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Politics / Issues

New Senate President a "Servant Leader"

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Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican hailed by his colleagues as a "servant leader," officially took the helm of the Florida Senate after receiving a unanimous nod from the chamber on Tuesday.

The three-hour, largely ceremonial organization session -- Gardiner was long ago tapped to succeed Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville -- was highlighted by tributes not only to Gardiner but to former state Sen. John Thrasher, who resigned from the Legislature earlier this month to take over as president of Florida State University.

Gardiner, a triathlete and father of three, was lauded by outgoing Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, as a "servant leader" who will be able to unite Republicans and Democrats in the GOP-dominated chamber as lawmakers grapple with health care, education spending and other high-profile issues during the legislative session that begins in March.

Sen. Rene Garcia said he "would take a bullet for this man" before nominating Gardiner as president.

"The Senate is in really good hands, folks. The state of Florida is in incredible hands because Sen. Gardiner will put families first before politics, and that's what we need in the Senate and the state of Florida," Garcia, R-Hialeah, said.

Gardiner, a vice president of external affairs and communications at Orlando Health, takes over the chamber at a time when Florida is flush with cash --- state economists predict at least a $336 million budget surplus for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. But the Senate Republican caucus has most recently struggled because of an intra-GOP battle between Sens. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Joe Negron, R-Stuart, about who will take the helm of the chamber after Gardiner's term ends in 2016.

But there was no hint of discord during Tuesday's coronation of Gardiner, which kicked off with his 7-year-old daughter Joanna's solo performance of "The Star Spangled Banner," which Gardiner said was a surprise.

Because of his son Andrew, who was born with Down syndrome, the 45-year-old Gardiner has made helping children with disabilities one of his top priorities. He and new House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, have also placed Florida's water issues at the top of their to-do-list for the next two years.

Choking back tears several times during his remarks, Gardiner spoke directly to his son, seated beside Gardiner's wife, Camille, and daughters Joanna and Kathryn, after taking the gavel from Gaetz.

"When we pray, we pray for passion because I want you to have passion every day of your life and it's my job as your dad to help you, to be with you," Gardiner, a Methodist, said. "There isn't a day go by when I don't think about what we can do in this legislature to help you and others. I love you son, and I'm so proud that you're my son."

Gardiner and Crisafulli must also carry out Amendment 1, a constitutional proposal overwhelmingly approved by voters earlier this month. The amendment requires the Legislature to set aside one-third of the money collected from documentary-stamp taxes for land and water conservation. The real estate fees now pay for such things as transportation, economic-development and affordable-housing programs as well as environmental projects.

Gardiner told reporters he wants an "open dialogue" not limited to proponents of the amendment regarding its impact, as the Legislature figures out how to allocate the money.

"In this new reality … there is going to be some pain. There's no doubt about that. There is no question implementing this new amendment is going to be a challenge," he said.

"The constitution's very clear. Thirty-three percent now has to go in there. But that 33 percent is coming from somewhere. We want people to understand that. We're not here to advocate one thing or another. We just want everybody to see, here's the potential impact," Gardiner told reporters.

Gardiner, first elected to the House in 2000 and to the Senate in 2008, said he intends to shrink Senate committees, meaning senators will have fewer committee assignments.

"What I really envision is for (committees) to be smaller so that there will be close votes. I think that that's good. It empowers the minority. You may have a committee where it's a 5-4 vote," Gardiner told reporters. "The ideal thing would be for members to be on five or six committees and they know that they really have the opportunity to participate and really become a leader on them."

Gardiner said he plans to announce committee chairmanships after Thanksgiving and that he and Crisafulli, both fathers of young children, decided to forego the traditional committee meetings in December and instead hold three weeks of meetings in January and February prior to the start of the 60-day session on March 3.