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Legislative leaders draw up ambitious agenda

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, left, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are a significant improvement over their immediate predecessors.

Associated Press

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, left, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are a significant improvement over their immediate predecessors.

Two Sundays ago, Will Weatherford was teaching his 4-year-old daughter how to ride a bicycle in their Wesley Chapel neighborhood when it started getting dark. The House speaker promised they would try again when he returned home from Tallahassee at the end of the week.

The next day, Weatherford's wife sent him a text message with a video of his daughter riding her bike without training wheels.

"If I'm going to miss that to come up here,'' he told a group of newspaper editors last week at the Capitol, "we're going to do real stuff.''

Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz sound determined to do real stuff when the legislative session begins in March: Reforming the broken campaign finance laws that allow for too much money and too little transparency. Tightening ethics rules that do so little to prevent corruption. Fixing the elections system that the Legislature so badly damaged just two years ago.

"If people don't trust their government, how can we ever convince them on any other policy initiative going forward?'' Weatherford asked.

Good point.

As Gaetz joked last week, Congress has an approval rating of 9 percent and the Florida Legislature's approval rating is probably only a little higher. "Moammar Gadhafi had a 14 percent approval rating when his people killed him,'' the Niceville Republican said.

There is reason to be optimistic that Weatherford and Gaetz can help the Legislature's approval rating. In recent separate meetings with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board and in a joint appearance last week in Tallahassee, they sounded serious, thoughtful and engaged. They think before they speak, listen to different points of view and have a vision for Florida that stretches beyond next year. They can discuss complicated issues with some authority, yet they are careful to avoid straying too far beyond what they know.

Gaetz and Weatherford are a significant improvement over their immediate predecessors, who were more interested in their own futures, ideological purity and settling political scores. To be sure, they are conservative Republicans who are not going to embrace broad tax reform, gun control or other progressive positions. But they are a breath of fresh air and sound more interested in making positive change than waging ideological warfare.

They are Tallahassee's odd couple, Gaetz and Weatherford. Gaetz, 65, is a wealthy retired health care executive and a former elected Okaloosa County school superintendent and school board member. At 33, Weatherford is the second-youngest Florida House speaker in modern history and young enough to be Gaetz's son. He is the brother of a former Florida State University quarterback and the son-in-law of former House Speaker Allan Bense, the most universally respected speaker in the last 15 years.

Weatherford and Gaetz developed their relationship over the last couple of years by leading the redrawing of the legislative and congressional districts. That is not an easy job, and it was complicated by the constitutional amendments voters approved that established fairer rules. That made it harder to please as many incumbents, and Democrats gained seats in both chambers. But the process was relatively smooth compared with previous redistricting efforts, and Weatherford particularly distinguished himself as his House map easily won court approval.

The Senate president and the House speaker traditionally speak separately at the annual Associated Press legislative briefing in Tallahassee, each pitching their separate agendas. Gaetz and Weatherford appeared together, selling common goals and alternating speaking roles.

"He has led the effort on this,'' Weatherford said of Gaetz on ethics reform.

"I agree with the speaker,'' Gaetz said on Weatherford's proposal to expand virtual learning opportunities.

Of course, it's easy to be warm and fuzzy now. There haven't been any tough votes yet, and sharing broad goals is not the same as endorsing specific legislation. Let's see how it looks in late April, when there are just days left in the legislative session, priorities have yet to be passed and lawmakers are sniping at each other and chafing at the prospect of new ethics rules and fundraising restrictions.

There also will be disappointments along the way. Gaetz and Weatherford will not repeal "stand your ground" even though the abuses are clear. They are not likely to fix property insurance. They have yet to accept the expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law, although it would surprise me if they decline it.

But for now, there is reason to be encouraged about the direction in Tallahassee. Weatherford and Gaetz share an ambitious reform agenda, and they appear committed to leaving a lasting legacy.

Legislative leaders draw up ambitious agenda 02/02/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 6:31pm]
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