TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Strengthening ethics and campaign-finance laws and improving Florida's universities are among the goals that Florida House and Senate leaders said Wednesday they've agreed to jointly pursue in the coming legislative session.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz , both Republicans, said they also want to phase out pensions that provide defined benefits for public employees and replace them with 401(k)-like personal investment plans.
Finally, they pledged to fix problems such as long voter lines and delayed reporting of results that plagued Florida's general election last year.
Gaetz, of Niceville, and Weatherford, from Wesley Chapel, outlined their five-point agenda in a joint appearance before editors and reporters at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by The Associated Press. The 60-day annual session begins March 5.
To drive home how strongly he feels about those issues, Weatherford, the father of three young children, noted that he couldn't finish teaching his 4-year-old daughter to ride her bicycle because he had to attend to his duties in Tallahassee. His wife, though, sent him a video showing her finally riding the bike on her own.
"If I'm going to miss that, we're going to come up here and do real stuff," Weatherford said.
The two leaders' higher education proposals include expanding online learning and offering cash incentives to universities to increase enrollment in fields that offer the best job opportunities to graduates.
The lawmakers said they believe the state can provide high-quality virtual courses to more students at lower cost than traditional classroom attendance.
"Why would we not offer them that in the comfort of their home if that's what they want?" Weatherford asked.
State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan later told reporters and editors that Florida already is a leader in online education but warned that doing it properly doesn't come cheaply. Online professors still must have direct access to students, he said, and universities still need to offer the same support services that traditional students receive.
"It's labor intensive," Brogan said. "It's not what some people believe it is."
Brogan said the way to improve online learning is for one or several universities working together to lead a statewide effort.
"I love local control, but the fact that we do 30,000 courses and 700 degree programs, while an amazing volume, doesn't address the issue of what quality we should expect, how it's accessible, how it's affordable and how you help provide a support network to make sure people graduate from it," Brogan said.
The legislative leaders want to expand an existing initiative providing Florida's universities $15 million to increase enrollment in computer technology programs.
Gaetz said it's not just about science, technology, engineering and math programs, known as the STEM fields, that Gov. Rick Scott and other officials have been promoting as a path to higher-paying, high-demand jobs.
The Senate president noted there are differences even among STEM programs. He cited data showing 69 percent of Florida's health information students had jobs when they graduated compared to only 22 percent for meteorology majors.
Weatherford said their proposals for changes in ethics, campaign-finance and elections laws all are designed to restore citizens' faith in government.
"If people don't trust their government how can you ever convince them of any other policy initiative?" Weatherford asked. "If they think our elections process is wrong, if they think our campaign finance and ethics laws mean nothing, how can they trust us?"
Democrats and other critics blame Florida's election problems on a GOP-sponsored law that reduced early voting days and a glut of wordy constitutional amendments that the Republican-controlled Legislature put on the ballot. Scott's administration has tried to shift the blame to a handful of mostly urban counties where long lines and vote-counting difficulties were concentrated.
Weatherford said he's not interested in playing a "blame game" as he outline a series of proposals including more early-voting sites, hours and days. He also said the Legislature needs to practice self-restraint when it comes to constitutional amendments. Voters defeated eight of the 11 amendments the Legislature put on last year's ballot. Most of them would have advanced the GOP's ideological agenda on such divisive issues as abortion, school vouchers, taxes and health care.
The two leaders called for giving the state Ethics Commission some teeth by allowing the panel to initiate investigations instead of relying solely on complaints. They also want the panel to have to power to garnish the wages of, or place liens against, public officials or employees who refuse to pay ethics fines.
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