TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida's new legislative leaders on Tuesday pledged to fix the state's troubled elections system, and promised a new era of cooperation in the wake of a string of Election Day defeats that surprised many top Republicans.
The GOP still firmly controls the Florida Legislature, but the tone struck by new Senate President Don Gaetz and new House Speaker Will Weatherford was a stark turnaround from the past two years.
Weatherford stressed the need for Democrats and Republicans to work together, while Gaetz said that voters don't want finger-pointing over why things can't get done.
“What I can commit to is that you always will be treated with fairness and respect, no matter which party you represent,'' said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, after he was sworn in.
Gaetz told his colleagues after his swearing-in that “I cannot go home to Niceville with the excuse that I did nothing about job growth and blame the Democrats. … The people who sent you here want solutions, not excuses.''
After the 2010 elections, then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican, proclaimed that the Senate was the most conservative ever in the history of the state. In tandem with Gov. Rick Scott, lawmakers approved a long list of contentious proposals, including a measure that cut the number of days available for early voting.
Lawmakers overrode objections by Democrats as they forced public employees to start paying for their pensions and put on the ballot a number of proposed constitutional amendments including measures dealing with abortion, the federal health care overhaul and private-school vouchers.
Most of the amendments, however, were soundly rejected by voters. Democrats picked up seats in the Florida Senate for the first time in 30 years while the Republican in line to become speaker in two years was defeated.
Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, said the election results will prompt Republicans to move more deliberately and slowly over the next two years.
Democrats who heard the new Republican leaders welcomed the change.
“The voters do not want to see these red meat issues that have nothing to do with Florida moving forward,'' said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.
This newfound sense of bipartisanship, however, will be tested in the months to come as lawmakers get to work on crafting a new budget, figuring out how to respond to the federal health care overhaul, and help improve the economy.
The two sides will have to decide whether to help the unpopular Governor Scott, who could be vulnerable heading into his bid for re-election in 2014.
Weatherford noted that bipartisanship is a two-way street and asked whether Democrats plan to use their power “to surprise and embarrass the majority in order to grab a good headline?''
Gaetz also pledged to make Florida's elections a model for the nation in 2014. Democrats have blamed a reduction in the number of early-voting days and the multitude of amendments on the ballot for the long lines that forced people to wait for hours on Election Day.
Gaetz said that legislators would review what happened, including why there were more problems in some of the South Florida counties, where it took days for the ballots to get counted.
“This isn't a third-world country,'' Gaetz said. “And America shouldn't have to wait for five days after the polls close to find out how Florida voted.''
*Pictured above are Rep. Perry E. Thurston, left, and Senate President Don Gatez, right.