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Don Gaetz supports background checks for gun buys, wants Jeb to run in '16

sp_364933_keel_gaetz_1.jpgThe proud owner of a 16-gauge shotgun, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz said he supports requiring background checks for every gun purchase but does not expect the Legislature to address gun control in its legislative session.

"Congress is going to take that up," he said. "Let them have that debate."

He added: "I don’t know how a change in the gun laws would have prevented a Sandy Hook."

Gaetz met with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board for just over an hour on Friday, his first visit. Editorial writers asked him about Florida's response to the Sandy Hook tragedy, the state’s controversial "stand your ground" law and plans for implementing the health care law, among other topics.

Nuke cost recovery: Although a bill has not yet been filed in the Senate, Gaetz said he will allow lawmakers to debate repealing a 2006 law allowing utility companies to collect an advance fee for building new nuclear plants. 

"I'm going to make sure it gets a full debate, gets considered," Gaetz said. "Absolutely."

Legislative leaders have shut down attempts by lawmakers in recent years to repeal the law. Progress Energy Florida and its parent company, Duke Energy, have collected more than $750 million from customers for a $24 billion plant in Levy County that may never be built.

Should there have been greater requirements for performance in that law?

"Probably so," Gaetz said. "Probably so." He added: "It's a little hard to go back and write a law to say that something that you allowed to happen can't happen, and so therefore you want to go back and change the law ex post facto. That's tough."

As for implementing measurements moving forward, Gaetz said that is reasonable.

Expand Medicaid? Implementing the federal Affordable Care Act in Florida presents the Legislature with nagging questions, he said. For Florida to to accept federal money to widen its Medicaid population, there needs to be more investment in the state's healthcare infrastructure, he said.

"We don't have enough residency programs in the state of Florida to provide enough physicians to meet the needs that we have now, let alone the needs of 1 million more people," he said.

Gaetz touted a budget amendment he sponsored last year that expanded residency programs in primary care residency in north Florida.

"Remember, you can't play a cruel joke on the medically indigent by handing them a medicaid card that then doesn't get them access to real care," he said he tells members.

Gaetz said it is not too late for the state to set up its own health insurance exchange eventually, even though the state defaulted into letting the federal government set up its exchange at first. There's something to be said for being the second one in the minefield, Gaetz said, meaning Florida will take notes from states going forward with their own exchanges.

Top choice for 2016 is Jeb Bush: Gaetz said Florida’s former governor is the Republican Party’s strongest choice for president in 2016, even as a new poll by Democratic-aligned Public Policy Polling said most Florida Republicans prefer U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to run over Bush.

"I'm a Jeb Bushie," he said, adding Bush’s book on immigration reform "will turn heads."

Republicans cannot run another presidential candidate with a record of constantly changing his positions, a la Mitt Romney, Gaetz said. His record of choosing principled conservatives for the Republican primary did not work out for him  lost out with his primary preference, first with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and then former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Campaign finance reform: Gaetz said he expects the Senate to pass a bill reforming state and local ethics codes early in the session. Beyond that, he said he is with House Speaker Will Weatherford's plan to eliminate Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs, which members have abused "to subsidize filet mignon lifestyles."

"I start with the position that Speaker Weatherford has," Gaetz said. "But I also know that in the legislative process, sometimes you get part of what you want, and you get awfully fully on a half a loaf."

Gaetz said he would support rules requiring 24-hour disclosure of donations and more detailed expenditures, but he did sound as keen on eliminating the $500 limit for individual campaign contributions. Ethics watchdog group Integrity Florida proposed adding the quick disclosure in exchange for removing the contribution limit in a House hearing this week.

Taxing online sales: Gaetz said he wants a debate on taxing online sales. "I think that's an anomoly in the tax code, maybe an inequity in the tax code, that seems to me we have to look at."

Stand your ground: Gaetz said he will not vote to repeal the stand your ground law and has not seen compelling evidence to remove it.

He said he had not read the Times’ investigation into how the law has been unevenly applied since its inception, or how it insulated a drug dealer from facing charges in the shooting deaths of two people. He said he would read the investigation. 

Gaetz correctly pointed out the law had bipartisan support in 2005, even from former Democratic senator and current Florida Democratic Party chairman Rod Smith. (In 2005, the Senate passed it unanimously, but 20 House Democrats voted against it.)

More on Sandy Hook shootings: A former school superintendent, Gaetz echoed the concerns of superintendents in Tallahassee this week who asked asked lawmakers for more money -- without restrictions on use -- to amp school security. Gaetz said, "There ought to be discretion at schools."

Rick Scott's reversal on early voting: Gaetz was asked about Scott's shift from the election law he signed, which cut early voting days from 14 to eight, to his new call for increased early voting days. In his signature lofty speaking style, Gaetz said, "Well, George Bernard Shaw said, Consistency is the hobgoblin of a little mind. So apparently, the governor's mind is an expanded mind."

Gaetz said he is prepared to give supervisors more flexibility for adding early voting sites, days and hours  based on recommendations from a committee headed up by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Photo by Times photographer Scott Keeler