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 important, 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 last 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 last 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 through the Senate.
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 or not 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.”