The Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau interviewed Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach and House Speaker Larry Cretul of Ocala in separate conversations about their priorities and expectations for the nine-week spring session that begins today.
Atwater, 50, is the great-grandson of former Gov. Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (1905-09). He has a master's in business administration from the University of Florida and 25 years' experience in banking. He was elected to the House in 2000 and the Senate in 2002.
Cretul, 61, a real estate broker and former home builder, lives in Ocala. The Navy veteran was elected to the House in 2002 by a 35-vote margin and never expected to be speaker, but Rep. Ray Sansom's decision to vacate the post due to his legal problems resulted in Cretul's surprise promotion.
Senate President Jeff Atwater
Q. A Quinnipiac University poll shows overwhelming opposition to raising tuition by 15 percent a year. How strongly does the Senate support this?
A. I think it's very strongly committed to the proposal. I saw the (poll) numbers as well, and I think it's a reflection of, yes, challenging economic times. People are wondering how they will make numbers work for themselves, and tuition going up is a very real burden on their ability to accomplish their objectives for their children. … The balancing that we're trying to make here is, there's a real future at stake for these research universities and a strong university system, and to be sure that we're advancing the assets of our university system well.
Q. How do you get the Senate to focus on changing the state's tax system when the state is getting billions in federal stimulus money?
A. The point here is, the tax structure today places such an extraordinary burden on private property ownership that while those (housing) units sit vacant and while inventory continues to grow because of foreclosures, what could we be doing to get the painter back to work? … I would still hope we can have a broader conversation as to not just getting through the economic dip that we're in, but how strong we can advance the future if we had a tax structure that was a little broader, a little wider.
Q. Do you agree some officials have excessively used state-owned aircraft during this budget crunch?
A. Every single expense needs to be justified. And every single decision that any one of us in public office is making as to our behavior and reimbursements for our activities, we ought to be thinking long and hard about it. … I'm driving to Tallahassee, and driving back, and I think that that's just the prudent thing that we need to be thinking about right now. I'm not trying to be critical of anyone else's use of the plane, but having a state plane, or planes — let's assess that.
Q. How do you decide how to spend the stimulus money?
A. With the dollars that became available to us, these cannot be cavalier decisions on somebody's wish list. … We're going to have to collectively build consensus here in the Senate as to how we can deploy these dollars in a way that we have not built false expectations for 18 months from now.
House Speaker Larry Cretul
Q. What's your overall philosophy about taxes?
A. The kindness needs to be extended to the taxpayer … a kinder, gentler government to the citizens. That's a phrase that I think that maybe George Bush Sr. developed. … Property taxes are always an issue. Property taxes are an issue in my district. Don't forget, I pay property taxes too. I'm not exempt from it. … We'll be looking at the recapture rule (which lets local governments keep taxes up as values fall), the presumption of correctness with property appraisers and putting the burden on the government to justify the appraisal process. … We have to go out and pursue and work on restoring the partnership and the trust between governmental bodies, and that's got to be a two-way street.
Q. You're new in this position, and you have 36 new members. Do members understand your agenda for the next two years?
A. The freshman group was aware of Ray Sansom's agenda and the direction and the path. There's nothing really significantly different in that area, going back to the budget and the economy. … It's a work in progress and I've done my best to kind of walk around and visit with some of the folks, announced and unannounced, and getting to know the freshman class a little better. I can also tell you that getting ramped up for this takes a lot of time.
Q. What's your guiding principle for handling the federal stimulus money?
A. What I fear, and what I really don't want to see happen, is that if — and I'm not saying we are — but if we take any of this money, it will never be used for recurring expenses, because I think you can get yourself in a box there.
Q. Why is now the right time to reduce government regulation?
A. These kinds of times offer a lot of opportunities to really get what I would consider government right. … I had a gentleman in my district office, and he is in the commercial construction business. … He has deals that are ready to go, and he's got a lot of people working for him. He was telling me straight up that he's had projects ready to go for six months, but the process is just cumbersome. Duplication from the local level, all the way up to the state level.