Legislative Leaders Offer Sneak Peek at 2014 Agenda
Around the State
The leaders of the Florida Legislature offered a glimpse at the upcoming legislative session as Republicans and Democrats ready their proposals and bills.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, spoke to the media in Tallahassee on Wednesday morning and insisted the two chambers will work together to pass their economic and education agendas.
Focusing on education, Weatherford called for no tuition increases for state universities and colleges in 2015, raising the cap for Florida’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program and ensuring Florida schools prepare students for the changing economy. The leaders said they would push to grow more Career and Professional Education (CAPE) academies and increase their enrollments while also creating more digital schools and increase online tools for students in traditional schools.
“The mission is to make Florida first in the nation ... for preparation for real jobs in the real economy,” Gaetz said, calling for more career and industry certifications and an increased emphasis on teaching job skills.
Weatherford promised the Legislature would fight for “restoring trust and integrity in our grading system” and would continue the battle for school choice.
The Republican leaders also are looking to tie higher education to performance, including finding jobs and graduation rates.
Turning to veterans, Weatherford introduced the “Florida GI Bill” to support military families across the Sunshine State. Gaetz and Weatherford called for giving veterans state tuition rates, offering free tuition to deployed members of the Florida National Guard and waiving licensing fees for veterans. They also backed renovating Florida armories and working with military bases to improve their conditions.
Gaetz and Weatherford also said they would push legislation which would crack down on sexual predators, reform the child welfare system and protect seniors and the disabled.
The two Republicans promised to back Scott’s proposed tax cuts which include slashing $400 million in vehicle registration fees and cutting the business rent tax by more than $100 million. Gaetz expressed support for both measures, insisting they represented a “broad based tax cut that targets low income and working Floridians.” Gaetz insisted the vehicle registration fees were “confiscatory” and Scott’s proposals were making progress in both chambers.
“We intend to roll those fees back as much as we can,” Gaetz said.
“The governor has shown leadership on tax cuts,” Weatherford added. “We’re with him on tax cuts.”
Turning to government accountability, Weatherford said he would fight again to reform government employee pensions, though he added it would be different than the legislation which went down to defeat last year.
“We’re working on a compromise bill,” Weatherford said, as he tries to make the pension bill amenable to the Senate.
The leaders also planned to focus on reforming the state’s information technology systems including having a chief information officer position.
Gaetz said they would also support “ethics reform and open government” efforts in the upcoming session, including requiring local officials to attend ethics training and holding public-private partnerships to higher standards. The leaders also called for more openness with lobbyist records and more sunshine on public records. They also said they would push for a “clear, enforceable” law on legislative residency requirements on the first day of session.
Gaetz insisted their agenda would need support from both parties and both chambers. “This isn’t a Republican plan or a Democratic plan,” Gaetz said. “It is a Florida work plan.”
Asked about Scott‘s proposed budget which was unveiled earlier in the day, Weatherford said the Legislature was in a “great place” with the governor‘s office. “I see nothing that alarms me,” Weatherford insisted.
Asked if they would support adding state constitutional amendment proposals to the November ballot, both Gaetz and Weatherford said no.
With Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, not able to attend the event due to inclement weather leading his flight to be grounded, Democrats turned to Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, to talk about their agenda. Montford, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, is generally more pro-business than most of his Democratic colleagues, winning the endorsements of the leadership of the business community, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Florida.
Montford focused on water issues, insisting it was an important issue to the Senate, his Democratic colleagues and his committee. Drawing on his background as a former educator in Leon County, Montford turned to education.
“This Legislature owes it to Florida to ... do what’s right for Florida’s children,” Montford said. Bashing the current assessment as “far too complex,” Montford pointed to Common Core and tests and said things were changing. “We are in a transition in accountability,” Montford said, insisting the public had “lost faith” in the current assessment systems. Montford also said many schools in Florida were not keeping up with technological changes.
Montford expressed “concerns with charter schools” despite his past support of them. He said charter schools were being given more freedom to withdraw students than traditional schools. “They should be held to the same standards as public schools.” Despite these reservations, Montford said he was “still a supporter of school choice” and praised CAPE academies as a boon to education and the economy.
While Montford cheered Scott‘s proposal for more education funding, the senator said more funding was needed. “We need to move along ... much, much faster,” Montford said.
Montford did express some hesitation on Scott’s tax cut proposal, insisting they would lower state taxes but raise local property taxes. Asked if he would vote for Scott’s budget, which was unveiled earlier in the day, Montford said he needed to study it.
A much more combative House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said his party did not set the agenda in Tallahassee and said he would lead his caucus to push back against Republicans who “overreach” in the Legislature. Thurston is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
“We get our message across through our advocacy,” Thurston said. Taking aim at Gaetz and Weatherford, Thurston said the Republican “strategy was to shift the ball” as the Democrat insisted there was a “crisis” in Florida with too many uninsured.
“We will be talking about those issues that affect millions of Floridians,” Thurston insisted.
Thurston ripped the Republican record, noting 40 children in Florida died due to a lack of action from the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) in the past year. He also pointed to the constant turnover at Scott’s Education Department. “We need an education system for what’s best for the state of Florida,” Thurston said, noting spending per pupil is dropping. “We haven’t kept up with growth."
Thurston agreed with Weatherford that the budget was “historic” but said it was “historic for disappointment.”
Saying Democrats would “continue to fight,” Thurston said he would ”push the agenda for the people of Florida” on education and other issues. Thurston also said his caucus would continue to oppose public pension reforms.
Thurston also noted his caucus opposed the vehicle registration fee when it was launched in 2009 and would support Scott’s call -- though he noted the same Republicans who put it in place five years ago now want to repeal it in an election year.
Reach Kevin Derby at email@example.com.