Ending months of bitter political warfare, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran publicly made peace Friday after striking a deal in private to spend more money on schools, jobs and tourism.
Accompanied by Senate President Joe Negron, Scott and Corcoran made a surprisingly hasty announcement at Miami International Airport that culminated days and nights of delicate talks among the three Republicans and their staffers. Those negotiations, unseen to the public, media and most lawmakers, were called a “farce” by Democrats.
The tentative deal, which must pass the full Legislature in a three-day special session starting Wednesday, hinges on Scott’s willingness to sign a controversial education policy bill (HB 7069) that expands charter schools and teacher bonuses and is the signature priority of Corcoran, who’s weighing a campaign for governor.
The compromise has three elements:
▪ An increase in overall public school spending by $215 million from what lawmakers approved so that funding for each student will rise $100 next school year, rather than $24.
▪ A new $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund to broadly advance job training and education through the Department of Economic Opportunity, ending Enterprise Florida’s programs that favored specific businesses that Corcoran demanded must stop: “Zero corporate welfare,” he said.
▪ Restoring funding to Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing program, to its current level of $76 million.
“Everybody wins here,” Scott told reporters later Friday in Tallahassee.
Those spending increases will be offset by Scott’s line-item vetoes of $410 million in member projects in the new $83 billion budget.
Friday’s compromise is closer to the Senate’s original priorities than the House’s — a point that Negron emphasized more than once.
The short-term political winner is Scott, who’s expected to mount a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Bill Nelson. Scott can now tout his advocacy for more spending on students and the survival of programs that attract jobs and tourists to Florida.
But the long-term winner from a policy perspective is Corcoran.
If Scott signs the education policy bill — which came within a single vote of being defeated in the Senate — the Land O’Lakes lawyer will have recast education policy for years to come.
His legacy achievement is deplored by teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards across the state, who see it as a taxpayer handout to corporate-owned charter schools at the expense of public schools by the speaker who rails against “picking winners and losers.”
Despite a lack of experience in high-level political skirmishes, Scott’s incoming chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, a trusted adviser, conducted shuttle diplomacy with Corcoran’s top adviser, chief of staff, Mat Bahl.
Corcoran and Scott have had one known telephone conversation in the past 10 days.
“We’ve worked hard to come up with a package that is good for all Florida families,” Scott said in Miami, striking a sharply different tone from recent weeks when he blasted legislators as “job-killers” who secretly passed a budget that shut out the voices of Floridians.
The transaction came together with no transparency.
“This wasn’t shopped at all with the rank and file,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs a budget panel on tourism and economic development spending. “There has to be a better way.”
Brandes added that the deal, while hashed out in private, has the elements of what the Senate initially proposed for tourism and jobs funding.
Back-channel talks between a governor and legislative leaders, using staffers as conduits, are not new in Tallahassee (the Constitution prevents them from making final decisions in private meetings).
What’s different is that even powerful lawmakers were excluded from talks that more than ever resemble the machine-style politics of a state like New York, where “three men in a room” make the big decisions, then deliver them to their colleagues as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.
The theatrics played out against the obvious backdrop of the upcoming 2018 election, as candidates pounced.
“It’s another shell game,” said former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham, a Democratic candidate for governor. “On paper, they want to return us to last year’s funding but will allow charter schools to steal Title I funding from our neediest schools.”
The hike in school spending is still less than half of what Scott and the Senate wanted. But it’s a significant increase from the extra $24.49 per student the Legislature approved in its budget, which critics had described as “starvation-level.”
The money Scott is seeking is one-time funding. Lawmakers would have to come up with another way to pay for it in 2018 to keep spending level year over year.
“If it’s non-recurring funding, that’s us, the Legislature, once again failing public education and putting a Band-Aid over a bleeding wound,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, called the agreement shortsighted and bad for Florida schools because the $200 million increase in K-12 funding will last only one year, creating a hole in the budget the following year.
Scott did not say definitively Friday that he decided to sign the charter school bill, but Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the Herald/Times that Scott would.
Corcoran said he expected Scott to sign it.
“The governor’s history on [school] choice is pretty clear,” Corcoran said. “I’ve never known the governor not to be a man of his word.”
Scott has consistently supported the school choice movement but has avoided taking a public position on HB 7069, as the issue incited a groundswell of criticism and opposition from parents and teacher groups.
One noteworthy issue, legalization of medical marijuana, which voters supported overwhelmingly in the 2016 election, will apparently not be part of the special session agenda. Corcoran and Negron can’t agree on the details.
The special session will be highly charged, if the early reaction is an indication.
“This special session is a farce being inflicted upon the people of Florida,” said the House Democratic Leader, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “While politicians’ priorities are being served, the people of Florida will continue to suffer.”
Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.