March 06, 2014

GOP leaders approve Capitol ban on protests, but does it go too far?


Capitol protests, like last summer’s 31-day sit-in by the Dream Defenders, are no longer allowed thanks to a rule change that will limit more than just demonstrations.

With little fanfare, Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Senate President Don Gaetz and Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford approved a proposed rule by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement that bans overnight stays at the Capitol and shoos members of the public from the building after 5 p.m. or 30 minutes after an official function.

Members of the public who don’t have a Capitol Access Card, or who aren’t the guests of staff or lawmakers, will be told to leave after those times. That sets up a scenario that sounds problematic for free speech advocates.

“Those invited to stay could stay, but those exercising their First Amendment right would be told to leave,” said Barbara Peterson, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation. “If the building is open to others, why wouldn’t it be open to me? I would argue it would violate the First Amendment.”


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March 03, 2014

Weatherford's base shows up to give him boost before pension battle

Pushing pension reform has been no easy task for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford in the last two years.

The Florida Senate narrowly defeated it last year. Now even Gov. Rick Scott seems to be losing interest.

Yet Weatherford persists, listing it at the top of his legislative agenda for this year’s session, which begins Tuesday.

A chief reason why Weatherford won’t let it drop, and potentially puts him on a collision course with Scott, was the throng of activists who were bussed in Monday afternoon by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group founded by billionaire libertarian brothers David and Charles Koch.

A cause celebre with the group is the very overhaul Weatherford is pushing for Florida’s $135 billion pension system. Close it for new employees and steer them into private investment plans. Rather than having the taxpayer cover the shortfalls, make the employees responsible for any drops. It’s popular with small government groups and anti-tax organizations. It’s opposed by unions.

Clutching signs that read “Support Pension Reform Now”, the activists stood on the steps of the Capitol chanting “Will, Will, Will, Will” after Weatherford spelled out three main goals for the upcoming session: Tax cuts, school choice, and pension reform.

“We cannot continue to spend $500 million a year, year after year.” said Weatherford, 34, R-Wesley Chapel. “If we wait too long, the state of Florida will at some point find itself like California or Illinois where they raise taxes to bail out a broken pension fund.”

If Weatherford needed a shot of confidence, he got it from the cheering crowd.

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February 18, 2014

Weatherford's pension overhaul faces steep climb in Senate, despite Gaetz support

From the News Service of Florida:

Hopes seemed to evaporate Tuesday that exempting law-enforcement officials and emergency personnel would make changes to the state retirement system an easier sell this year, as a key senator signaled he had deep reservations about the measure.

The Senate Community Affairs Committee voted to introduce the bill (SPB 7046) by a 5-4 margin after Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, joined the panel's three Democrats in voting against the measure. Latvala was one of a handful of renegade GOP senators who sank a more-sweeping pension overhaul last year.

"I've got more convincing to do," said Senate Community Affairs Chairman Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who sponsored the bill.

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February 14, 2014

Weatherford: Expand voucher program

If Florida’s controversial school voucher program needed a powerful ally in Tallahassee this year, it found one: House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is building support for a proposed expansion of the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to about 60,000 low-income children in Florida.

The proposal would enable corporate donors to earn dollar-for-dollar sales tax credits in exchange for contributions to the scholarship program. (Donors can currently earn credits toward their corporate income taxes, as well as their insurance premium and alcoholic beverage excise taxes.) It would also create new partial scholarships for participating students whose families suddenly earn too much money to qualify.

But Weatherford may have to agree to some radical changes to the program — including a proposed requirement that scholarship students take standardized tests.

“For a bill to pass the Senate, an assessment will be a prerequisite,” Senate President Don Gaetz said Friday.

Read more here.

February 04, 2014

Will Weatherford: We can do better than Gov. Rick Scott's proposed higher ed budget


House Speaker Will Weatherford believes that state universities deserve more funding, pushing for a tuition increase last year over the objections of Gov. Rick Scott who vetoed the measure.

There appears to be a difference in opinion again this year, with Weatherford saying he doesn't think Scott's budget proposal included enough money for the 12 public universities. "I think we can do better than what the governor suggested, but it was a good starting point," the Wesley Chapel Republican told the Times/Herald on Tuesday.

The Board of Governors requested $100 million for performance funding. They wanted half of that, or $50 million, to be in new money. Instead, Scott recommended $80 million for performance pay with half of that being new funding.

"Ideally, I think we can do better than $40 million worth of performance funding, and I think we can do more that what the governor suggested with regard to capital outlay," Weatherford said.

Scott's budget, which he unveiled last week, also includes $84 million for universities facilities projects: $34 million for maintenance, repair, renovation and remodeling of existing buildings and $50 million for construction projects specifically tied to science, technology, math and engineering.

The Board of Governors is lobbying the state for almost four times that amount: $321 million. The universities say they need that money to address the needs of aging buildings and to finish projects that have already been approved but not fully funded.

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Weatherford says House leaders are now on-board for casino expansion now

After years of resistance, the conservative leadership of the Florida House has signaled its willingness to pass legislation that would expand gambling to include new Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami Dade and Broward in exchange for a constitutional amendment that requires voters to approve any new games in the future.

“I would be willing to talk about gaming in the State of Florida, even expansion, in return for contraction in some areas and passing a constitutional amendment,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford in an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times on Tuesday.

Weatherford added, however, that for the House to support new casinos there would have to be two strings attached: Gov. Rick Scott would have to negotiate a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in 2014 — a year before the a key provision is set to expire — and the new casinos would not start up unless a constitutional amendment is passed in November to require voter approval of any subsequent games in the future.

