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Gardiner lays out session priorities and weighs in on broad issues

Andy GardinerSenate President Andy Gardiner laid out his priorities in an information meeting with reporters Wednesday and said he will be focused on implementing Amendment 1, bringing more tax relief to Floridians and finding ways to help special needs students get broader employment opportunities.

Gardiner, R-Orlando, who was sworn in for the two-year term as Senate president in November, touched on several high profile issues that are likely to become the focus of the 60-day session in March.

MEDICAID -- Gardiner, vice president of Orlando Health, said he is open to hearing details on a compromise health care reform plan pushed by a coalition of hospitals this month, that would help the state move toward expanding Medicaid under Obamacare to cover more of the uninsured.

ENVIRONMENT -- He said committees will conduct hearing in January to hear what the authors of Amendment 1 had in mind as the legislature works on how to implement the new constitutional provision to dedicate one third of the state’s documentary stamp taxes to land and water preservation.

CLAIMS --Unlike his predecessor Senate President Don Gaetz, Gardiner is open to giving a hearing to the 33 claims bills filed to require state or local government pay a settlement or legal liability.

TESTING -- He wants his education committees to review the amount of school tests required of Florida k-12 students. “The jury’s still out on if we are over-testing,’’ he said. On Common Core, however, he said there are legitimate concerns about the proposal “but I don’t support walking away from that accountability.”

MARIJUANA -- He said he was disappointed that the Legislature’s push for non-euphoric marijuana is still in the rule-making stage but said lawmakers may revise the law to address their concerns next session. “Just like any legislation we pass, we have every right to review it and make changes,’’ he said. “I think we should do that.”

GAMBLING -- The first week of session, the Senate will send to the House a bill requiring injury reporting for greyhounds. He repeated his position that the state does not have to renew its $250 million annual compact with the Seminole Tribe but is prepared to be out-voted in the Senate. “If we don’t come to agreement on the compact, so be it,’’ he said.

JEB – He is all but ready to jump on the Jeb Bush for President band wagon. He believes Bush’s executive experience as leadership-focused approach to governing is what the country needs now. Congress is in stalemate, he said, and Bush would change that. “For those of us who worked through the Bush governship, it was not do-nothing,’’ he said.

PENSIONS -- Local pension reform is likelier after several years of failed efforts for an overhaul because of new leadership in the Florida House.

Last session, a bill that would have revamped municipal pensions for firefighters and police passed unanimously in the Senate, only to fail because then Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford linked that bill to another more controversial pension bill in the House. The second bill proposed an overhaul of the state’s pension system by requiring new employees to register for private 401(k)-style retirement plans instead of the state’s pension system. Several Republican senators, along with Democrats, oppose changes to the state’s retirement system.

While new House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said he supports an overhaul of the state’s pension system, he has said he won’t tie it to the reform of the local pensions that passed the senate. Sen. Rob Bradley, R-FlemingIsland, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, have already filed SB 172, which is similar to the local pension bill that passed the Senate earlier this year.

Under the House’s new approach to pension, Gardiner reminded reporters that there was no turnover in the senate, meaning the odds for the local pension bill appear strong, while the odds for an overhaul of the state retirement system are long.

“You know the votes haven’t changed in the Senate,” he said. “We have to be mindful of that. I did see where the Speaker commented that they would be separated in the House and not put together, so it may give you the opportunity to get the local fix and then you kind of wait and see what happens with the overall (FRS) issue.”

-- Times reporter Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.