The 2017 session of the Florida Legislature began Tuesday with Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran jabbing each other at close range in a preview of a combative spring at the state Capitol.
In his annual State of the State speech, Scott cited his rags-to-riches life as proof of his expertise on the value of job incentives as he defended Enterprise Florida, its survival threatened by Corcoran’s attack against “corporate welfare.”
“You don’t just give up and shut down, take your ball and go home. You figure out what the problem is and you fix it,” Scott said. “We are talking about people’s jobs.”
In a clear dig at Corcoran, who sat a foot away, Scott said: “It’s easy to throw out catch phrases like ‘picking winners and losers’ and ‘corporate welfare’ ... That’s not what we are doing.”
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Both Republicans have higher political aspirations and are at odds over the state’s role in spending taxpayer money to promote jobs and tourism.
Scott’s remarks came one day after Enterprise Florida Director Chris Hart suddenly resigned after two months. Scott named as an interim replacement Mike Grissom, the agency’s executive vice president and a former executive director of the state Republican Party.
In his own opening day speech, Corcoran emphasized how the House kept faith with voters by forcing a judge to step down for racist and sexist comments, refusing to pay $13 million to a state agency for legal fees until an audit is done, and exposing Visit Florida’s secret $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull.
Corcoran took aim at Scott, who has called House members “job killers” and posted an online video calling the speaker a career politician who cares only about the pursuit of higher office.
“So be it,” Corcoran told the House. “And for anyone waiting for us to slow down, to drop the big ideas, to stop trying to shake up the system, to cower in the face of attacks, or to cave to the demands of special interests — here’s our message to you: We will not.’’
Their next clash could involve taxes. Scott wants $618 million in tax cuts, and supports collecting nearly $500 million more in local property taxes to pay for a per-pupil spending increase in schools.
Corcoran has promised a “hell, no” to what he calls a property tax hike and wants to increase the homestead exemption on primary residences from $50,000 to $75,000, saving taxpayers an estimated $730 million a year, or $167 for a typical homeowner.
Republican Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa filed the proposal in the Senate on Tuesday.
Scott and Corcoran shook hands before and after the speech, but they did not speak.
“What we saw today was one powerful man swinging at another powerful man, and I don’t know how that benefits the everyday working people of Florida,” said Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens.
During his 28-minute speech, Scott cited the “many heartbreaks” Floridians endured in the past year, including two hurricanes, the Zika virus and a mass shooting at the Fort Lauderdale airport, but none greater than the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando last June that took 49 lives.
He cited the heroic efforts of police in Orlando, including an officer whose Kevlar helmet saved his life, to emphasize the need for six new regional counterterrorism units in Florida.
Left unmentioned but not unnoticed was any reference to the sexual and gender identities of Pulse victims.
“While we are glad the governor spotlighted the Pulse tragedy, we are deeply disappointed that when talking about the worst anti-LGBTQ attack in our nation’s history, our governor failed to acknowledge the LGBTQ community in any way,” said Hannah Willard, public policy director of the advocacy group Equality Florida in a statement.
House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said this session marks 20 years of “misplaced priorities” under Republican control of the Legislature.
She said the GOP agenda includes more tax dollars for for-profit charter schools at the expense of public schools, reductions to safety net hospitals that treat the uninsured, and environmental policies that favor development at the expense of preservation.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, emphasized the need to make Florida’s largest state universities “elite destinations” as in North Carolina and Michigan and ensure every student can attend, regardless of financial status.
Negron voiced disgust at how pollution from Lake Okeechobee has made swimming dangerous on the Treasure Coast, and that local hospitals demand that patients reveal whether they had been in contact with algae-infested water supplies before they can be treated.
Negron added two priorities to his agenda Tuesday, both controversial: changes to the “stand your ground” self-defense law backed by the gun lobby, and a proposal to fortify “religious liberties” in public schools.
Despite the wide differences between the governor and House speaker, Corcoran said talk of acrimony is overblown.
“A robust civil debate is a sign our democracy is working,” he said.
By Friday, the House is expected to pass two bills, one to abolish Enterprise Florida and a second that imposes greater oversight on Visit Florida. If either bill passes the Senate, Scott is expected to veto it.
Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark, Mary Ellen Klas and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet