Florida lawmakers open their annual 60-day session on Tuesday fresh off one of the most bitter political seasons in years and for Republicans, who control both chambers and the governor’s office, the feuding has already begun.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, says voters sent a message that they want legislators to address education, economic security and water — including what he sees is a need to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce toxic algae discharges into estuaries along the east and west coasts.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says “education will be a priority” but he believes voters signaled they want leaders “who will blow things up” — a validation, he says, of his push for lobbying and legislative reforms intended to “end the culture of corruption” in Tallahassee.
If Corcoran’s rhetoric isn’t enough to ignite an intraparty feud, there’s extra friction from the political aspirations of a powerful few Republicans. Gov. Rick Scott and the three term-limited members of the Cabinet all leave office in 2018 and Republican legislative insiders — from Corcoran to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala — dominate the field of possible replacements, injecting party politics into the testy session mix.
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“Democrats will sit back and watch the House and Senate take pot shots at the governor, and duke it out,” said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the House’s minority leader. But she fears the political sparring will be so fierce between the ideologically conservative House and politically moderate Senate that “there will be a hellish budget fight” and the session could end in stalemate and forcing a special session.
“There is always a political calculus as to your long-term goals as a public official that is at play in any given session,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a former Senate president. But this session he credits the election of Trump with giving “rebels and mavericks” like Corcoran “a booster shot of confidence.”
Budget back and forth
At the heart of the internecine war is how each chamber approaches the state’s $83.5 billion budget. Scott has called for $618 million in tax cuts, increases in education spending, and more than $800 million in cuts to the baseline of hospital funding. He wants to give $85 million to Enterprise Florida for business incentives and $76 million to the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida.
But Corcoran has declared an ideological war against the governor’s “corporate subsidies.” Echoing the talking points of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-affiliated free-market advocacy group, House committees approved a bill backed by Corcoran to eliminate Enterprise Florida and severely limit funds to Visit Florida.
Democrats will sit back and watch the House and Senate take pot shots at the governor, and duke it out.
Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa
Scott sees that effort as a direct shot at his most precious progeny, his jobs program. So the governor revved up his political committee, which he has keep in perpetual campaign mode since he was first elected, and launched a spirited assault on the House idea.
His offensive included a taxpayer-funded roadshow to House member districts, robo-calls to voters, and a video produced by his political committee in which he accuses Corcoran of being a “career politician.”
Corcoran responded by accusing the governor of proposing “$450 million in property tax increases” because the governor’s proposed budget allows the state to capture the tax increases on property values to pay for schools — a practice Republican Legislatures have done for years while denying it should be considered a tax increase.
“That’s a hell no,” Corcoran said recently in an interview. “We are not raising property taxes to fund government waste, and we are not raising property taxes on property owners to give it to business owners. That’s a non-starter.”
Gaming, marijuana and more
While the budget battle will take center stage, lawmakers will also attempt to tackle a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, enact voter-approved constitutional amendments to allow for expanded use of medical marijuana and tax breaks for solar power generation. They will attempt to rewrite the state’s death penalty sentencing law and the workers compensation reform law.
And, with 160 lawmakers swept into power with millions in special interest money, lawmakers have also put a priority on advancing industry turf battles and ideological favorites. Bills that are ready for early action in the full House or Senate include Wal-Mart’s push to allow retail stores to sell hard liquor, the NRA’s push to let gun owners carry concealed weapons in more places, and the trial lawyers’ effort to create more avenues for lawsuits, including a conservative push to create a new cause of action relating to abortion.
“There’s no question that the special-interest groups and the lobbying corps have a lot to say about shaping public policy and, with campaigns being so expensive, they have an attentive audience in their elected officials,” said Lee, the former Senate president.
The Republican divide over spending is also shaped by the natural clash between the House and Senate in which “the House is trying to bring spending under control in a systemic way and the Senate doesn’t like to be shackled by controls — or budget requests made by bureaucrats — but wants to put its own fingerprint on the budget,” Lee said.
As the political brawl over Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida played out last month, it overshadowed Corcoran’s ambitious budget and lobbying reforms designed to make it more difficult for his colleagues to become captive to special interest influence.
His blueprint, first outlined in the fall of 2012 with 33 other Republicans House members elected in 2010, declares war on “self-promoting,” self-interested legislators. It blames leaders who “willingly trade significant policy achievements that would benefit Florida for trinkets sought by lobbyists,” and it casts special interests as predators ready to exploit Florida lawmakers for their own agendas.
“Government is broken because elected officials fail,” Corcoran wrote in the white paper titled “BluePrint Florida.” He takes pride in the fact that “80 percent of the reforms” he has implemented since taking office as House speaker in November were part of the blueprint.
Corcoran also has threatened to sue the Florida Supreme Court for allowing a retired justice to complete his unfinished opinions, ordered an investigation into the nearly $100 million in water wars legal bills owed by the Department of Environmental Regulation and sued the Lottery Department over a new contract.
“It’s like coming down at midnight and clicking on the lights,” Corcoran said, referring to his first 93 days as House speaker. “Every single rock we turn over we find graft and corruption and waste of taxpayer money.”
