
As has often been the case since taking over their chambers after the 2012 election, Weatherford stressed he and Gaetz are mostly on the same page but the speaker also brought up an issue on which they differ by calling for the children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at Florida’s colleges and universities.
“The federal government has failed,” Weatherford said on Tuesday. “Our border is not secure. Our laws are not enforced.” Weatherford trashed the “inconsistent and confusing” federal policies.
Weatherford noted the children of illegal immigrants get the benefits of K-12 education in Florida but not when they seek higher education. “Then we slam the doors on their future,” Weatherford said. "Let's exercise our state's rights and open the door of opportunity for all of Florida's children."
Saying it was the right thing to do economically, Weatherford said there was also a moral argument to be made on the issue. "We should never punish a child for the mistake of their parents," Weatherford said.
Gaetz told Sunshine State News last week he opposed the speaker on this issue but he did not weigh in on the issue on Tuesday.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com.