Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford laid out his agenda for the next 60 days of the 2014 legislative session, and it sounds much like his vision for the previous year -- making great social progress with as little government as possible.
Ethics reform. Instate tuition for undocumented students. Vouchers. Pension reform. Lower taxes.
In a 20-minute speech to the House and others, like Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Weatherford made the elimination of “generational poverty” a focal point for his final 60 days as speaker.
“There will always be poverty -- the kind that results from temporary setbacks: job loss, foreclosures, or unexpected challenges,” Weatherford said. “But there’s a far greater and more dramatic problem for some of our Floridians. They’re stuck in generational poverty -- the persistent, year after year oppression and hopelessness that starts with grandparents, is passed on to parents and continues to their children.”
But Weatherford says the way to remedy this chronic condition is with higher employment.
“The answer is a paycheck -- not a welfare check -- that’s the ticket to economic and personal freedom,” Weatherford said. “Because a job is more than just pay. Work gives us a sense of dignity. Of self-actualization. Of purpose.”
(That's a curious train of thought for Weatherford, whose employment has raised issues about how exactly he earns his money.)
Along with the free enterprise system, education can assist, he said.
“If dependency is the deep pit of quicksand, education and the free enterprise system are the hands that pull us out,” he said. “But in order to provide sustainable, lasting solutions, we must get beyond the tired and ineffective arguments of income inequality and class warfare. We have to quit dividing. Because what we know to be true is that it’s not the redistribution of wealth that will restore the rungs on the ladder of opportunity, it’s the redistribution of knowledge.”
Weatherford is pushing a GI Bill that would expand free tuition for members of the National Guard, as well as streamline professional licensing for veterans in a bill that’s expected to be the first to be passed in the 2014 session. By “redistribution of knowledge”, Weatherford is talking about school choice and the further expansion of vouchers, a very popular concept with Republicans.
“No child’s future success should be dictated by their zip code,” Weatherford said. “In my opinion, no other issue today personifies freedom, opportunity and the God-given ‘right to rise’ for our children better than the school choice movement! There are 60,000 kids who are receiving scholarships today, primarily minority and overwhelmingly low-income. And there are tens of thousands more whose parents are longing to send them to the school of their choice. Let us agree not to fight each other and instead fight for them. Let us expand the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.”
Another bill gaining early support is a bill by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, requiring the seemingly no-brainer requirement that lawmakers live in the districts they represent.
“The people of Florida need to know that their political leaders are playing by the rules,” Weatherford said. “Our Constitution says that members must live in their districts. The trust of the people is the very foundation of our representative government.”
Weatherford said the state’s most vulnerable -- children -- will get protection from an array of legislation.
“This year, we will have sweeping reforms to our sexual predator laws,” he said. “We will also provide safe places to victims of human trafficking, we’ll fully fund the APD ‘critical needs waiting list’ and make significant investments in our Guardian Ad Litem Program and Child Advocacy Centers. Let me say clearly that one death -- even one single death -- of a child under the care of the state is completely unacceptable.
“Together – with DCF, the House, the Senate, advocates, and families, we will increase funding and decrease cumbersome and dangerous red tape. While the state cannot prevent tragedy we can do more to protect Florida’s children.”
Two goals Weatherford didn’t achieve last year were back in the speech: pension reform and in-state tuition for undocumented children.
His effort to prevent new employees from enrolling into the state’s pension system was defeated last year in the Senate. This year, he’s carved out an exemption for firefighters and law enforcement. Even though the system is widely regarded as one of the most stable pensions in the U.S., Weatherford said it’s future is far less certain, calling it a “ticking time bomb.”
“Speaking of fiscal responsibility, last year,we put $500 million recurring dollars in the budget to shore up our so-called ‘great’ pension system,” Weatherford said. “Nowhere but government do we rejoice and say, ‘we can almost pay all of our bills.’ An 85.9 percent funded plan sounds great, until you realize that’s over $21 billion of unfunded liability.”
And, in a sentiment that’s actually hard-edged toward the adults, Weatherford said he wants to support in-state tuition for their children despite the “mistakes” they made.
“There are children, through no fault of their own, who live in our state, are educated in our public schools, and yet after investing tens of thousands of dollars to educate them, we shut the door on their future,” he said. “We no longer treat them as Floridians. It makes no sense fiscally. It makes no sense economically. And it makes no sense morally – because we should never punish a child for the mistakes of their parents.”
The speech, like last year, was high-minded, where Weatherford referenced the Founding Fathers and Florida author Patrick Smith and his novel, A Land Remembered.
It drew polite applause, but no uproarious ovations that gripped more heady times for Republicans in 2011 after the tea party wave.
Like last year, it was notable for what it left out. In a defense for taking a stand against Medicaid expansion last year, Weatherford failed to mention the role the government program played in his family’s history.
He made no gaffes like that this year. But there were other notable omissions: no mention of minimum wage, problems the unemployed face with the state’s troubled CONNECT website, and insurance issues facing homeowners.
“His speech doesn’t line up at all with the policies,” said incoming House minority leader Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “He talks about saving one life and how important that is. You look at Medicaid expansion and without doing that, people are actually going to die. You look at some of his policies in terms of the economy, there’s no mention of a minimum wage…The speaker seems to live in a snow globe, where it’s very contained. He should spend some time with people in Florida who aren’t so happy.”