At 33 years old, House Speaker Will Weatherford is a political phenom. But two articles written by Michael Van Sickler of the Tampa Bay Times this year have undoubtedly taken some of the shine off one of the state's leading and most powerful politicians.
In March, the Times Tallahassee-based reporter wrote about Weatherford's "unprecedented success story," which indicated that he owed some of his achievements to the generosity of his father in law, former House Speaker Allen Bense. He wrote a follow-up piece in July that said Weatherford makes $122,000 a year in his job outside of Tallahassee, but he questioned what the speaker actually does for two of the companies he supposedly works for.
Today, at a Suncoast Tiger Bay Club meeting in St. Petersburg, Weatherford got a little revenge. He used the first moments of his 20-minute prepared speech to mock the Tampa Bay daily and Van Sickler. He created his own PolitiFact sheet, his first two "facts" (presented a la David Letterman's Top 10 list) were, "The Tampa Bay Times has fair and balanced coverage at all times, particularly with Republicans," and "Michael Van Sickler is a charming individual."
Later Weatherford took another slight dig at the paper when he blasted a story by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting that claimed he was a founding member and former director of a Texas company, U.S. Cat Adjusters, that has received more than $800,000 from Citizens Insurance. However, neither Weatherford nor his wife ever made any money from U.S. Cat Adjusters. The story even acknowledged that unless he is being paid as a board member of the company (which he is not), he is within the law to keep his connection to the company a secret.
Weatherford also said he lost some respect for the League of Women Voters after they "dogged him around the state for years," claiming that he would never draw fair districts during the reapportionment process in 2012. "But I did and the Supreme Court unanimously upheld them, and they didn't have the guts to sue us because they sued the Senate and Congress instead," he said. "I went out of my way to draw fair and legal constitutional maps ..."
The house speaker vehemently defended his support for not accepting the federal government's plan to expand Medicaid to bring more Floridians onto the health insurance rolls. Weatherford said his problem is how the state planned on paying for the 10 percent of Medicaid expansion that would begin after the first three years of Obamacare are in effect (when the feds will pay 100 percent of that plan).
"This is the same federal government that said beginning this year there was going to be an employer mandate," he said. The employer mandate has been delayed for a year. "So the same federal government that can't stick to their dates, now wants me to believe that they can stick to the $51 billion promise that they've made, and, oh, by the way, this department has a $17 trillion dollar deficit."
Weatherford defended the Legislature for approving a "cost recovery bill" in 2006 that allowed power companies like Duke (formerly Progress Energy) to charge customers higher rates to build nuclear power plants.
He said it was a different world back then, when natural gas prices were two to three times less than they are now, the state was growing by 1200-1500 a day, and there had been no tsunami's in Japan.
"The world absolutely changed when it came to nuclear energy."
He said that the decision by the state with the power companies to go ahead with nuclear made sense back then.
"We all know now, seven to eight years later, that it was not a wise decision."
He said Progress Energy was definitely at fault, but not 100 percent at fault.
"I don't think going back and making them write a big check for every dollar they ever collected on cost recovery is feasible or the right thing to do. It was a mistake. We should all own it."
Weatherford said he has three major issues he hopes to tackle in the 2014 legislative session, his second and last as house speaker. He said those will be the future of gaming in Florida, the future of education, and the growing poverty rate in the state.
He called the current gaming structure in the state "convoluted, messed up and unorganized." He said the state has yet to have an "adult conversation" about how to address the issue.
On income inequality, Weatherford said his own party is missing in action.
"We never talk about the systemic generational, multi-generational poverty that exists in our culture, whether the unemployment rate is 12 percent or whether it's 3.5 percent, or 7 percent as it is today, there are some people ... that come from certain families that do not have an opportunity for upward mobility."
His solution? He said the state should expand opportunities in education, but then he veered off into defending his reason for not wanting to expand Medicaid for the less well-off in Florida.