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House Speaker Will Weatherford exits public stage, vows to return

As he looks ahead to an uncertain future, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford wants to be remembered as a compassionate conservative who promoted the hopes of the working class with measures like lower auto tags for all and in-state tuition for undocumented children.

“This is a session that cut taxes for every Floridian,” Weatherford said Friday night. “This is the session that created educational opportunities for more children.”

Yet the Pasco County Republican will best be remembered for what he didn’t do: expand Medicaid, leaving at least 750,000 Floridians without affordable healthcare.

His sunny, upbeat conservatism was supposed to be an antidote to the win-at-all-costs brinksmanship of his predecessor, Dean Cannon. But the publicly unflappable 34-year-old didn’t hesitate to retaliate against those who got in his way.

In mid-March, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Pensacola, gave a news conference with union groups and declared that it would “snow in Miami” before the Senate would go along with Weatherford’s plan to put more state worker’s retirement funds into private hands.

Weatherford didn’t like the forecast.

“It was out of order,” he said Saturday, the day after session. “It was rude.”

It also was the end of Evers’ own legislative priorities. Four of his bills passed the Senate with near unanimous support, including an effort to get more local produce to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The bills just never got a House hearing.

“It probably didn’t snow in Miami, but a lot of bills got frozen in the Florida House,” Weatherford said. It happened “organically,” he insisted.

Evers is not convinced.

“I would hate to think we saw good public policy die because of a comment I made in public,” he said.

As he returns to private life, Weatherford leaves behind an uneven legacy in the Legislature.

He made a mark on conservative issues such as teacher merit pay, school choice, and, in a lurch to the middle this year, in-state tuition for undocumented students. Though Gov. Rick Scott needed the tuition measure to appeal to Hispanic voters, the bill faced serious opposition from Senate President Don Gaetz. Weatherford’s tenacity earned respect from Democrats and nonpartisan observers.

“I’m deeply frustrated with his failure to expand Medicaid,” said Karen Woodall, executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal Economic Policy, a Tallahassee nonprofit research group. “No other decision impacts as many people. But I have to give him credit for in-state tuition.’’

Democratic strategist Steve Schale got to know Weatherford when he was first elected and Schale was working for the Democratic office.

“The knock on him the first session was he was following the party line and played to the base,” Schale said. “This session it took some courage to push through in-state tuition. That wasn’t an easy lift.”

But Weatherford continued to push a conservative agenda.

For the second year in a row, he tried passing pension reform, a top priority for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch. It was opposed by union groups that objected to the elimination of guaranteed retirement benefits that they say public employees depend on in retirement.

When his bill failed in the Senate, Weatherford killed a municipal pension bill, which had broad bipartisan support and backing from unions and cities alike.

“I guess the Speaker was angry that the Senate didn’t pass his bill,” said a sponsor of the local pension bill, Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. “From a public policy standpoint, it’s tough to wrap my arms around it.”

Weatherford said Ring’s was a good bill, but no one should be surprised at its demise.

“We made it clear to the Senate that we wouldn’t pass the local bill without the state pension bill,’’ he said.

But Weatherford says he doesn’t dwell on defeat. He said he knew all along it was going to get defeated and the session played out according to plan.

“We never lost a vote that we didn’t expect,” Weatherford said. “There were no big surprises.”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 850-224-7263 or mvansickler@tampabay.com

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