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Five Questions for Don Gaetz

November 11, 2012 - 6:00pm

Two days after the election, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz is ensconced in his new office. On the House side of the Capitol, outgoing Speaker Dean Cannon's name is still on the door, and incoming Speaker Will Weatherford's staff is moving in. Gaetz's operation looks as if it's been there for months.

A Niceville Republican, Gaetz has seized the policy and political reins of his chamber as well. The retired co-founder and vice chairman of VITAS Healthcare Corp. hopes to chart a course between embracing the federal health care law and defying it. A former Okaloosa County school superintendent and school board member, he hopes to unify the Senate's approach to education funding. One of the wealthiest lawmakers, he hopes to help small businesses and boost the state's economic development.

Last month Gaetz also proposed tightening Florida's ethics laws in the 2013 session: beefing up conflict-of-interest rules and cracking down on officeholders who take other public-sector jobs. He's also floated restricting "committees of continuing existence," which can accept large political donations. Gaetz himself has a CCE and took in $344,720 this cycle, more than 42 percent of it from health care providers.

Gaetz was elected to the Senate in 2006. He's married to Victoria Quertermous, and they have two children, Matt and Erin. Matt, a Fort Walton Beach Republican, was elected to the House in 2010.

The News Service of Florida's five questions for Don Gaetz are these:

: Now that this hotly-contested election is over, what does it mean for your Senate presidency?

: Campaigns are supposed to be hard. They're supposed to be fierce. You're supposed to throw ideas hard and fast. I love a tough campaign. But I like punches that are thrown fairly and above the belt. And I think that's what the Democrats did, and that's what the Republicans did, certainly in the Senate contests. But now the election's over. It's time to govern. And I'll tell you this: No one in my district wants me to come home and say, 'I couldn't get anything done because of the House.' They're not interested.

: The state is facing a pretty tight turnaround on complying with the federal government's deadline for setting up a health insurance exchange. What's ahead?

: The Nov. 14 deadline that the federal government has established for the state of Florida deciding whether we're going to have a federal exchange, a state exchange or something else will have passed before the Legislature is in session. I won't be Senate president. [He'll be sworn in on Nov. 20.] And therefore I don't have the authority and the Legislature won't have the opportunity until we get in session.

: Won't that amount to ceding control to the feds?

: The governor's already indicated that's he's not anxious to have a state exchange. We think there's a third alternative. We think that a partnership exchange is something at least worth exploring. A partnership exchange would allow us to use something like Florida Healthy Kids, so we don't have to create another bureaucracy. We'd have to drain money away, out of the state budget, from other critical needs.

I'm told that could give us more influence to make sure that the costs of insurance could be held down and be affordable for our people. It's one thing to pass a federal law saying everybody's got to have health insurance. It's quite another thing to be a smal- business person who has to write the check, or an individual who has to decide, 'Am I going to write the check or pay a tax or penalty to the federal government?'

But these are not bumper-sticker issues that yield to simple solutions. These are issues that require decisions about dollars. If we do a state exchange, it could cost millions of dollars; that money has to come from somewhere. If we do a federal exchange, then we turn over the operation of the exchange to a bunch of federal bureaucrats, and that's never really worked very well for Florida. Maybe there's a way to do something else.

I'm looking for creative solutions. I'm less interested in re-fighting the campaign of 2012 about whether Obamacare is good or bad. I think it's bad. But it's the law of the United States. And today I swear on a Bible my family Bible to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and its laws. And the federal health care law is a law. We have to abide by it. Let's find ways creative ways, creative solutions to abide by the law that will keep costs down for Floridians and open access for Floridians and try to keep the intrusiveness of any level of government to a minimum in the lives of families and individuals and small businesses.

: What's your approach to Medicaid expansion, optional for states under the federal law?

: I believe that we have way too many Floridians who are uninsured and underinsured. And let's assume that the state says no to the expansion of Medicaid, because that's a discretionary option that we have If we expand Medicaid, by the way, one out of every four Floridians would be on [it], which means that three people they and their employers would have to pay for their health care costs, and then they'd have to reach into their pockets and pay for their friend or neighbor who's on Medicaid. Having a fourth of the population on Medicaid creates a very different society than we have now, a very dependent society.

If we say no, that doesn't make uninsured and underinsured go away. They're still with us. So as a Republican and a fiscal conservative, I can't say no to the expansion of Medicaid and then leave it at that. At the very least, it seems to me, we need to dramatically expand the Haridopolos primary care initiatives. For the last two years, the Legislature has started, funded and expanded over 50 primary care centers across the state of Florida, and some of them are showing dramatic results, so that we're reducing unnecessary emergency room visits by people who don't have a primary care doctor and use the emergency room as their doctor's office.

The second thing we need to do is make sure people can buy insurance across state lines. I represent a North Florida district that's partially rural. A rural electric cooperative in my district could save a million dollars a year for its ratepayers and employees many of them not highly paid if they could have bought health insurance across state lines in Alabama. Blue Cross of Florida worked out a way so that Blue Cross of Alabama could sell insurance to this electric cooperative.

Another thing we ought to do is make it possible for people who are self-employed to get into groups to take advantage of group health care buying power.

We can't just say 'No.' We have to say 'No, and here's our alternative.'

I'm only going to be Senate president for two years. I can't leave a legacy of promises that my successors have to fulfill with dollars that won't be available.

: You've said you want Floridians to have not just more but better jobs.

: Gov. Scott has this extraordinary and worthy goal of 700,000 new jobs in Florida within seven years. But what could stop him from achieving that goal is if we don't have 700,000 dedicated, committed, educated Floridians ready to compete for those jobs so that we can attract the businesses to Florida and keep the businesses in Florida that will build our economy and support our schools and our neighborhoods and our environment and our public safety.

As a former superintendent of schools, I can tell you how frustrating it is to have people graduate from high school and then discover that they haven't met all the requirements to be enrolled in college. One graduation ought to be a passport to another, and the final graduation --whether from high school or college or university --ought to be a passport to a job. I want to have one education committee dealing with policy and one dealing with appropriation, so that we can look at education in a unified way.

The second thing is that I support Gov. Scott's idea that we should tie education funding to education results. If we want more of something, we should use our funding system to encourage it. If we need less of something, we should subsidize it less.

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