If the state of Florida isn’t growing, according to Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, it’s dying.
The Wesley Chapel Republican hammered on that conservative mantra in his visit Tuesday to the Suncoast Tiger Bay at the St. Petersburg Marriott Clearwater.
As a true believer in the idea free enterprise and opportunity are the engines of economic growth, Weatherford reminded the 200 people in the Tiger’s Den how the direction of state government directly affects who will move to Florida and spend money.
“Whether you like it or not,” Weatherford said, “our system is built on growth.”
Tiger Bay executive board member Peter Schorsch introduced the Speaker. Schorsch opened with a few jokes about the weakness of the Democratic leadership, how Weatherford “married the boss’ daughter,” and Waffle Houses in Wesley Chapel. He even got in a quick jab at Gov. Rick Scott’s expense, calling him “Governor Skeletor.”
The 45-minute give-and-take touched on a number of hot-button issues — from Stand Your Ground, the expansion of gambling in Florida and Common Core education standards to Weatherford’s doubts about the expansion of Medicaid as part of the Affordable Care Act.
However, Weatherford began with a few comments about the press, singling out the Tampa Bay Times PolitiFact. He suggested the House could adopt some fact checking of their own.
Weatherford’s list of tongue-in-cheek “facts” that need checking includes “the Tampa Bay Times is fair and balanced” when it comes to the GOP, and that former Gov. Charlie Crist “has principals.” Weatherford also joked that after the Miley Cyrus VMA appearance, the governor is changing his slogan from “It’s working” to “It’s twerking.”
On topics that are more serious Weatherford tied them to Florida’s growth and competitiveness. For example, he said all the focus on Common Core education standards might be missing the point. The state needs to create a “system of preeminence” by focusing on critical issues such as raising the number of high school students that are “college ready.”
“We can have the debate over Common Core, the grading system, or how we should pay our teachers or how we can assess their performance,” Weatherford said, “just remember that one out of three students who graduate high schools are college ready. We have to fix that.”
“Whatever the standard is,” he added, “we have to raise the bar.”
Illustrating his main point how the state must embrace a governmental doctrine of a free market and education, the staunch conservative suggested that the audience Google a nighttime satellite image of the Korean Peninsula.
“You see the 38th Parallel,” he said. “Everything below it is lit up like a Christmas tree … Free enterprise and a vibrant economy … Everything above it — pitch black.”
“Same people, same culture and the same language,” he said. “The difference is a governmental system.”
Weatherford also said he is not afraid to discuss Stand Your Ground self-defense laws.
“Florida flipped (the duty to retreat) on its head” by extending the “castle doctrine” beyond the home. He wants to know if problems with Stand Your Ground come from the law itself or just in the implementation.
“I want to hear from the public safety community,” Weatherford said, adding “over two-thirds” of law enforcement officers he talked to say not to change Stand Your Ground.
Weatherford fielded a question about conflict of interest regarding his stake in U.S. Cat Adjusters, the Mt. Pleasant, Texas-based group contracting to work with the state-run Citizen’s Insurance. He insisted that neither he nor his wife, who originally invested $5000 in the company, have received income from the business. He added that the original story, by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (also reported in the Times), was inaccurate. Women have the right to invest anywhere they want, Weatherford said, and spouses of legislators do not have to disclose assets.
“I believe as Speaker of the House, I should be held to a higher standard,” he said. “But the article was not only not true, but it was cynical. It tried to make me look bad.”