Florida's GOP-controlled Legislature kicks off its annual session on Tuesday amid the backdrop of Gov. Rick Scott's aggressive move to the center as he continues to battle stagnant poll numbers. Both House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have their own agendas but the big focus for the next 60 days is whether or not lawmakers will help the incumbent Republican governor or damage him further as he gets prepared for what could be a very tough re-election campaign.
Here then are the 5 biggest questions of the 2013 session:
1. Will lawmakers agree to expand Medicaid? This is a decision that could have repercussions for years to come.
Scott's decision to endorse the expansion of the safety-net health care insurance program for three years to take advantage of billions in federal aid was widely criticized by conservatives and even top fellow Republicans.
The governor has said this is not one of his top priorities, but his decision to endorse the expansion right before the session means that if the Medicaid expansion is rejected it will be seen as a loss for Scott.
The House has already come out forcefully against the expansion and Weatherford is expected during his opening day remarks to articulate the rationale behind that stance. The Senate has taken no official position yet although comments in recent weeks suggested that Senate Republicans have been contemplating expansion seriously.
There are some suggestions that the House may use Medicaid expansion as a bargaining chip for other issues which if true carries its own share of risks, including bringing down the wrath of conservatives and tea party groups on to House Republicans if they change their mind over the next nine weeks. But if the House and Senate goes different routes it sets the stage for an impasse over the entire budget...which means the session may not end on time.
What could emerge is a hybrid solution: Some limited expansion of Medicaid that comes without the full funding of the federal government, but offers an answer to critics who contend the state is turning its back on roughly 1 million uninsured residents. There is also a lot of interest in the deal offered to the state of Arkansas which has been allowed by the feds to purchase private health insurance for those below 133 percent of the federal poverty line instead of placing those people into Medicaid.
2. Will Scott get his pay raise for teachers? The debate over Medicaid expansion has overshadowed what could have been the biggest storyline of the session: Will Republican legislative leaders go along with Scott's budget proposals, including his pitch for a $2,500 across the board pay raise for teachers in the state.
Scott has made it clear that the teacher pay raise - and his push to eliminate sales taxes on equipment purchased for manufacturing - are his top two priorities this year.
In his State of the State speech Scott will tell lawmakers: "Some say they are afraid that giving raises to all teachers may mean that a teacher doing a bad job gets rewarded. But, thanks to our work, we are now in a better position than ever before to reward good teachers and move bad teachers out of the classroom....We don’t want a war on teachers; we want a war on failure"
But both Weatherford and Gaetz have so far given only lukewarm endorsements of the proposal. Instead the two legislative leaders have questioned if the raises would undermine the new merit pay system that is supposed to take effect next year.
Again, we have a potentially awkward situation where the Legislature has the power to either help Scott as he moves forward - or damage him.
3.Is Jeb Bush still in charge? Former Gov. Bush visited Tallahassee a few weeks ago and he met with legislative leaders as well as an enthusiastic group of House Republicans. At the tail end of a closed door session with the House members he was asked about the contentious Medicaid expansion issue. Bush told them that they should reject the expansion, but that they should offer up an alternative deal. So far the House has followed through on part one of that advice.
But that's far from where the Bush influence ends. Bush - who battled mightily against the state's teacher union while he pushed education changes - refused during that brief stop to publicly take a position on Scott's pay raise proposal. No one should believe he doesn't have an opinion. Instead it should be viewed that Bush adheres to the protocol of avoiding any public policy disagreements with a sitting Republican governor.
There is also expected this year to be a repeat of last year's heavily-debated "parent trigger" bill. Bush steadfastly supports the legislation, which is expected to have a smoother trip this session. So if Medicaid expansion and teacher pay raises go down and parent trigger is passed then Bush will have a better session than the current occupant of the plaza offices in the Capitol.
4. A kinder, less partisan Legislature? In the run-up to the start of the session (and before Monday's Medicaid expansion stance that drew the wrath of Democrats), there had been signs that the Legislature may chart a less confrontational path than in previous years.
Case in point is the proposal to revamp the state's election system. It was the supercharged 2011 Legislature that passed the controversial election law that cut short early voting days. Republicans - who enjoyed a super-majority at the time - pushed the bill through despite strong warnings from Democrats it would backfire on them.
This year we have Republicans attempting so far to work with Democrats on rolling back some of the provisions of the 2011 law and making other changes in order to avoid a repeat of last fall's election where people wound up waiting hours in line in order to vote. Democrats are not in complete agreement, but this is still a marked change from just two years earlier.
It could be that the 2012 elections - where President Barack Obama won Florida a second time and Republicans lost seats in the Legislature - might have been a wake up call that the GOP needs to moderate its message and image.
So far we have not seen a wave of legislation that is intended to fire up the Republican base heading into 2014. The normal pattern is that the off-year session is the year that lawmakers are more likely to adopt controversial items. This could be the year that breaks that trend.
5. Is this really the year for serious ethics reform? Both Weatherford and Gaetz have vowed that this is the year that legislators will enact far-reaching changes to the state's ethics laws. The Florida Senate is expected to take up - and probably pass - the ethics bill on the first day of session.
The reason this is a big deal is that grand juries and former governors have tried to get the Legislature to crack down on public officials in the last decade but those efforts went nowhere.
The Senate bill creates for the first time a mechanism that allows the Florida Commission on Ethics to initiate an investigation based upon a referral from the governor or law-enforcement agencies. (It also makes it harder for people to file complaints right before an election based on newspaper stories.)
Weatherford for his part supports ethics reform, but he also said time and time again that ethics reform can't be done without "campaign finance" reform. Translation: We take your bill if you take our bill.
It's likely that some kind of deal will get reached and legislation dealing with both will pass. But the key is what gets dumped, altered and changed by the time legislators reach the finishing line.
Will it be the far-reaching changes that legislative leaders have vowed? Or will it be incremental changes that maintain some of the current loopholes in the system?