“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.”