Education, Medicaid expansion among topics for Legislature, Weatherford says
Republican House Speaker Will Weatherford expects the 2014 legislative session to focus on health care, education and poverty, including ways to deal with laws on the books that make it difficult for constituents to make ends meet.
While saying he’s “very proud of the unemployment rate,” the chasm between the rich and the poor in Florida and its effects on the state need to be addressed. Chief issues include the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and the discrepancies in education quality, he said.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, made his comments during a visit to the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday.
Funding early learning programs and the state’s school grading system will get close scrutiny this year, because everyone agrees there are flaws, he said.
“If you live in Wesley Chapel, you got A schools to choose from,” Weatherford said. “But if you live in Lacoochee, you have a D school or an F school that your kid’s going to, and there’s no other option, and I just am a firm believer in changing that option.”
Along with considering an overhaul of the grading system, Weatherford said he hopes to take on the rest of what he called the “four horsemen” of education: assessments, consistency in standards and teacher performance pay.
He also reiterated his previous stance to expand the Tax Credit Scholarship program to allow poor students to attend private schools so that if someone wants to take part, they don’t have to wait until space is available. A potential sales tax could create a revenue stream to fund that expansion, he said. Senate President Don Gaetz also will propose new accountability and assessment guidelines for the program, he added.
Weatherford said Obamacare’s contentious Medicaid expansion still didn’t solve the problem of treating uninsured Floridians. He said he believed other options should be better advertised.
“If you live above the 100 percent of the poverty rate today, which is about 400,000 of the 800,000 who would qualify for Medicaid expansion, half of the people who qualify for Medicaid expansion today can buy a health care plan for $30 a month on the exchange. Private health care plan, today. We should all be marketing that,” he said. “I think someone who is in that range should be able to afford $30 a month and have some skin in the game.”
The Legislature, meanwhile, is willing to address the other half of Medicaid-eligible Floridians, except the expansion doesn’t allow the state to target its resources on them, he said. That limits any options the state has, he said, adding that the cost of the ACA will be more than any projection says it will, because that’s historically the case with government insurance programs.
“The cost of Medicaid nationally is up 31,000 percent since it came out in 1966,” Weatherford said. As for whether he supported the exchange, he called it “the best we can come up with” to help get people to buy insurance, although it will damage insurance companies.
“All the insurance plans are going to lose money on these plans and they’re going to ask the federal government to write a big check to bail them out,” he said, adding he had recently spoken to Pat Geraghty from Blue Cross Blue Shield who said “they’re going to need funds from the feds.”
Among the other issues the Legislature will tackle:
Gambling: Weatherford said lawmakers are discussing a constitutional amendment that would guarantee limited expansion. He also thinks the state needs a separate agency besides the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to oversee the industry. “The Legislature, I believe, has shown itself incapable of dealing with gaming issues,” he said, because gaming has expanded in the seven years he’s been in Tallahassee.
Medical marijuana: While he didn’t think anyone outright opposed allowing Charlotte’s Web, the cannabis-based medicine for children with epilepsy, he expressed concerns with the ballot language of the amendment voters are being asked to consider, primarily that any doctor can recommend marijuana any condition..
“The doctor has so much discretion, so if we were to limit or tailor down that amendment in law and try to say only these doctors with this background, the constitutional amendment is written so broadly that I think we’d lose in court, I think that eventually we would lose in court,” he said. “What they say they’re trying to do, I’m not against. What I think this thing will actually do, I think is very problematic.”
Suspended drivers licenses: Weatherford said Dana Young, R-Tampa, was filing a bill to deal with the crippling costs of getting a suspended license reinstated. About 700,000 Florida residents had suspended licenses in the last year, he said, partly because they can't afford fees associated with the current procedures.
Water issues: He specifically expressed concerns over how polluted water releases from Lake Okeechobee have damaged estuaries, so he hopes to discuss a joint management plan with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of the releases. Otherwise, the Legislature is limited in what it can accomplish. “This issue is way too big to address in one year, because it touches multiple facets,” he said.
Utilities: Weatherford said he didn’t advocate the idea of a return to an elected Public Service Commission board, and thought recent energy rates set by the board have been “fair.” He thought energy usage is going through "a transformation” that makes predicting future policy difficult, using contentious state obligations for the failed Crystal River nuclear power plant as an example of lawmakers voting in good faith on projects that later went bad.
State pension reform: Lawmakers plan to introduce a reform plan in March that will be scaled back from last year, and will create a hybrid plan going forward that would split defined benefits and defined contributions for new employees and grandfather in other workers.
Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election chances: “I like the cards we’re holding better than the ones they’re holding,” he said, adding that Charlie Crist “just doesn’t have a good record to run on.”