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Weatherford and Gaetz say legislature will take lead on Medicaid expansion decision

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford told a gathering of reporters and editors Wednesday that they aren’t waiting on Gov. Rick Scott to steer them on the controversial issue of whether to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

"We'll know early in the session,'' Weatherford told reporters after he and Gaetz spoke at the annual Associated Press planning session in Tallahassee, after noting that lawmakers are not expecting the governor to guide them when he announces his budget on Thursday.

But the presiding officers made it clear that they’re not too happy with the all-or-nothing approach to covering everyone in Florida who qualifies for Medicaid under the federal health care reform.

 “The federal government gave us an all or nothing proposal,’’ Weatherford said. “They said you have to expand for all populations or you can’t do any of this. That’s put all legislatures and all governments in a pretty good box.”

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he is prepared to cover only some of the people under the expanded Medicaid system.

“I have more concern about people who are above the poverty line…than I do somebody who is an adult and chooses to sit on the couch,’’ said aid Gaetz, R-Niceville.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston spoke later and challenged Gaetz’s claims.

“First we have to define who those couch sitters are,’’ Thurston said, noting they could be “individuals who served their country.”

 “We are paying for those individuals and the way insurance works you bring everybody into the system.”

Gaetz and Weatherford used the meeting to announce their joint  agenda of priorities called “Work Plan Florida,'' a list of priorities that includes ethics and campaign finance reform, eliminating the defined pension plan for state workers and putting a new emphasis on online learning at state universities. The list includes what Weatherford said are issues that have long been ignored but need action now.

The Senate will take the lead on the ethics reform package, they said, while the House leads on campaign finance.

Under the Senate proposal, legislators will be required to disclose their conflicts of interests on votes and abstain from voting when they could benefit from financial gain. It will require financial disclosure forms to be posted online and will strengthen the enforcement powers of the Florida Ethics Commission by allowing them to place liens on the property of elected officials who fail to pay their fines or garnish their wages.

“We don’t believe that public office ought to be an obligation for private gain,’’ said Gaetz, R-Niceville, noting that “nothing in this bill is divinely inspired” but rather the accumulation of common sense recommendations.

Differences are emerging, however, in how they approach campaign finance reforms. Weatherford wants to eliminate Committees of Continuous Existence, called CCEs, while the Senate is prepared to modify them so they are no longer abused. 

“At the very least, people shouldn’t be able to subsidize a filet mignon lifestyle out of a Committee of Continuing Existence,’’ Gaetz said.

Weatherford, however, said he believes “the idea of having a CCE has come and gone,’’ he said, noting that a report by Integrity Florida that showed how three-fourths of every dollars spent on campaigns circumvented the existing campaign finance limits and was poured into political committees. That study, he said, “was eye opening.”

“You can’t have true ethics reform if you don’t have campaign finance reform,’’ Weatherford said. His top priority: eliminating committees of continuous existence, known as CCEs.

Weatherford and Gaetz expressed reservations about Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to put $1.2 billion more into public schools, including a $2,500 increase for every full-time teacher.

“Our budget surplus is is breathing room. It’s not enough to put your feet up on the couch,’’ Weatherford said.

Gaetz agreed that the estimated $828 million budget surplus was helpful but he warned it is no panacea.

 “We’ve come out of the locust years,’’ Gaetz said. “But I’m not sure we’re in the land of milk and honey.”