By Florida Capital Bureau
Update: 2:55 p.m.
Legislative presiding officers started the 2014 session Tuesday with a strong plea to overhaul the Florida Retirement System, saying the state could free $500 million for education, environmental protection and other pressing needs if they can "disarm this ticking time bomb" in the pension plan's unfunded liability.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said all the customary opening-day niceties in their brief remarks in the flower-bedecked chambers.
They warmly endorsed Gov. Rick Scott's election-year plan for trimming state taxes and fees by $500 million, praised each other and legislative Democrats for working together on a joint residency rule to make members live in their districts and spoke hopefully about expanding the corporate tax-funded tuition subsidy program so about 10,000 more families can choose private schools for their kids.
Without going into detail, both men called for FRS changes that failed in the final days of the 2013 session. The Senate, which shot down a House-passed plan to make all newly hired employees enroll in the 401(k)-style investment plan, has taken the lead this year with a pair of bills that would put them in a hybrid "cash balance" pension system in which their retirement money would be invested, with a guaranteed 2 percent rate of earning.
Gaetz has acknowledged that the whole issue is in trouble in his chamber, claiming that one opponent has told him at least 18 of the 40 members are ready to keep the existing defined-benefits plan, in which pensions are calculated by years of service multiplied by a percentage of peak earnings. Gaetz pleaded for supporters of pension reform to be willing to compromise, and for opponents "to unfold their arms, to roll up their sleeves and help us craft a compromise that we can pass.
“There's a stubborn fact: Annually, the Florida Legislature appropriates $500 million to fund the unfunded actuarial liability of our pension system,” Gaetz said. “That's $500 million that we can't spend on the environment or on education or on health care or leave in taxpayers' own pockets.”
He added, “Let's not be like Washington. Let's look for a solution to pension reform.”
Update: 11:30 a.m.
Hundreds of members of the Dream Defenders crowded the fourth floor rotunda of the Capitol this morning, half an hour before the Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State address.
Chants reminiscent of their 31-day occupation of the Capitol over the summer rang through the marble halls as the floor flexed underfoot. The activist group raised issues about the state’s Stand Your Ground law, incarceration inequalities and juvenile justice concerns during its summer protest.
While members of the group were chanting, Senate President Don Gaetz convened the upper chamber to kick off the 60-day legislative session. His full remarks to senators are below. The Senate has gone into informal recess before members trek across the rotunda for a joint session of the Legislature as Gov. Rick Scott delivers his State of the State address.
Dream Defenders is lined up waiting for members of the Senate to move to the House for the joint session.
Scott’s campaign sent notice it will live-tweet the governor’s speech at @scottforflorida.
Update: 10:40 a.m.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have concluded their opening remarks as part of the first day of the 2014 legislative session.
Both Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, laid out an agenda including $500 million in tax cuts, a crackdown on child sexual predators and a bill designed to help veterans through scholarships and other programs.
During Gaetz' speech, the Dream Defenders, a group of students and other young people who occupied the Capitol for a month last summer, began a loud protest that could be heard in Senate chambers. The organization is protesting on the third floor of the Capitol.
Update: 9:15 a.m.
House Speaker Will Weatherford called the 116th regular session of the Legislature into order just after 9 a.m. this morning.
Weatherford will be giving his opening remarks soon, after the introduction of two new House members, Rep. Walter "Mike" Hill, R-Pensacola, and Rep. Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, and past House members and leaders.
Today, Gov. Rick Scott will tout his economic accomplishments and push for more tax cuts as he gives his State of the State speech on the opening day of the 2014 legislative session.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, also will roll out their priorities for the 116th regular session of the Florida Legislature, during a day that will mix substance — lawmakers are expected to pass bills helping veterans and cracking down on sexual offenders — with pomp and circumstance.
Scott, who is running for re-election — possibly against Democrat Charlie Crist, who’s had the job before himself — will remind Floridians of the nearly half-million jobs that have been added since he took office in 2011, according to excerpts of his speech released Monday. As part of his proposed $74.2-billion budget, Scott is seeking tax cuts of more than $560 million, including a roll-back of vehicle-registration fees and an increase in the business-tax exemption. The tax-cut proposal comes at a time when the state has more than a billion in increased revenue.
“As I tell the hard-working people of Florida as I travel our state: We want you to keep more of the money you earn, because it’s your money,” Scott is expected to say during the annual address, his fourth since taking office.
On Monday, Scott’s agenda drew strong criticism from the Florida NAACP and others taking part in kickoff of Moral Monday, which drew a crowd of hundreds outside the Capitol. Speakers including Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Perry Thurston, House minority leader, called on Scott and Republican lawmakers to repeal Stand Your Ground, expand Medicaid, restore voting rights of felons and address economic inequities.
“On the eve of the annual convening of our state Legislature, we’ve come to have our voices heard,” said Adam J. Richardson Jr., presiding bishop of the 11th Episcopal District of the AME Church. “As conscientious citizens, we are committed to the proposition that our state has a moral responsibility to consider legislation to benefit all — not merely the benefit of a temporary political agenda.”
Richardson, Williams and others told the audience they will have to get out the vote like never before during this year’s non-presidential election if they want a new governor and Cabinet members, now all Republicans.
“We’ve got to make sure we change the offices on the Plaza level because they’re trying to change what’s happening in the neighborhoods that we live in,” Williams said. “They’re trying to change what’s happening in the offices that we work in. And they’re trying to change the voting booths that we all vote in. We must get to the voting box like never before.”
Meanwhile, Democrat senators convened Monday afternoon for a pre-session discussion that included the latest developments on bills from school grades to sexual offenders. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, urged support of a bill (SPB 7060) that he said would make school-grading systems “simpler and more understandable.”
After the meeting, Montford said this year’s session promises to be an important and exciting one, with major bills on education, gaming and springs protection, one of his biggest priorities. He said draft legislation on springs protection is a “fluid” document that is likely to pass the Senate, though he isn’t as sure about the House. He said he and other lawmakers are still seeking input from the public.
“We’ve just about made everybody mad, so that makes it pretty good,” he said of the bill. “At least we’ll put the best minds we have together and come up with what we think is the best for Florida relative to water.”
Jeffrey Sharkey, managing partner of Capitol Alliance Group Inc., which lobbies on behalf of Leon County, said one of the county’s main priorities will be protecting the state workforce and making sure the state pension plan isn’t changed. Weatherford and Gaetz have made an overhaul of the Florida Retirement System one of their biggest goals of the session.
“The good news is that the state has more revenue than it has in the last two to three years,” he said. “However, it is an election year, which can change the dynamics on many of these issues.”
Monday night, lawmakers and lobbyists mixed away from the Capitol during the annual reception hosted by Associated Industries of Florida on North Adams Street. The event wasn’t just for hobnobbing — it was the last chance for lobbyists to give big checks to lawmakers, who are precluded by law from fundraising during the session.
House Speaker-designate Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said he anticipates a productive session.
“I’m looking forward to a great session — obviously a lot of good things we have an opportunity to get done in the state from cutting taxes to helping with our Florida veterans and the vulnerable citizens of the state.”
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