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.
“I think the Republicans are trying to figure out how to become more mainstream,’’ said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Surfside, who was Senate president in 1990 when Democrats held the majority. “They see the same polls as we do. Everybody’s just trying to be thoughtful and cohesive. Nobody’s discussing anything controversial yet.”
Redistricting and term limits have also resulted in the election of 59 freshmen, most of whom are newcomers to the legislative process.
Those dynamics, and the dominance of the Republican Party, helps to concentrate legislative power in the hands of Gaetz and his counterpart, House Speaker Will Weatherford. The two men in January took the unprecedented step of endorsing a “joint agenda” that included changes to ethics and campaign finance reform, pension reform and a focus on higher education.
Despite their differences in age and upbringing — Gaetz, 65, was raised in North Dakota; Weatherford, 33, grew up in Florida — the unusual union is helped, Weatherford says, by their shared values. The two men worked together on redistricting, with Gaetz becoming Weatherford’s No. 1 fan.
“There is a natural tension between the House and Senate,’’ Weatherford said last week in an interview with the Florida Channel. “Sen. Gaetz and I know we’re not going to agree on everything. I am sure there are going to be times when his chamber feels strongly about something and we feel differently about it. But it’s all about tone. It’s all about relationships and how you discuss those differences.’’
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale said Gaetz, following a bruising election campaign, offered an olive branch, including accommodating Democratic concerns in the ethics and voting bills. “The tone is a little different this year,’’ Smith said. “I think this is a good year to try and get things done.”
Helping the tone change is the fact that the Legislature, for the first time in four years, does not have to cut the budget, thanks to a slow but significant recovery of the economy. Instead, it has an estimated $500 million more to spend next year to expand its current $70 billion budget. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a $74 billion budget — the largest in state history.
Partisan issues won’t disappear from the GOP agenda, however. Legislators are expected to pursue the base-building issues of liability and medical malpractice reform. Education proposals — such as the so-called parent trigger bill allowing parents to effectively close a public school — pension reform (pitched as a budget issue) and campaign finance changes have the collateral effect of also weakening unions.
Ideological differences appear to be dividing the two chambers as they decide whether to join Scott in his call for expanding Medicaid for three years to take advantage of the federal government’s pledge to fully fund the expansion over that span. The House, whose members face competitive GOP primaries, is more inclined to reject the notion; senators appear ready to side with the governor. Both chambers appear ready to let the federal government, not the state, run healthcare exchanges.
On other issues, such as Scott’s plan to raise teachers salaries $2,500 across the board and give bonuses to all state workers, the House and Senate both oppose the idea. They want raises linked to performance.
With more conservatives elected to the Senate this term, Thrasher is among those who predict some issues could succeed where they were blocked in the past, such as giving the governor more control over the judiciary. There also won’t be any move to the middle on gun control or Stand Your Ground legislation. But absent from the agenda are some issues that deeply divided the Legislature, such as a return to the immigration debate or the battle to privatize Florida prisons.
“The glass is half full going into this session,’’ Thrasher said. “These are hard decisions. . . . I feel good about the thoughtfulness and energy we have to tackle them.”