Gaetz, Weatherford outline support for tax cuts, pension reform and school choice

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Responding to Gov. Rick Scott’s announcement of a $74 billion election-year budget, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford each renewed commitments to meet the governor’s goal of cutting $500 million in taxes and fees.

Speaking to reporters in Tallahassee Wednesday, the two GOP leaders of the Florida Legislature reacted to the proposed state budget, which cuts $600 million while increases spending for schools, the environment and child services.

Gaetz and Weatherford both agreed with Scott’s push for tax and fee cuts, much of which depend on rolling back vehicle-registration fees increased by a Republican-led legislature in 2009.

They also added a few ideas not on Scott’s agenda. 

Weatherford floated the idea of a “massive expansion” of school choice in 2014, according to the News Service of Florida, as well as resurrecting his plans for “sweeping changes” to the state’s pension plan.

Pension reform was not mentioned in Scott’s budget.

While the two would not give details on exactly how school-choice measures would come about, they did suggest it might involve expanding corporate tax-credit programs to provide low-income students the ability to attend private schools.

During the pre-session Associated Press event, James Rosica of the Tampa Tribune reports that Weatherford verified Medicaid expansion was not dead on arrival for the 2014 session, which begins in March. On the other hand, he did not say he is backing down from his “very clear” policy on accepting federal funds for extending Medicaid to uninsured Floridians.

“Our chambers have not been able to negotiate to a place where everyone is happy,” Weatherford said, motioning to Gaetz.

The Senate passed a bill last year to use federal funds under the federal Affordable Care Act to provide health insurance for individuals considered poor, but still earning enough to be over the poverty line.

Weatherford joined House Republicans in not trusting Washington D.C. to maintain a long-term commitment to the program. He subsequently refused to take “one penny” of federal money, which effectively killed the bill.

Bills are in both the House and Senate this year to set up health-coverage for poor Floridians.

As for state pension reform, reports John Kennedy of the Palm Beach Post, Weatherford intends once again to push reforms of the retirement plans for almost 600,000 teachers, police, firefighters and other government employees.

“We have to protect ourselves from the future,” Weatherford said.

Gaetz, Weatherford and Republicans are looking to replace traditional pensions with a hybrid “cash-balance” retirement plan.

In a cash-balance plan, the state would make annual contributions to an account in the employee’s name, one that earns interest close to the rate of long-term bonds. This type of contribution transfers risk from the state, which would be solely responsible for funding retirement under a traditional pension plan, to the employee.

The hybrid system takes some of the best elements of traditional plans, based on years of service and earned wages, and merges it with a 401(K) investment strategy, something affected by fluctuations in the stock market.

Increased costs are fueling the current GOP demand for pension reform. Florida spends up to $500 million a year to maintain the current state pension system.

Last session, House Republicans attempted change the program so new hires would automatically enrolled in the modified plan. Senate Republicans and Democrats in both chambers blocked the move.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.