Who’s on the high road?
But implicit in Corcoran’s agenda is the message that his predecessor Republican leaders screwed up and, to Negron, that kind of rhetoric is an “an act of hubris” and affront to legislative leaders of the past who were able to compromise to achieve results.
“This idea that the mere act of trying to work something out is an abdication of principle, I find that to be a stunning rebuke to leaders that I look up to,” Negron told the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau in an interview. “This system works. It’s not broken. There’s always room for improvement and transparency, and I’m proud of what the Senate’s done.”
Cruz and other Democrats commend Corcoran for his candor about “corporate welfare” and what they consider Republican hypocrisy over property taxes.
Rep. Sean Shaw, a freshman Tampa Democrat who served as Florida’s Insurance Consumer Advocate under former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, also commends the House for working to kill “anti-consumer” insurance measures and being willing to protect consumers as they rework workers compensation and property insurance laws.
“Under this House, I feel that the consumer really is getting a fair shake,” he said. “It’s what produces fair and reasonable solutions.”
Democrats say the legislative agenda should focus more on transportation access, affordable housing, gun safety, healthcare access and good paying jobs.
“Corcoran makes a lot of noise and I would love for him to make a lot of noise about children getting shot,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens, the Senate’s Democratic leader. “I’d love to see him make some noise about the opioid crisis, not just issues that appeal to his personal ideology.”
For the past 10 years Democrats have complained about the governor and Legislature sweeping money from the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which is earmarked for affordable housing. They put the proceeds from doc stamps on real estate transactions into general revenue to finance tax cuts.
“It’s almost like white noise — they don’t hear us anymore,” Braynon said. “But because affordable housing is a problem, especially in our urban corridors, you cannot say you’re recruiting businesses if the people that work for them can’t live here.”
The bad news for Democrats is that the debate over their priorities will be shrouded by the philosophical debate that will capture Republicans, said Gus Corbella, a veteran lobbyist, former Senate chief of staff and Republican Party operative.
“Republicans are solidly entrenched in Florida leadership now so to that end we own the messaging,” he said. “What some people might see as political spats are the internal philosophical rumblings of being in the majority party” with Republicans on “both ends of the spectrum” battling it out.
Exacerbating the tension is the political calculation the governor and many key leaders are making about the impact this session will have on their prospects for higher office.
Scott is widely viewed to be running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate to oppose incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat. Corcoran is considered a potential candidate for governor, challenging Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, another former legislator and congressman who is considered the Republican frontrunner and has all but announced his candidacy.
But if Corcoran runs, his immediate rival would be fellow Republican Latvala of Clearwater, the wily chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee who is aggressively raising money.
The legislative players for the Cabinet races include Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who has announced her intentions to run to replace Putnam as agriculture commissioner. Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, is considering a challenge to Grimsley. Names that have surfaced to replace Attorney General Pam Bondi include Negron, who briefly campaigned for the post in 2006, state Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami. And for the post of chief financial officer, possible candidates include Lee, who sought the seat in 2006, and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, the former head of the Florida Republican Party.
“The political roads are littered with the dashed dreams of former legislators who thought they could go to the next level,” said Corbella, the GOP lobbyist. “That’s a pocked road. The way things are shaping up, it looks like it may be mostly legislators running for these offices. The question is, will they transfer that Tallahassee power to a statewide level?”
While Corcoran has commanded the spotlight so far, he is hampered by little name recognition if he does pursue a statewide campaign. Cruz said she fears that a tumultuous session that ends in stalemate, is revived by a special session, and catapults ideological issues into the limelight, may serve both Corcoran’s goals and the goals of the governor.
“Both sides understand posturing and holding projects hostage for compromise,” she said. “We’ll come to a compromise, but when one person is trying to portray himself as purer than the others, if we are here through the summer, it is because of politics.”
She also offers a warning: “History repeats itself,” she said, noting that the Republican feud is a lot like watching Democrats 25 years ago when they controlled the House and Senate.
“If you look back at the last few years of Democratic reign and leadership, they were fighting with one another also. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the end.”
5 key issues facing the Florida Legislature
Gov. Scott and the Legislature have very different priorities. The Senate wants to spend more on higher education and the environment, which would require borrowing, and Scott and the House want tax cuts, while both oppose borrowing.
Lawmakers must decide how far they are willing to protect the Seminole Tribe from competition, in exchange for millions in annual revenues. The Senate is open to expanding slot machines throughout the state and at the Tribe’s casinos, while the House wants to restrict options while demanding more money from the Tribe in return.
The Pulse nightclub massacre and the mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport have intensified the perennial clash between gun owners’ rights and advocates of restrictions.
A House effort to eliminate economic development incentive programs, abolish Enterprise Florida and slash the budget of Visit Florida has sparked intense debate over the state’s role in attracting jobs and promoting tourism.
Voters broadly legalized the use of medical marijuana in November, but the Legislature must pass laws and rules implementing it, and it will be one of the most heavily lobbied issues of the 2017 session.
Source: Herald/Times research