A diverse new class of lawmakers reported to work in the Florida Legislature on Tuesday, tasked with plunging into problems over education, the economy, health care and a national election embarrassment to fix.
All told, 44 new House members and 15 new senators were elected Nov. 6. They were ceremonially sworn in amid the pomp, speeches and schmoozing that accompany so-called "organizational sessions" where new House and Senate leaders are officially elected.
And the problems they'll face were front-and-center, with a group in the Capitol Rotunda protesting another botched Florida election process.
Legislators must confront problems exposed by this month's delayed election vote-counting. Democrats blame the problems on election changes pushed through by the GOP in 2011 that made it harder to cast ballots. Republicans are targeting South Florida counties that have had the hardest time tabulating results.
"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," new Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said in a speech to senators.
"We'll probe. We'll listen. If we need to change laws, we'll change them. But I won't be satisfied and neither should you unless the 2014 elections in Florida are a model for America."
His House counterpart, Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he was reserving judgment until lawmakers can investigate the elections.
"I'm not pointing any fingers at anybody," he said. "I'm sure some of the responsibility lays on our shoulders. I'm sure some of the responsibility lays on others. What we're going to do is get the facts."
The Legislature also adopted new ethics rules Tuesday that bar lawmakers from voting on bills where they or their families have a financial conflict-of-interest. Lawmakers plan to push broader ethics and elections reforms in the 2013 session.
Gaetz wants the discussion over whether to phase in the federal health-care law to also tackle the state's overwhelming problems with access to care. That includes resolving the state's push to move its 3 million Medicaid patients into managed-care programs, as well as potentially providing more medical residencies to stop "exporting doctors to other states."
And Weatherford wants to push reforms to provide more online education and follow Gov. Rick Scott's lead in making mathematics, science and engineering degrees a priority at its brick-and-mortar college campuses.
He also implored newly empowered Democrats to work constructively with the ruling GOP.
While Democratic gains of five House seats and two Senate seats mean the minority party has a tiny bit of muscle behind its voice, there will be some tense partisan fights ahead.
New Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, said the Legislature must find a way to cut insurance costs for homeowners -- the opposite goal of Republican legislators the past four years, who have tried to allow the market to re-price storm risks along the hurricane-prone peninsula.
The two parties are likely to have different views on the successes of the state's economic-development strategy of giving big tax breaks to companies.
And Democrats will push to substantially increase funding for schools and undo the $300 million in cuts to higher education imposed earlier this year.
After a two-year redistricting-process, the Orlando area's delegation is a little more representative of its population, with more women, minorities, and the Legislature's first openly gay members.
In the Senate, Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, Darren Soto, D-Orlando, and Dorothy Hukill, R-DeLand, made the move from the House official when they took the oath for their newly drawn districts. Soto is Central Florida's first Hispanic state senator.
On the House side, former Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando, is returning along with first-time Reps. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando; Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland; Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary; Mike La Rosa, R-Kissimmee; Ricardo Rangel, D-Kissimmee; David Santiago, R-Daytona Beach; Joe Saunders, D-Orlando; Linda Stewart, D-Orlando; and Victor Torres, D-Orlando.
Saunders is one of two openly gay House members elected this month -- a first for the Legislature. Saunders is assuming his duties with his partner, Donald, by his side.
"Standing there with him was a dream realized and a memory I'll have for the rest of my life," Saunders said.
Staff writer Kathleen Haughney contributed to this report.
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