Republicans move toward the middle in election-year legislative session

Republicans move toward the middle in election-year legislative session

Herald/Times Tallhassee BureauMay 4, 2014 

Florida Budget

Gov. Rick Scott flanked by senate president Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, left, and house speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, speaks at the end of session on Friday, May 2, 2014, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)


TALLAHASSEE --The Republican-led Legislature in a blue presidential state comes out of a 60-day session with an image makeover leaders describe as compassionately conservative.

Policy shifts on immigration, marijuana and safety net spending reflected a party philosophy that moved closer to the middle on social issues -- all of which poll well, even in conservative districts.

Republican lawmakers also delivered legislation to their base, and big-money special interests. They passed bills expanding private school vouchers, imposing new abortion restrictions and protecting gun rights. Biggest of all is what they chose not to do: expand Medicaid.

Yet Republicans are touting bipartisan support for the budget and a more moderate stance on some social issues as proof that they are listening to voters.

"The world out there is changing,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who was House speaker more than a decade ago and now is Senate Rules Committee chairman. "I have three adult children. They talk about things that I would have never thought of when I first got elected to the Legislature."

He believes the votes on immigration and medical marijuana occurred because younger Republicans arrive with new points of view.

But for many Democrats, who supported the budget

and helped pass the tuition bill for undocumented immigrants, the GOP's tack to the middle dwarfs the impact of the decision to withhold billions in federal money and keep 750,000 Floridians from getting health insurance.

"My vote against the budget is symbolic for what's unfinished," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, one of only 16 who voted against the budget. "It's the optics that the Republicans are looking for -- a nice clean budget where everyone gets something. But that's not the case. I can't support that."

For Gov. Rick Scott, whose re-election has become the top priority of his Republican brethren, the image overhaul was an election-year success.

"Let's think about what we accomplished: $500 million back in Florida families' pockets. Lower tuition for every Florida family," the governor declared after legislators adjourned late Friday night. "It doesn't matter what country you were born in, what family or what zip code. You will have your shot to live the American dream."

An architect of the shift, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he made it his mission to use his two-year term to focus on helping people "stuck in generational poverty."

They gave ID cards to people released from prisons and made it easier for people to prevent their drivers licenses from getting suspended for non-driving infractions. In addition to allowing the children of undocumented immigrations to pay in-state tuition, legislators did other things that had never before been top of their agenda. They eliminated the waiting list for disabled Floridians in critical need of care, raised the state contributions to historically black colleges, and even boosted child welfare programs by $73 million.

Weatherford doesn't see a contradiction in fighting against generational poverty while he led the House's opposition againt Medicaid expansion, a decision that will cost Florida about $51 billion in federal funds over the next decade. "I don't regret that decision at all," he said Saturday.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, credits Weatherford with proving "there is such as thing as not only a compassionate conservative, but an effectively compassionate conservative."

"But none of this was done just in the Republican cloakroom and the majority office,'' Gaetz said. "Every initiative that we passed through the legislative process was bipartisan in nature."

Indeed, the $77 billion budget was a quandary for Democrats. More money meant more for projects in their districts but clashing with Republicans on policy differences would alienate those lawmakers, like Weatherford, who decide which projects get funded. In the House and Senate, 43 out of 59 Democratic lawmakers ultimately voted for the budget.

According to Rep. Joe Gibbons, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, the party's support of the budget is a form of Realpolitik, a pragmatic decision to play ball with Republicans in an effort to get something in return.

Republicans want Democrats to vote for the budget, Gibbons said, because it makes them look more reasonable in an election year. "Anything that, as a Democrat, we can get in the budget and it can stay in there is, I think, a major accomplishment," he said.

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