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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Lining up Speaker Weatherford’s last acts

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WESLEY CHAPEL — It’s the first Sunday of March, and in 2014 that can mean only one thing: Speaker of the House Will Weatherford’s Parade of Last Acts is queued and ready to step off.

Let me reiterate what I wrote in January: What? Already?

Will Weatherford, the Wesley Chapel wunderkind, is 34. Prime time. Jack Nicklaus, the golf legend, won seven major championships after turning 34. When he was 35, the Atlanta Braves’ Chipper Jones hit .337 with 29 homers and 102 runs knocked in. Forbes magazine calls Aaron Bell, just 35 and CEO of software specialty shop AdRoll, a “true prodigy.”

And yet, an early start — he was 26 when he plopped into the east-Pasco dominated seat vacated by Ken Littlefield — and overzealous term limits (six, not four, is what’s really enough) have combined to spell the end of Weatherford’s meteoric career in the state House of Representatives.

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Not unlike Derek Jeter (39, by the way), the Yankees captain who announced this season would be his last, Weatherford seems not the least bit melancholic about the finality of what lies ahead. “Maybe it’s my short attention span,” he jokes — we think, “but I don’t dwell on this being my last year. There’s no sadness about things coming to an end. I’m going about this with the joy of being able to serve and the things we can accomplish.”

For their part, the Speaker and equally term-limited Senate President Don Gaetz are harmonizing from the same hymnal regarding the broad terms of what the Legislature needs to achieve this spring. Announced at the end of January, their Work Plan 2014 sets an agenda covering five areas: education, military veterans, increased protections for the most vulnerable Floridians (children, seniors, disabled and targets of sexual predators), government accountability and efficiency, and a $500 million tax cut.

This is not to suggest there won’t be room for other topics. For instance, having helped guide the Legislature to a historic agreement on cleaning up and preserving the Everglades last year, Wilton Simpson, the egg-farming senator from Trilby and Weatherford’s friend and ally, is keen to do the same for Florida’s springs.

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Moreover, although leadership may be in general accord on the weekend before the session begins, it’s anybody’s guess how much comity will remain by the time April arrives. “The Senate,” notes John Legg, a junior partner from Trinity, “is a different kind of place.”

The leaders deserve credit for vowing not to hold each other’s key bills hostage, but legislative agendas, like battle plans, often are viable until the moment the enemy is engaged. Senators are especially fractious, as Legg notes, adding, “We are only one issue from a meltdown.”

What issue? Who can predict? We know it won’t be Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, which Weatherford regards as awful policy badly executed. “They’re oh-for-10,” he says. “That’s not who you’re sending to the plate in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series.”

This year, Gaetz agrees. Medicaid expansion won’t come out of the Senate.

So, what’s the flash point? Maybe this: Weatherford is still keen to move future state employees into a 401(k)-style plan that, in time, will lift Florida from the defined-benefit pension hook, and eliminate an annual $500 million budget line. Legg still isn’t convinced it’s a winner.

Something to look forward to, then.

And after that? Weatherford says he can’t imagine seeing his name on a ballot before 2018, leaving plenty of time to discern the implications of dropping political shoes. Just now, Weatherford has one last session to get through. And after that, he will follow the example set by his father-in-law, former Speaker Allan Bense, who said, not unwisely, “There’s nothing wrong with going home.”

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