Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Next Wave of Leaders Gaining Influence

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Next Wave of Leaders Gaining Influence

Article excerpt

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, will guide the 2014 Legislature to its conclusion in the coming week.

But standing in the wings, already making their presence felt, are the two men who will direct legislative policy in the next two years: Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and state Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Gardiner will succeed Gaetz as Senate president after the November elections. Crisafulli will follow Weatherford as the next House speaker.

Philosophically there won't be much of a shift as Crisafulli, a 42-year-old real estate broker and agribusinessman, and Gardiner, a 45-year-old health care executive, are very much in line with the conservative Republican leaders who have led the legislative agenda in recent years.

The growing influence of the incoming leaders is already on display as lawmakers finalize the new $75 billion state budget.

A triathlete, Gardiner last year pushed for a $50 million coast- to-coast bike trail in the state budget. But Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.

This year, Gardiner is advancing $15.5 million for the Coast to Coast Connector, a project that would link 275 miles of paved bicycling trails across Central Florida. Gardiner said there was no guarantee that Scott wouldn't veto the new project, although he noted the governor attended a groundbreaking ceremony on part of the endeavor.

"I hope that is an indication we are together on that," Gardiner said.

Gardiner is also having an impact outside of the budget process.

The father of a son with Down syndrome, Gardiner has been an advocate for improving services for children with developmental disabilities.

He is supporting legislation (SB 1512), sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, that would create "personal learning scholarship accounts" to help parents of students with disabilities pay for special education services. The legislation also creates new ways for disabled students to earn a high school degree, which Gardiner has said is important for helping students move on to job training and other educational opportunities.

The bill is linked to an $18.4 million boost in the new budget for the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities to implement the program. …

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