Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

For now, Florida Legislature talks about cooperation, bipartisanship

TALLAHASSEE

Bipartisanship. Cooperation. Across the aisle. • These were the buzzwords and phrases Tuesday during the swearing in of a massive new class of lawmakers who are part of the 86th Legislature that will convene in March. • The aftermath of the Nov. 6 election, which saw Democrats gain seven seats overall, has tempered Republicans. Just two years ago GOP leaders boasted about how conservative Tallahassee had become. Now, amid a backlash against a voting law passed by Republicans in 2011, both GOP leaders set less strident tones during their inaugural speeches, stressing cooperation among all members and a rejection of petty political squabbles.

"The election is over," said Will Weatherford, who became at 33 the youngest House speaker in modern Florida history and the first from Tampa Bay since 2004.

To those who want President Barack Obama or Congress to fail, Weatherford said: "You are wishing America to fail, and that is unacceptable."

Tick tock, tick tock

With 8.5 percent unemployment and 3.5 million Floridians on food stamps, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said that the time for action is now. He gave digital countdown clocks to each House member to remind them that they have two years to improve conditions.

"Our time is short, the clock is ticking, let us make the most of every single second," Weatherford said. "There are people counting on us. I am counting on you. So that when the clock runs out may it be said of us that we were bold, we served with a purpose and we fulfilled our promise to Florida."

In a speech that broadly outlined themes of inclusion and cooperation, Weatherford stayed away from specific policy. Instead, Weatherford told members it is more important to think big.

"We will need a clear focus, a collaborative purpose and a leadership of conscience that is willing to do what is right," he said.

Elections reform

Senate President Don Gaetz hit on the same themes.

"The floor in this chamber is not divided by a partisan aisle that freezes us into gridlock on separate sides of every issue," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.

Gaetz, however, was more specific than Weatherford. He said the Senate and House will work together to create jobs, improve higher education, tighten up ethics rules and reform the election process to ensure the 2014 elections in Florida are "a model for America."

He told his fellow senators they will be judged on their results.

"You and I will be judged by whether we have helped or hurt or been irrelevant to the slow, steady, permanent recovery of Florida's economy," he said. "You and I 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.

"You and I will be judged, in spite of ourselves, not by what we say but 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."

Ethics crash course

To show that he's serious about ethics reform, Gaetz has proposed that senators take an ethics course — for an hour.

In that amount of time, Gaetz hopes to provide an overview of the ethical dilemmas that face lawmakers from time to time.

"My hope is that (the class) will cover the basics of public service and interest people in learning more," Gaetz told reporters, adding that it's better for lawmakers to learn the rules up front rather than after they're in trouble.

Gaetz also installed a rule banning senators from voting on bills that could benefit or harm them personally. Under current rules, senators can vote as long as they disclose the conflict.

Conflicts are inevitable because lawmaking is a part-time job that pays about $30,000 per year, and most legislators and their spouses have other jobs and businesses.

For example, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, disclosed a voting conflict in 2012 on a controversial prison privatization bill. Evers's wife was a lobbyist for four groups that opposed privatization. Evers was abiding by the rules when he cast his vote against the bill.

In the House, Weatherford has revived the ethics and elections committee after it was disbanded to address reforms that he says are necessary.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Brittany Alana Davis contributed to this report.

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