TALLAHASSEE -- What a difference an election can make.
As legislators return to Tallahassee for their two-month-long annual session, beginning Tuesday, they will tackle some of the state’s most intractable problems, and they vow to do it with a new tone.
From property insurance and foreclosure reform to implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and shoring up the state’s embattled education system, the issues are complicated and challenging.
Much of the debate in recent years has been driven by ideology, but this year the Republican-led Legislature faces no election. After Florida voted to reelect Democrat Barack Obama, the political rhetoric of GOP leaders has inched closer to the middle. The Legislature is undergoing an image makeover.
“In recent years, we may have done things that were more politically driven than policy driven,’’ said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the Senate Rules chairman, who is both a former speaker of the House and chairman of the Republican Party. “The longer you’re in, the more you realize you don’t know everything, and you may need to step back and adjust a little bit to move forward in a positive direction.”
Legislative leaders who campaigned against the president’s signature issue, healthcare reform, are now drafting legislation to implement it.
“The law is the law,’’ said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “A lot of my friends don’t want to believe that. They believe that they can nullify Obamacare or we can pretend that it didn’t pass … but we are a nation of laws, and not a nation that develops our public policy on the passion of the moment.”
In other areas, decades-long fights over whether to tax internet sales in Florida could be resolved with a bill getting unprecedented attention this year. For the first time in six years, legislators are prepared to take on the utility giants and rewrite a law that has given power companies free rein to charge customers for nuclear power plants before they are built. A bill to ban texting while driving is also getting new traction.
And to improve the Legislature’s low rankings in the polls, lawmakers are on track to pass two bills early in the session with broad bi-partisan support: a rewrite of the state’s ethics laws and another to restore early voting days back to 14 from eight after the Election Day embarrassment.
“Yes, the Legislature made a mistake in the bill that we passed in the last two years,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who is shepherding the elections reform and ethics bills through the Senate. But he also blamed local elections supervisors for impeding early voting by failing to open more polling sites for it. “There’s enough blame to go around.”
Thrasher, who represents four northwest Florida counties, said voters sent him a message when, for the first time in his career, he lost one of his counties.
“All of us can learn from the past,’’ he said.
The election gave Democrats two new seats in the 40-member Senate, the first net gain in 30 years, and they picked up five seats in the 120-member House. Republicans still dominate with a 76-44 advantage in the House and a 26-14 majority in the Senate, but the margins ended the GOP’s veto-proof two-thirds majority.