Lawmakers meet today for organizational session

Nov 20, 2012

The following article was published in the Tallahassee Democrat on November 20, 2012:

Lawmakers meet today for organizational session

By Jeff Burlew, Travis Pillow and Arek Sarkissian II

After months of politics, Florida lawmakers get down to governing today as the Legislature meets in organizational session with new leadership in both House and Senate.

The state’s election results become official with certification by the Elections Canvassing Commission at 9 a.m.

Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel takes the gavel as House speaker and Don Gaetz of Niceville will be officially voted in as president of the Senate. Both take office with majorities a bit slimmer than their predecessors enjoyed.

New members will be sworn in and new rules adopted — set your alarms, House members, the default start time for floor sessions will be 8 a.m. — along with new committee structures and the usual scramble to figure out office, seat and parking assignments.

Democrats have selected their leadership as well, with Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale leading the party in the Senate and Perry Thurston of Plantation is Democratic leader in the House.

The one-day organizational session sets the legislative stage for committee weeks that begin Dec. 3, followed by two weeks in January and three in February, all leading to the start of the regular session March 5.

New tone in House

Democrats in the Florida House expect a different tone at the Capitol after picking up five seats in the election and stripping the Republicans of the bulletproof majority they’ve enjoyed over the past couple of years.

They also expect a more prominent seat at the table following an election in which voters went for President Barack Obama, rejected most of the constitutional amendments pushed by the GOP and kept the Florida Supreme Court justices targeted by the party.

“They’ve got to start looking at a softer approach and more negotiation and compromise and bringing more ideas to the table because I think the landscape has shifted,” said state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “It seems to me Floridians have spoken, and what they’ve said is ‘we want new priorities.’ ”

Republican membership in the House shrunk from 81 to 76, while Democratic numbers grew from 39 to 44. Though the change is modest, the math means the GOP no longer has a two-thirds super-majority to waive rules and wield power without challenge.

“It’s significant,” said state Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, “because not only do we have more members that take away the super-majority, but we also have the ability to slow down a lot of the procedural measures that they used from time to time on the floor over the past two years.”

Williams, who said the election shows Floridians want a more balanced approach to governing, is optimistic about working with Weatherford as speaker.

“I think he will have a much more open ear to the issues that we want to bring to the table and allow Democrats to be a part of the governing process,” he said. “And not only because our numbers are greater than two years ago, it’s his leadership style.”

Weatherford, speaking with reporters last week, said he doesn’t expect the loss of the GOP super-majority to change the government.

“A super-majority should not be necessary to govern this chamber or any chamber,” he said, adding that 76 out of 120 members “is still a pretty strong majority. And hopefully we’ll be able to work with our friends across the aisle.”

Leon delegation

Leon’s delegation includes three returning Democrats and one new incoming House District 7 Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, who took the redrawn seat formerly held by Democrat Leonard Bembry.

“There are going to be issues that divide us,” said Williams, who also was voted by the Democratic caucus to the party’s whip. “But if we are true to the calling of public service, we will put that aside and try to unite us as opposed to the issues that divide us.”

State-worker issues are always prominent for Rehwinkel Vasilinda who represents more than any other lawmaker.

“It may look like pomp and circumstance but it’s really the start of the new group coming in,” Rehwinkel Vasilinda said. “You get the measure of your colleagues in an organizational session.”

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he also planned to spend his second term focusing on state workers, education and agriculture. He also looked forward to working with Gaetz, a fellow former school superintendent.

“I am confident he sees the handwriting on the wall and he will respond accordingly,” said Montford, who was appointed as Senate Democratic Policy Chair. “He will be an inclusive leader in reaching out and asking for all of us to reach out and speak our piece.”

After the once-in-a-decade process of legislative redistricting, this year’s elections brought a wave of change to the Florida Senate.

15 new senators

The group assembling in the Capitol’s upper chamber today includes 15 new members and two fewer Republicans than the group Mike Haridopolos, then the incoming Senate president, hailed two years ago as “the most Conservative Senate” in Florida’s history.

Presiding over a 28-12 Republican super-majority, Haridopolos led a series of big-ticket legislative initiatives, including sweeping changes to property insurance, state elections, public pensions and Medicaid.

Some of those proposals are tied up in court or awaiting approval by the federal government. Others, including “parent trigger” legislation for public schools and an attempt to privatize state prisons throughout South Florida, were thwarted by Democrats and a shifting coalition of breakaway Republicans, many gone now because of term limits.

Gaetz has restructured the Senate committees to reflect his priorities. He merged the K-12 and higher education panels, reflecting a more integrated approach to education. The Senate also has a new special committee that will grapple with the Affordable Care Act.

Newly selected Democratic leader Smith said the agenda Gaetz has laid out so far, which includes tying education more closely to the economy and strengthening state ethics laws, is less likely to divide the chamber along party lines.

“He’s putting forth an agenda that we all can work on,” Smith said.

With a 26-14 Republican majority, Democrats have enough members to block procedural moves that require a two-thirds majority vote, allowing them to slow down actions on bills.

Gaetz said the Senate will still be a place where every member has an independent streak and almost no vote can be taken for granted.

“We’re not like the U.S. Congress where you can predict most votes based on party registration,” Gaetz said. “We’re the Florida Senate, where you have to earn every single vote within your own caucus, as well as reaching out to members of the other caucus.”.