Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford outlined a 2013 legislative agenda Tuesday that calls for changing pensions for new state employees, overhauling campaign finance, election and ethics laws and allowing higher tuition rates at top Florida universities.
The Wesley Chapel Republican will begin his two-year term as speaker when lawmakers hold their one-day, postelection reorganization session on Nov. 20. Then Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, also will assume the Senate presidency for the same period.
At a news conference, Weatherford likened their short span as legislative leaders to a thimble.
"My plan is to hopefully use that thimble of influence on issues that matter and challenges that are real," Weatherford said.
One of his top goals for the 60-day legislative session that begins in March will be to eliminate guaranteed pension benefits for newly hired state employees as a way to reduce the cost of paying for them. Instead, all new hires would go into the state's defined contribution plan, which is currently optional. Those benefits can vary depending how successful an employee's investment choices turn out, similar to a 401k plan.
"The idea of a defined benefit plan is old and archaic and we need to do what the private sector has done many years ago, which is moving to a defined contribution plan," Weatherford said.
That will put him at odds with public employee unions, which dispute the cost-reduction argument. The defined benefit Florida Retirement System is rated among the strongest pension plans of its kind in the nation. Weatherford and other critics, though, are worried it won't remain that way in the future without bigger taxpayer contributions.
"It's a ticking time bomb in every state and in every city across the country," Weatherford said.
The new speaker said he will revive the House's Ethics and Elections Committee after a six-year absence. Weatherford wants the panel recommend solutions after looking into the causes of long lines at the polls and a delay of four-day delay in getting Florida's ballots counted this year.
The committee also will consider potential changes in campaign finance laws. Weatherford wants to do away with committees of continuous existence that lawmakers can set up to get around limits on donations and restrictions on how campaign funds can be spent.
Weatherford said a $500 limit on campaign contributions also should be increased, but he wasn't sure how much. He added that his intent is not to increase the amount of money spent on campaigns but to make such contributions more transparent. He also wants contributions to go to candidates and political parties rather than outside political groups.
Weatherford hopes to reach a compromise on the differential tuition concept. Gov. Rick Scott earlier this year vetoed a bill that would have let the state's two top research schools, Florida State University and the University of Florida, exceed an existing 15 percent annual cap on tuition increases.
Scott has continued to voice opposition to any kind of tuition increases although his own higher education task force has recommended that "preeminent universities" be able to charge higher rates. That panel also has endorsed the idea of basing tuition on the type of degree a student is seeking with lower rates as an incentive for students to major in high-demand, high-skill and high-paying fields.
Florida's tuition rates currently are among the lowest in the nation at about $6,000 a year, covering only a fraction of each student's annual cost.
"Tuition has to be a part of the conversation," Weatherford said. "Nothing in this world is free."