Don Gaetz: Obamacare, offshore drilling, home rule, ethics and more accountability for colleges

The incoming Florida Senate President, Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) visited on Wednesday afternoon with the Independent News to talk Florida politics and the 2013 legislative session over which he will preside. I’ve known Don since he first ran in 200 for Superintendent of Schools in Okaloosa County.

We have a few things in common. We were both student body presidents in college – at Concordia College for Don, Ole Miss for me. His first job out of college was as editor of the North Dakota weekly newspaper The Cavalier County Republican.

Don said the 2013 legislative session may be overtaken by issues out of his control–Affordable Care Act (ACA, commonly referred to as Obamacare) and Stand Your Ground. “I didn’t ask for either issue, but they’ve been thrust upon us.”

Stand Your Ground is the Florida law that states that a person may use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat. The February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. brought a large degree of criticism to the law.

“The tragedy in Sanford will be front and center,” Gaetz said. “We’re getting advice from outside the state from both the Right and Left.”

On Obamacare, he doesn’t believe that the federal government will fund as much as it claims it will. “Medicaid is the single largest item in the state budget,” he said. “ACA expands the program so that one in four Floridians will be covered by Medicaid. The expansion will cost the state $1.9 billion over the next five years. ACA will have an organizing influence over the entire budget.”

While working on this week’s cover story about the PYP Quality of Life Survey, Commissioner Grover Robinson complained about the pressure that unfunded mandates from the state have placed on county budgets. Gaetz had little sympathy for boards of county commissioners.

“The Florida Constitution doesn’t include any clauses about home rule,” said the senate president. “The counties are creations of state government. The state defines the sandbox in which the counties operate and it can redefine the sandbox.”

Gaetz pointed out that he sponsored the bill that abolished the Department of Community Affairs and devolved its powers over development and construction to local governments. He said that in a recent meeting with contractors they complained about the regulatory difficulties ae the regional and local levels.

“Under the Florida Constitution, there is no such thing as home rule,” he said, “which may not be a pleasant fact for some.”

The senate president has no plans to discuss offshore drilling next year. “I oppose it,” he said. He plans to display in his office a picture of Gov. Jeb Bush and President George Bush standing the Oval Office where they both pledged no drilling off the shores of Florida. “It will be clear to everyone who visits my office where I stand on the issue.”

Having gone to Tallahassee with his experience in the Okaloosa County School District, Gaetz has been seen as an expert in education. Last year, he tackled what he called “getting education on track with the realities of the economy.” He sponsored and got passed to two bills that tied college educations with the job markets.

“A recent study showed that 50 percent of all 2011 college graduates are either unemployed or under-employed,” he said. “In Florida colleges and universities, the top degree is in psychology. Three years after they graduate, only 15 percent of this with psychology degrees have a job in their field.”

One of Gaetz’s bills establish an “Economy Security Report” which will be available for sixth through 12th graders this November. The report will list the degrees at the various Florida colleges and universities, give the chances of getting a job with that degree and the starting salary. He believes that it will help students and parents when they meet with college admission offices and will change the courses over time –“maybe in five years”–that Florida colleges offer.

“A revolution will start at the kitchen table and at school advisory meetings,” said Gaetz. “Parents and students will demand more relevance from their education to the realities to the economy. The report will be a discussion tool and planning guide to help them pick the right school and the right course of study.”

The second bill set aside A $15-million incentive fund that focuses on technology education. The colleges and universities that do the best job of preparing students for technology jobs and gets them hired will share in the funds.

“The sector with the biggest unmet job need was computer technology,” he said, “but degrees in that field have declined by 50 percent over the past seven years.”

Gaetz has never shied away from tackling tough issues. He wants to focus on ethics, even though many a senate president has failed to pass significant ethics legislation.

He wants to ban state lawmakers from having co-public employment while in office. Past lawmakers – Marco Rubio, Bolley Johnson and Randy Sansom – worked for state colleges and universities while debating and voting on those schools’ budgets. “IF you or any member of your immediate family derives any benefit from a piece of legislation, you must disclose the conflict at the beginning of the process and can do nothing to influence the bill at the committee level or when it comes to floor for debate,” said Gaetz. He intends this to apply at the county and city levels, too.

Gaetz also wants financial disclosure reports to be made available on online.

Will he be successful in getting these tougher ethics standards passed?

He laughed when he answered: “My colleagues have told me that ethics bills are the graveyard of presiding officers.”