Florida Politics

As clock ticks, lawmakers’ compromises on education policy remain a mystery

With barely three days left before lawmakers have to finalize the annual state budget if session is to end as scheduled May 5, Floridians still have very little idea what kind of compromise lawmakers are crafting behind closed doors when it comes to the most consequential reforms this year that affect K-12 public schools.

House and Senate leaders late Saturday had yet to release any proposed amended language for substantive policy bills tied to the education budget, such as those calling for:

▪ A brand-new $200 million “schools of hope” program (HB 5105) to help students in perpetually failing schools.

▪ A $214 million expansion of annual “Best & Brightest” bonuses for teachers and principals (HB 7069) that rely on their personal academic achievements.

▪ And reforms to how school construction and maintenance dollars — from the state and from local property taxes — are shared between traditional and charter schools (SB 376).

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Altamonte Springs Republican Sen. David Simmons, the House and Senate chairmen building the $15 billion pre-K-12 schools budget, concluded their conference subcommittee’s work Saturday morning after reaching agreement on a small increase for general school spending but without hashing out — at least, publicly — any of the differences the chambers have on these major programs.

Those policy negotiations — along with budget issues pending in other areas like healthcare or transportation — then fell to the full Appropriations chairmen, Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater and Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami. At a meeting late Saturday of the full Appropriations conference committee, the policy bills were not discussed.

Simmons and Diaz told reporters Saturday morning that the numbers are “complex” and “there are just a lot of details we’re trying to put together” when it comes to the budget-related education policy bills. Diaz said staff was still working on the language by late in the day.

MORE: “ ‘Unprecedented openness’ slams shut as Corcoran, Negron forge secret budget deal”

Latvala said Saturday night: “We’re going to start wading through them one by one” on Sunday. He reiterated a statement made repeatedly by Senate leadership that the policy bills had been considered already by one or both chambers, so “it’s not anything new, or any surprises.”

However, House and Senate leaders had repeatedly vowed — and continue to promise — to have a transparent budget process with opportunity for meaningful public comment, particularly on the substantial education reforms linked to the budget. The “schools of hope” proposal received nine hours of consideration in the House, but senators have discussed their version of it for only 90 minutes and in rushed hearings, during which public comment was restricted at times.

Instead of a change from previous years, budget conference negotiations have unfolded much as they have in the past with scripted public meetings that involve no real conversation or debate.

The public is made aware of meetings only one hour in advance, so only those nearest to Tallahassee can logistically attend.

Chairmen trade pre-arranged offers in words that sound almost like code: “On page 4 ... on lines 2F and 6A, the House offers a modified position.” It’s difficult to follow even for the few audience members who are lucky to have in hand copies of complicated budget spreadsheets, which aren’t released until after a conference meeting starts and which serve as a key to translating the chairmen’s verbal offers. The conference meetings can sometimes last only a few minutes.

Behind the scenes, lawmakers on the education conference subcommittee said that Diaz and Simmons were “incredibly inclusive” in keeping them involved in negotiations — but there are growing concerns about the lack of time for the public to weigh in on whatever final products there are.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer, a member of the pre-K-12 education conference subcommittee, said he frequented Simmons’ office and the two have collaborated on proposed language for the education policy bills.

But, he noted: “I don’t think either of us is overjoyed that this is the process that we’re in right now — to do such a drastic policy change and to spend such significant amounts of money on something that’s brand new, that hasn’t been vetted by the substantive [policy] committee that should be vetting it.”

MORE: “Despite vowing otherwise, Senate has spent little time on ‘schools of hope’ so far”

“It is really, frankly, quite alarming to me,” said Farmer, of Lighthouse Point.

Diaz and Simmons said Saturday morning they were not prepared to release any draft language for items like “schools of hope” or the “Best & Brightest” bonuses until they’re ready to put it “in the proper position” to exchange formal offers between the chambers.

Simmons said in regards to “Best & Brightest,” in particular, they want to craft the policy to get to a point where they “use a standard that is not subject to criticism.”

“We’re working towards a rational, smooth, equal and equitable method of making sure these teachers [and] administrators are able to receive a significant amount of salary boost,” he said. “We’re coming to a consensus on it.”

Diaz pledged that once the draft language is ready, Floridians would see lawmakers publicly debate and discuss the proposals before they’re finalized.

“We just haven’t arrived at that because we can’t have a discussion on something until we have some kind of offer that can be bantered back and forth. ... I do believe you will see that go on in public,” he said.

But some lawmakers aren’t convinced there will be time set aside for that, let alone time for average Floridians to truly be heard.

“Unless the public is going to be testifying from the gallery of the Florida Senate, I don’t see where that’s going to happen,” Farmer said. “It would have been here [in subcommittee conference meetings] — but we’re not doing it here.”

“If we really do this and it goes down like this on the Senate floor... I hope I don’t get censured,” Farmer said with a pause, indicating he would have choice words about the process.

There have technically been chances for public comment at most budget conference meetings this year — which is new — but it’s arguable how genuine those opportunities are.

Members of the public, especially those who are unfamiliar with the convoluted process, have little time to comprehend what transpires in the swift public meetings, reducing their ability to offer reaction or specific testimony that could influence the budget.

“Having the spreadsheets is just a small fraction of it. Put aside how confusing it all is. This year, unlike almost every other year, we’re doing major, major policy changes [in the budget],” Farmer said. “It is concerning, and it’s a little disconcerting that the public is not going to have a meaningful opportunity — and I’ve got emails, and the tweets, that reveals the public’s dissatisfaction with it.”

Diaz said the budget is still evolving, and there’s time for Floridians to have their say.

“This is a continual process,” he said. “Just because this budget goes from Chairman Simmons and I to Chairmen Trujillo and Latvala, it’s still a public process. It’s not over; there’s continual opportunity to make public comment.”

But if the Legislature is to remain on schedule, lawmakers really only have until Tuesday to hash out any remaining differences.

Trujillo and Latvala will handle budget talks — across all unresolved budget areas — until noon Sunday. At that point, any disputed items go to Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

Negron and Corcoran will then finalize the budget in private before it’s published for lawmakers to consider. (Earlier this week, the chamber leaders also secretly hashed out high-level budget matters — prolonged talks that prevented conference subcommittees from meeting for the first time until Thursday evening.)

Once the overall conference committee and then Negron and Corcoran conclude their work, the budget is final. It cannot be amended on the floor.

The budget has to be published by Tuesday so lawmakers can have the constitutionally required 72-hour cooling-off period before they can vote on it Friday, if session is to end on time.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark