- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s two Republican legislative leaders on Wednesday promised to expand the use of private school vouchers, provide additional help for veterans, and to make another round of changes to the state pension plan.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford outlined what they called an “aggressive” agenda for the upcoming legislation session that starts in March.

“These are joint priorities that we are both committed to,” Gaetz said. “In the end, in three months, measure our progress and hold us to this bar.”

But the “Work Plan 2014” as they called it was also notable for what wasn’t on it: A substantial rewrite of the state’s gambling laws.

Despite the Florida Legislature holding public hearings and spending nearly $400,000 last year on a gambling study, Gaetz acknowledged that gambling isn’t a priority.

And Weatherford said that the Florida House would hold firm that a statewide vote would be needed before considering any future expansions of gambling, including permission for new casinos.

“For the Florida House to even take up a gaming bill, I would have to have confidence that we are going to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to give the power back to the people,” Weatherford said.

The comments by the legislative leaders would appear to short-circuit what appeared to be a looming battle in the session.

While Florida businesses such as Disney oppose the creation of new casinos, there were hopes that this would be the year that legislators would address the patchwork of gambling laws that now exist. Another factor is that a major portion of the deal that allows the Seminole Tribe of Florida to operate casinos expires in 2015.

Weatherford and Gaetz, who appeared jointly at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by The Associated Press, said they would focus their attention on education, veterans, and beefing up state laws that deal with convicted sex offenders.

The lawmakers hope to increase the length of sentences for sexual offenders and increase their monitoring after being released. Sexual offenders would also be required to divulge more information in the register database. The agenda also calls for an increase in communication between the state and counties after offenders are released.

Their education platform includes a proposal to increase the number of students eligible to receive private school vouchers under a state tax credit program. They also want to expand access to career education programs.

Weatherford, noting President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech, said he viewed education improvements as an effective way to help people get out of poverty.

“I don’t believe in the redistribution of income, and I don’t think the Senate president does either,” Weatherford said. “I do believe in the redistribution of opportunity. I believe in the redistribution of knowledge.”

Weatherford also said that legislative leaders would push to keep tuition hikes for colleges and universities flat this year. Legislators also plan to scale back the size of tuition hikes that universities can charge without legislative approval from 15 percent to 6 percent.

The decision to keep tuition flat is a reversal for Weatherford. But he said it was an acknowledgement of Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to tuition hikes. He also said the change was needed in order to keep the state’s pre-paid tuition program affordable.

Legislative leaders also said they would push to pass a “Florida GI” bill that would expand education opportunities for veterans, including allowing them to pay lower rates for college tuition.

Weatherford also vowed to make yet another push to changes to the state pension plan, also known as the Florida Retirement System. A coalition of Democrats and Republicans scuttled a plan last year to require all future public employees to have individual investment accounts similar to 401 (k) plans instead of a guaranteed pension.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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