After one of the most grueling elections in Florida’s history, the new leaders of Florida’s House and Senate were unanimous in one thing Tuesday: a need for unity.
But that’s about where the similarities ended as new lawmakers were sworn in and both chambers ushered in new leadership.
In the House, the new speaker, José Oliva, laid out a vision of smaller government and reduced healthcare spending.
In the Senate, the new president, Bill Galvano, said he would let members decide where the next two years take them.
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Among the congratulatory flowers dotting some members’ desks as lawmakers were newly sworn in to both chambers, Oliva was notably brief, calling “to remove the countless and unnecessary barriers to prosperity, to opportunity and to freedom.”
He told members he had left each of them a journal on their desks, which he hoped would document “your triumphs, your challenges and your struggles. Above all, I hope that it will tell of your restraint.”
Meanwhile, Galvano cast himself as a “facilitator” for individual senators.
“I will not judge the success of this Senate by the success of my personal agenda,” he promised. “We will write the agenda together.”
Tuesday’s organization session elevating both leaders was largely a formality — Galvano, a Bradenton lawyer, was designated a future leader of his chamber in 2014, while Oliva, the cigar businessman from Miami Lakes, was tapped last year by House Republicans to lead the chamber if they retained their majority.
Oliva, 45, also benefited by coming to office in a special off-year election in 2011 that helped position him to succeed Richard Corcoran, the former speaker who presided over Tuesday’s proceedings. After Oliva joined the House, he quickly became one of Corcoran’s trusted allies, which helped House Republicans last October select Oliva to become Corcoran’s successor.
As he was sworn in, dozens of family members from South Florida were watching from the gallery upstairs, including his mother, Carmen, who was moved to tears.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am to be part of such a big and beautiful family,” Oliva said, singling out his parents for thanks. “They sacrificed everything they knew and left everyone they loved so that their children might have a better life.”
Both leaders expressed a need to come together after the contentious election that had mired the state in recounts for two weeks.
“As Senate president, I have very little ability to change the national discourse, or to stem the tide of modern-day incivility that is so pervasive in an era of social media and 24-hour news cycle,” Galvano said. “But I can tell you as Senate president, and while I’m Senate president, that the Florida Senate will have civility, transparency, candor, and provide opportunity.”
Oliva also sought to strike an inclusive tone, calling on members to “turn our attention to governing together” after the bitterly fought midterm.
But Oliva also distinguished between “petty” partisanship and an “intellectual” partisanship when he addressed the House Republican Caucus on Monday afternoon. “If we allow ourselves to be told that we must learn to compromise, we will end up in an ideological mush in the center,” he said.
He also sketched out a broad agenda centered on fewer regulations.
“If you have come here to seek healthcare access and affordability, if that is your main concern, use your power to lift the government-granted monopolies and the market-restricting regulations which have led to widespread price gouging of our citizens and has placed an untenable burden on our state,” he said, repeating his frequent criticism of the “hospital-industrial complex.”
“If you have come here to ensure every child receives the best education possible, remove the restrictions that stole the futures of generations of our poorest children by forcing them to go to failing schools. Members, the parents are the taxpayers, the children are their children. Use your power to get out of the way of their choice.”
Oliva takes control of a firm Republican majority in the House, though Democrats made small gains in this year’s election and now count 47 members in the 120-seat chamber. The 40-member Senate also favors Republicans 23-17.
Rep. Kionne McGhee of Miami was formally tapped to lead Democrats in the House while Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville will lead the minority caucus in the Senate.
Oliva doubled down on decreasing healthcare spending in remarks to reporters, showing flashes of an unyielding posture likely to clash with the more moderate Senate next year.
In 2011, the year he was elected, “healthcare was 33 percent of our budget; that was pretty alarming back then. This year it’ll be 48,” Oliva said on the House floor after the session concluded. “Adding more money to that won’t help.”
He added he had regularly told Galvano: “This isn’t a priority that I chose to make my priority. This is the state’s priority. It’s taking up our entire budget.”
Galvano, who told reporters last week he wanted to move “very cautiously in the healthcare realm,” said that he had discussed the issue with Oliva but that he’d seen no concrete plans yet.
“I told him I would be open to discussion,” the Senate leader said.
Oliva added that he hopes to make changes to the provider side of the healthcare system and declined to provide specifics on curbing Medicaid eligibility, which he and Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis have long opposed expanding.
Tuesday’s session also signaled the arrival of the executive branch’s new guard. DeSantis and Lt. Gov.-elect Jeanette Núñez, the former speaker pro tempore of the House, attended both sessions, as did incoming Attorney General Ashley Moody, re-elected CFO Jimmy Patronis and lone Democrat Nikki Fried, who prevailed by the narrowest of margins against Republican Matt Caldwell to become the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services.
DeSantis will officially become governor Jan. 8, when he and the rest of the Cabinet are inaugurated. The legislative session begins March 5.