1. Florida Politics

Rare Florida leadership accord activates legislative session

TALLAHASSEE ­— Senate President Don Gaetz often introduces House Speaker Will Weatherford as the "taller, smarter, better-looking version of the Weatherford-Gaetz" duo. Weatherford, who at 33 is young enough to be Gaetz's son, calls the 65-year-old "a wonderful partner and, more importantly, a friend."

The state's two most powerful legislators are adversaries in theory, but they have acted more like partners in practice as they set a conciliatory tone for the legislative session that ends this week.

Their unusual camaraderie has led to early passage of three of their four priorities and the resolution of issues that for years had been mired in special-interest turf battles.

"After Monday, we will have gone through most of the major pieces of legislation that members filed,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, Senate Rules Committee chairman, who, a decade ago, served as House speaker.

In the past three weeks, legislators agreed on allowing physicians to package drugs, optometrists to prescribe medications, high schools to offer varied graduation standards and the sugar industry to continue taxing itself for Everglades cleanup. Each had been bitterly fought for years and all but the education bill was fueled by campaign contributions from dueling sides.

"We sensed a strong desire by leadership to get this resolved,'' said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represented U.S. Sugar, the ophthalmologists in the prescription war with optometrists, and physicians fighting business groups over the price of repackaged drugs for injured workers. "We won some. We lost some."

In the past two weeks, legislators also have sent to the governor campaign finance and ethics reforms, hailed their education plan as landmark legislation, and advanced a bill to fix Florida's early-voting troubles — all priorities that Weatherford and Gaetz announced in January. Earlier in the session, they quickly passed a measure to outlaw electronic gaming machines after a federal and state strike force threatened to embarrass them for taking millions from the Internet cafe industry.

"Of all the years I've been up here, this is as harmonious a session as I've seen,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a 10-year Senate veteran who ushered the ethics and elections bills.

Now, only a plan to shift the risk for the state pension fund from the state to workers — a Weatherford priority — and the question of whether to accept federal money to expand health insurance coverage for the poor are major bills where resolution appears dubious.

Latvala and Thrasher credit Gaetz, and the arrival of 15 new senators, for the legislative progress. "We are much more organized,'' Thrasher said.

Gaetz credits Weatherford: "He allows us to enter into a spirited debate without it getting personal. … There's no bitter aftertaste."

A cordial couple, Gaetz and Weatherford always praise each other at public events.

"There's a lot of things we can control in this process, but the one thing you can't control is who your dance partner is,'' Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told a meeting of House and Senate budget chairmen this month. "The Senate president of the state of Florida has been a person of great integrity."

They are attuned to each other's leadership styles not just because of their buoyant personalities, but also because of timing. They each drew the leadership straw in 2010 when the Legislature embarked on the once-a-decade redrawing of the state's legislative and congressional district lines, and they each became the redistricting chairman.

For months, they traveled the state reconfiguring district lines, and developed a bond. In the end, they lost a total of five Republican seats, but preserved the GOP majority — and their clout.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who was elected to the Senate last fall after eight years in the House, attributes Gaetz's success to pragmatic politics. "He's not into symbolism over substance,'' he said.

For example, while both Weatherford and Gaetz have refused to move any gun-related legislation, they made one exception: a bill sponsored by Rep. Barbara Watson, a Miami Democrat, that would make it more difficult for the mentally ill to obtain firearms. The bill has the blessing of the National Rifle Association.

Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, the House's deputy minority leader, said that Weatherford has worked with Democrats on "issues where there are no deep philosophical or politically ideological divides." But on issues like health care coverage, he said, Weatherford has been ideologically rigid and "uncompromising."

On some issues, Gaetz's and Weatherford's differences seemed choreographed to produce a middle ground. On the ethics and campaign finance bills, for example, each chamber started far enough apart to allow the other to compromise on a resolution that got them to the middle.

The House suggested raising campaign contribution limits to unlimited amounts, while the Senate proposed no change to the $500 limit. The end result: Both agreed to eliminate political slush funds, known as "Committees of Continuous Existence," which have been used by legislators to finance unlimited expenses for meals, travel and entertainment. The House agreed to cap campaign contributions at $3,000 for statewide candidates and $1,000 for everyone else.

"The question now is how to bring all this in for a landing with the governor,'' Latvala said.

Even the biggest disagreement this session — whether or not to accept federal money to expand health insurance coverage for the poor — also appears to be bringing the presiding officers to a place they both can accept: doing nothing.

"I'd rather do it right than do it fast,'' Gaetz, R-Niceville, said last week.

Weatherford, whose chamber holds a 76-44 Republican majority, has steadfastly resisted any plan that would expand health care by drawing down federal Medicaid money. Meanwhile, the Senate, with its 26-14 GOP majority, has taken a more moderate approach to health care expansion and is promoting a plan to accept all of the federal funds. Only Gaetz has hinted that he is open to compromise, but it is uncertain whether he could get the votes for a plan that would reject federal funds.

Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who was the only Republican to break ranks with Weatherford and vote for the Senate health care plan last week, predicts: "By the end of the week, nothing will have happened."

With no plan to accept federal money, legislative leaders will buy time, he said. But Fasano, re-elected to the House last fall after eight years in the Senate, believes there is danger in making public policy through choreography and conciliation.

"Everybody in the House is expected to follow the script,'' Fasano said, noting that those who don't could lose their bills, their budget projects and their clout. "Perception is everything but, I've learned over the years, what is best for the public is not just a script, it's independence."

Weatherford sees it another way. "We're getting along really, really well,'' he said Friday. "If you look at the level of productivity out of these two chambers, the relationship between our two chambers, it's the best I've seen since I've been here. I want to keep that going."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.