Hope for bipartisanship as Florida Legislature opens

March 5, 2013 

The Florida Legislature. FILE PHOTO / MIAMI HERALD PHOTO.

Like all sports teams and players on opening day of a season, optimism reigns about victories and championships. Today, Florida's Legislature convenes for the beginning of the 2013 regular session, and the two new team captains are spreading a winning message different from years past -- one of collaboration and bipartisanship.

Manatee County's delegation expresses hope and excitement about a new day in Tallahassee, one without billion-dollar deficits during the economic downturn but with extra revenue for the first time in four years. And a House speaker and Senate president who promise to be less motivated by ideology and politics, instead driven by public policy.

Voters sent a strong message in November when Republicans lost their veto-proof two-thirds majorities in both chambers, and Democrats acknowledge that GOP leaders are reaching across the aisle and addressing their ideas on some issues. Partisanship will still come into play, for sure. "The spirit in Tallahassee has been cooperative," Bradenton Rep. Jim Boyd told Herald reporter Sara Kennedy about the session. "I sense a lot of bipartisan excitement, an effort to do the right thing -- that's what we should do, and I'm excited about that."

Major pieces of legislation are already poised for passage, including a game-changing ethics bill that clamps down on official misconduct and election reform that restores early voting days. Both are products of a precedent-setting alliance by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. The two agreed in January to a joint agenda that also focuses on campaign finance reforms, state pension changes and higher education.

Bradenton Sen. Bill Galvano addressed the vital need for ethics reform by noting he was "very encouraged" that Republicans and Democrats came to an agreement on the legislation. "At this point in our nation's history, I think people want more than every to have the public trust restored, and that would also include working across the aisle."

We can only imagine such bipartisanship occurring in Washington.

Even one-time tea party favorite Rick Scott is moderating his positions on some issues, going so far as to embrace Medicaid expansion under Obamacare -- a critical need to provide health care for almost 1 million Floridians. The GOP governor's stand, though, faces deep skepticism among legislative leaders about future costs and federal support. Indications are this issue could be settled early into the two-month session. Florida should not reject billions to cover costs for uncompensated care currently absorbed by the private sector and health insurance policyholders.

Lawmakers have also signaled concern about Scott's proposal for an across-the-board $2,500 raise for public school teachers, which stands at odds with the merit-pay policy the governor signed into law in 2011. Scott's other top priority -- lower taxes on manufacturing equipment -- should face a friendly audience among the tax-averse majority in the Legislature.

Pocketbook issues, though, will be front and center among voters, and one in particular stands out as costly. Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run and so-called insurer of last resort, is the subject of major legislation to increase premiums because current rates are too low compared with the risk. In the event of a catastrophic once-a-century hurricane, Floridians would be subject to assessments on all manner of insurance policies. Still, lawmakers should not allow Citizens to exceed the current 10 percent annual cap on premiums as the company slowly gains a stronger financial footing.

Soon after the November election, a Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau survey of 42 lawmakers -- representing an equal number of Republicans and Democrats and more than a quarter of the Legislature -- found agreement on a bipartisan approach to this session. This is a dramatic shift from the acrimony that marked recent history. We look forward to that refreshing new tone and a championship season for Florida.

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