Florida Politics

In a rush to the finish, lawmakers mostly defy priorities of Gov. Scott

The Florida Legislature’s regular session ended Friday night much as it began two months ago, with lawmakers ignoring Gov. Rick Scott’s priorities and House Speaker Richard Corcoran dominating the agenda.

Republicans wrapped up work on an $82.4 billion budget that strongly bears Corcoran’s imprint, with an expansion of charter schools, more bonuses for teachers and principals and the elimination of most of Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency crucial to Scott’s job expansion efforts that suddenly teeters on the brink of extinction.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also succeeded in getting $800 million for a reservoir to reduce pollution south of Lake Okeechobee, money for state universities and a rare pay raise for state workers.

Corcoran scored an important ideological win, insisting that school spending shouldn’t rely on any more taxes from homeowners, and after much resistance, the Senate agreed with him.

Despite Corcoran’s claim of historic K-12 spending, school superintendents across the state say the per-pupil increase of 0.34 percent, or $24.49 per student, is “alarming” and “not sufficient to meet the basic funding needs” of students.

In another case of his ability to wear down opponents, Corcoran got senators to agree to his demand to slash tourism advertising to $25 million while also putting the state’s marketing agency, Visit Florida, under tight new restrictions on contracts, travel and salaries. To top it off, he put it all in one bill that ties Scott’s hands.

If Scott vetoes the bill, Visit Florida gets no money.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, accused Corcoran of a “last-minute switcheroo” on Visit Florida, which Corcoran’s spokesman denied.

In the final hours of session, a cluster of lawmakers continued writing bills in private, undercutting claims by Corcoran of transparency. One piece of legislation, a 278-page bill on education policy, emerged for the first time Friday and was discussed for a mere 10 minutes.

MORE: “In last-day surprise, Legislature loads education policy into pass/fail budget bill”

Wearing a satisfied smile, Corcoran dismissed talk of too much secrecy.

“The whole process has been very transparent,” he said.

He noted that for the first time, all lawmaker-sponsored spending projects had to be fully disclosed before budget negotiations began. How and why more than $400 million of hometown projects ended up in the budget is unclear, but Corcoran said he wouldn’t mind if Scott vetoes all of it.

“Go forth and veto boldly,” Corcoran advised Scott.

The budget must be open for public review for 72 hours before a vote. Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Monday afternoon for a one-day overtime session to pass it. If they do, as they are overwhelmingly expected to, the budget will take effect on July 1.

Yet Friday’s frenzy may be only prologue to more drama.

The prospect that Scott could reject the entire budget led House Democrats to openly speculate that lawmakers would be asked to return to override Scott’s vetoes.

“We’re coming back,” Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, predicted.

Any of Scott’s budget vetoes can be erased by two-thirds votes in both houses — 27 senators and 80 House members.

On the last day of lawmaking, a batch of bills headed to Scott’s office that, among other things, would expand private school vouchers, change Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, address a worsening drug epidemic, allow voters to fix their faulty mail ballots and require new warning labels on “addictive” lottery tickets.

Much of the intrigue Friday was fixed on legislation that would legalize medical marijuana after voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in November. The two chambers did not reach an agreement, which leaves it up to the Department of Health to implement the amendment that voters overwhelmingly approved in November.

One of the last bills that passed Friday will block new tolls on Miami-Dade County expressways without a revenue study justifying an increase along with a super-majority board vote.

The Legislature also passed a bill that would make Florida the first state to place the burden of proof in “Stand Your Ground” pretrial hearings on the prosecution rather than the defendant.

The Senate passed the bill Friday on a 22-14 vote, just hours before it would have died on the last day lawmakers considered non-budget related bills.

The Senate had earlier refused to consider changes the House made to the bill, then accepted them when the House stood its ground on its position.

The Senate bill originally said prosecutors have to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant wasn’t acting in self-defense. The House changed that language to the lower threshold of presenting “clear and convincing evidence.”

Defendants now have to prove they were acting in self-defense to avoid a trial.

The 2017 session was memorable for a variety of reasons, including formal apologies to boys who were abuse victims at the state-run Dozier School for Boys and four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Groveland in 1949.

For the first time in more than a decade, a legislator resigned in disgrace in mid-session, leaving half a million Miami-Dade residents without a senator.

Republican Frank Artiles resigned his seat two weeks ago after making racist and sexist remarks to two African-American senators and insulting Negron at a nightspot near the Capitol.

Artiles apologized, but it wasn’t enough. He quit as the Senate began proceedings to punish him.

Florida’s annual legislative session is limited to 60 calendar days.

As midnight neared and lawmakers ran out of time Friday, they loaded up one bill after another with last-ditch provisions pushed by special interest lobbyists.

“Everybody is throwing Hail Marys,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg.

In the coming days and weeks, opposing sides will lobby for Scott’s signature or his veto on everything from an expansion of charter schools to repealing an antiquated, Depression-era “liquor wall” that allows Walmart and other big-box retailers to sell hard liquor.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

This report was supplemented with reporting by The Associated Press.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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