“It’s a trade-off that I’m willing to do,’’ Weatherford said

Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, last week told reporters that passing a sweeping gaming bill was not a priority for him this session. However, his statement Tuesday breathes new life into an issue that appeared to be stalled for another year.

It also guarantees that legislators have more time to solicit campaign contributions to their political committees from multi-national casino giants as well as gambling interests in Florida who want their own casinos. Full story here. 

January 29, 2014

Weatherford, Gaetz propose lower cap on tuition hikes; Scott outlines higher ed budget


Calling it an effort to reduce the burden on the state's prepaid tuition program, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have proposed limits on future tuition increases.

They would accomplish this by capping the tuition differential that state universities are allowed to request from the Florida Board of Governors. Under current law, the universities can requested additional tuition increases beyond whatever is approved by the Legislature as long as the total net increase does not exceed 15 percent.

During the economic downturn, many universities requested and were approved for tuition differential up to the 15-percent cap.

With Gov. Rick Scott's opposition to tuition increases well known, that has become less of an issue in recent years. Last year, tuition was held flat and no universities asked for any differential. A few also went so far as to reject a 1.7 percent tuition increase tied to inflation per state law, but most did not.

This morning, Scott also outlined his higher education budget proposal for 2014-2015. It reflect far less money than what the Board of Governors requested, and state universities are likely to continue lobbying the Legislature for more money.

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January 22, 2014

House leadership adds hurdle for parents seeking help from marijuana extract

The proponents of a proposal to decriminalize a non-euphoric marijuana strain that helps kids with seizures are winning hearts, but not the support they need from Florida House leadership.

A key legislator, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, fears the idea will get confused by voters who think it’s a sign lawmakers support a proposed constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for some medical use.

“I don’t want to be the first to start down a slope of approval on the use of illicit drugs under the claim of medical protection,’’ he said. “But I’m not saying I wouldn’t vote for something that would help these families.”

Baxley, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wants a stand-alone bill that is not tucked into a criminal-justice package as its House sponsor, Rep. Matt Gaetz, has done. Baxley’s approach has the support of House Speaker Will Weatherford but is opposed by supporters of the bill, who say it will make it easier for naysayers to kill it.

The proposal supported by parents with children suffering seizures would allow a marijuana strain known as Charlotte’s Web to be legally developed in Florida.

“I think the supporters make a compelling case for the use of Charlotte’s Web to treat children with severe seizures. There is currently no member bill filed on the matter,” Weatherford said in a statement to the Herald/Times.

Meanwhile, the Florida Sheriff’s Association and the Florida Medical Association, which represents doctors, say they remain vigorously opposed to legalizing marijuana for medical use, but they acknowledge the value of strains high high in cannabidiol (CBD), the ingredient that controls seizures, but is low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the compound that creates a high. More here.

Read more here: strains have shown promise for stopping or slowing the seizures in children with severe epilepsy and provides other medical benefits for people with other conditions. More here.

Read more here:

December 18, 2013

What about Will Weatherford for LG?

Will weatherfordSo the governor's office has released a shortlist of four names for lieutenant governor, two people instantly declined and, while speculation is heavy that the favorite is state Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, it still looks like a bit of a long-shot.
What about a fifth name that's the real candidate: House Speaker Will Weatherford?
The talk supporting Weatherford is worth considering: He's young, telegenic, was featured as a rising star by the American Conservative Union, and is the son-in-law of one of Florida's most-respected Republicans, former House Speaker Alan Bense. Plus, he's a favorite son of the Tampa Bay home country of Gov. Rick Scott's likely challenger, Charlie Crist, and he won't be running for anything after his term expires in November. 
There is one problem: adding Weatherford to the ticket anytime before the legislative session ends in May would not work too well on so many levels, including the constitutional separation of powers doctrine.  So, consider this: speculation continues about Lee and maybe even a new short list throughout the spring. Finally, with the legislative session tightly wrapped up, the governor makes his pick. Weatherford and Scott become the ticket. Boom. Momentum. 

December 12, 2013

With broad support for cut in auto fees, now it's a matter of "How much"?

It's no surprise that Gov. Rick Scott has plenty of support among legislative leaders for his plan to announce in Tampa this afternoon his proposal to cut auto registration fees in next year's budget.

After all, the Senate's plan to do the same, SB 156 , has picked up strong support and looks like an easy sell in next year's legislative session, which begins in March. 

But there is a big difference between the two. Scott wants to cut auto registration fees by $401 million. The senate bill, which is sponsored by budget chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, only slashes them by $233 million. Though lawmakers are expected to be facing a surplus of $1 billion, that $168 million difference between the two plans is no small thing.

Yet so far, at least, Republican leaders are shrugging that this difference won't be too difficult to bridge.

Florida Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he was happy that Scott was supporting the car fee reduction while downplaying the differences.

"We welcome the governor getting on Joe Negron's bandwagon," Gaetz said. "He's pushing it a little bit faster, but that's good."

Gaetz said it's too early to dwell on details of where the money will come from. In Negron's bill, the money to pay for the cuts would come from general revenue. He said estimated revenue, while overall promising, has been shifting too much to propose specifics details just yet. But Gaetz did suggest that Negron's bill could be changed, perhaps to include a bigger break for motorists.

For instance, Gaetz said the $225 "origination fee" that motorists pay to put new cars on the road could be reduced. To do so, however, might cost another $100 million. 

"We can make Negron's bill even stronger," he said. "There's a chance for Negron 2.0."

Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said he, too, was supportive of Scott's proposal to reduce fees.

"The governor's plan, Negron's bill, it's all good stuff," Weatherfood said. "It's just a question of 'How much?' We'll work with the governor and Pres. Gaetz to get a number that everyone will agree with."