Senate President Don Gaetz forcefully pledged that the Legislature will do something to avoid election embarrassment in two years, while also promising to reach out to Democrats and usher in a new era of more ethical conduct as he leads the Senate the next two years.
Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, was sworn in Tuesday as the 85th president of the state Senate as the Legislature held a short organizational session to admit new members elected earlier this month, and formally choose its leaders, though they’ve been known for months.
Gaetz had already signaled that ethics improvements would be a top priority for him, but on Tuesday in brief opening remarks he also forcefully told his colleagues that they must do something about the elections process that broke down in some places on Election night.
“Floridians should never again have to stand in lines for six and seven hours to vote,” Gaetz said drawing standing applause from members.
“Floridians should never again have to wonder if their ballots were miscoded or misprinted or miscounted,” Gaetz continued. “Floridians shouldn’t be embarrassed that while most counties in our state run flawless elections, some counties keep running flawed elections.
“This isn’t a third world country. America shouldn’t have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted,” Gaetz said.
He said he doesn’t know yet what needs to be fixed, but vowed to find out. Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have both elevated elections to the fore by giving full committee status to Ethics and Elections Committees in each chamber. Weatherford was also sworn in by the House on Tuesday.
Democrats have blamed Republicans for the problems. The Republican-led Legislature, with backing from Gov. Rick Scott, cut early voting days from 14 to 8, and while half the state’s voters cast a ballot early, critics said if more had been able to vote early, the lines would have been shorter on Election Day.
Elections officials, while acknowledging problems, have noted that in most counties, the process went smoothly.
“We’ll probe. We’ll listen. If we need to change laws, we’ll change them,” Gaetz said. “But I won’t be satisfied and neither should you unless the 2014 elections in Florida are a model for America.”
Gaetz also gave a general outline of the GOP Senate’s priorities for the coming two years: job growth, encouraging education changes that make school more tied to the types of jobs available, and raising the standard of ethical conduct.
Gaetz also criticized Congress for divisive partisanship that doesn’t serve people well, drawing a contrast with state lawmakers
“The difference between Tallahassee and Washington is that here, unlike there, the campaign is over,” Gaetz said. “Congress – both parties – has an approval rating of 11 percent. Muammar Gaddafi had an approval rating of 14 percent and his people killed him.”
He also noted that voters don’t want to hear the parties blame each other.
“I cannot go home to Niceville with the excuse that I did nothing about job growth and blame the Democrats,” said Gaetz, who was a school board member and superintendent in Okaloosa County and a health care executive before being elected to the Senate.
The public also has a low esteem for politicians because of ethical lapses, he said.
“In my medium-sized north Florida county, a commissioner was just removed for official misconduct, the (tourism development) director committed suicide after he stole bed tax and BP money, the Speaker of the House was forced to resign, the Tax Collector was run out of office, our college president was fired and our sheriff is in federal prison,” Gaetz said. “That’s just my county.”
by David Royse