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Politics

Speaker Weatherford stood ground during session

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 26, 2013 at 10:01 AM
TALLAHASSEE -

The first thing to know about the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives is that he doesn't like rating his own performance.

“I'm not going to give myself a grade; I'll let somebody else give me a grade,” said Will Weatherford, the 33-year-old Wesley Chapel Republican who touts his upbringing in Pasco County. “I think the session was very successful, but how I did, I'll leave that up to other people.”

Weatherford was in Tampa last week with his new best friend, Senate President Don Gaetz, touring the state in the wake of the 2013 legislative session that wrapped up earlier this month.

The duo early on tied themselves to each other, policywise.

Lawmakers ultimately passed and Gov. Rick Scott recently signed four of their five priorities: overhauls of ethics, elections and campaign finance laws, and a bill bolstering higher education. Trouble is, what people often remember isn't what gets done, but what doesn't.

Ask others about Weatherford's performance, as he suggests, and the answer often lies in how they view the House's rejection of $50 billion in federal money over the next decade to expand health care coverage to about 1 million poorer Floridians.

This Medicaid expansion in one form or another was backed by a diverse coalition that included Scott, Senate Republicans, progressives, and business, medical and labor groups. Weatherford and House Republicans instead pushed their own plan to insure far fewer with no federal dollars.

The House's plan would have provided coverage to about 115,000 residents using $237 million in state money. Those who qualified would have received $2,000 a year to choose a private insurance plan.

Expansion of health care coverage was a “historic missed opportunity,” said Deirdre Macnab, who is in her second term as president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

“It was a shocking finale to this legislative session,” she said, laying responsibility on Weatherford. “That's what should be resonating in Floridians' minds.

“It was imperial lunacy to refuse those funds,” Macnab added. “His leadership style was cordial, but leadership has to be evaluated like cooking: It's about what comes out of the kitchen.”

If that's so, Weatherford should win Top Chef, according to Barney Bishop, former head of Associated Industries of Florida, the state's premier business lobby.

“Will has become a champion to fiscal conservatives” for not compromising on health coverage expansion, said Bishop, now a private consultant.

“He kept his position, he kept his caucus together,” he said. “This is a speaker willing to bide his time and pick and choose his fights, and not give up what he wants to do.”

For example, the Florida Chamber of Commerce tentatively supported expanding coverage, with several caveats, but gave Weatherford a “100” in its latest Legislative Report Card.

Maybe it's no surprise that Weatherford's leadership style emerged as friendly but steely.

“Many thought he would be more receptive to Democrats and to Republicans left out in the past, and to an extent, I think he did that well,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor of government at University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

“Other people were looking for a more moderate style, and that didn't happen,” Paulson added. “He's very much an ideologue and unabashedly marched forward with that and did not concede much.”

Weatherford takes pride in that consistency.

“What we said back in November after the election we're still saying today,” he said. “We haven't changed what our belief structure is or our principles.”

In fact, continued discussion over health care still makes him wince.

“We did Everglades restoration, we passed a bill that banned texting while driving, we put $1 billion into education, we banned Internet cafes forever, so I mean it was an extremely successful session,” Weatherford said.

“There are some people who want to talk more about what we didn't do this session and who want to say that because we didn't expand (health care), somehow that means we left something on the table.”

Paulson notes Weatherford also had the benefit of a state budget surplus for the first time in six years: “It's easy to be a better leader when you have more money.”

Weatherford says he wants to “come up with a real plan that solves Florida's problems for health care, not just putting more people on Medicaid but helping them find real access to care that makes them healthier.”

That refusal to compromise also set off House Democrats, who retaliated with a procedural move requiring that all bills be read aloud in full. That nearly gummed up the works in the final days of the session.

Weatherford fought back by using software that converted bill text into a computerized voice, then he revved it up to create a sound reminiscent of “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

“The members of the minority party decided that they wanted to make us read the bills for the purposes of making a statement about Medicaid expansion,” Weatherford said. “It was a tactical move. I was disappointed in it.”

“I find that almost laughable,” said Rep. Dwight Dudley, a St. Petersburg Democrat. He pointed out that individual health coverage, subsidized by taxpayers, is available to House members for about $8 a month or $30 for a family plan.

“If his triumph is to keep a system in place in which there's a lack of medical care for people who need it most, well, bully for him,” Dudley added. “Pretty galling, amazing, myopic and well-rehearsed. There was zero daylight in that decision.”

Weatherford also took heat because he opposed expanding Medicaid in his opening day speech then later admitted his family benefited from the state's Medically Needy program, a form of Medicaid. They tapped the program for a brother who died of cancer as a child.

“What I said that day was explaining to people that, 'Hey, I understand what it means to have medical bills you can't pay, I've been there, my family's been there, I've experienced that,'” he said.

“And what I was trying to communicate, and maybe I didn't do a good enough job, is that I understand where people are coming from.”

An initiative Weatherford pushed but failed with was a bill to close the state pension plan to state and county employees and teachers hired as of Jan. 1, 2014. It would have forced them into 401(k)-style investment plans.

Weatherford said it would save the state $10 billion over 30 years and erase another $19 billion in unfunded liabilities.

The bill passed the House, but died in the Senate, which wanted to make investment accounts the default for new hires but allow them a choice of joining the traditional pension plan.

“If there's one thing that I have a regret on, it's that we didn't get across the goal line there,” Weatherford said. “But my hope is we come back, we make the policy better, we sell it, we explain it, we educate and hopefully we can (pass it) next year.”

Ray Edmondson, chief executive of the Florida Public Pension Trustees Association, doesn't agree. He looks at Weatherford as a “suit and a smile.”

Closing the Florida Retirement System “is totally ridiculous,” Edmondson said. “It's simple: With no new hires going in, no new money goes in. They won't reduce the risk to the state.”

Nevertheless, Weatherford said he will try to pass a pension bill next session. He also wants to put tax relief high on the agenda, but otherwise is in no rush to talk about 2014.

“It's early,” he said.


Jrosica@tampatrib.com

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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