Florida Politics

Is the Florida Legislature broken?

Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron work out budget differences during a late afternoon budget conference Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, left, and Senate President Joe Negron work out budget differences during a late afternoon budget conference Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. AP

It was 9 p.m. on the night after the Legislative session was supposed to have ended and Sen. Tom Lee got a phone call.

“What have you done?” asked a former chairman of the board of governors for the University of South Florida.

The Republican from Thonotosassa and former Senate president who had helped broker negotiations with the House over a K-12 education reform was perplexed by what he heard. He had no idea that Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had consented the day before to making it harder for USF, Lee’s hometown school, to become the state’s third “pre-eminent” university by imposing strict new graduation standards.

READ MORE: “Another backroom deal stokes distrust in Florida’s Legislature”

The changes were part of a budget deal Negron had reached with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the day before, and, while it was pivotal to resolving the impasse that had sent the session into overtime, it could cost USF millions of new dollars each year.

But for Lee, worse than being blindsided was the way he got the news about the end run the presiding officers had done around the other 158 legislators.

READ MORE: “Despite backlash, lawmakers pass bill that costs USF millions”

“Just like nobody should read about the death of their loved one in a newspaper, we should never learn about what we did from the people that we’re impacting,” an angry Lee told his Senate colleagues in the first of a series of public complaints by senators on the last day of session, May 8. “I was embarrassed, Mr. President. I was flat embarrassed.”

So began the fallout over what has become another controversial ending to a legislative session in which the House speaker and Senate president exploited a loophole in the rules and dictated the terms of 15 take-it-or-leave-it policy bills that would be subject to no amendments. As legislative leaders lurched from representative democracy to autocratic control, the strategy raises questions about whether the system on which the Florida Legislature is built is flawed or broken.

I feel like much of my time was wasted and my constituents were really without a voice.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale

“I feel like much of my time was wasted and my constituents were really without a voice,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, a freshman Democrat from Fort Lauderdale. He spent the last weeks of session working out a compromise of the controversial K-12 reform bill (SB 1552) only to have Negron and Corcoran jettison the compromise to replace it with a plan more in line with the House’s priorities.

“Everything that was negotiated out of the bill early in session was put back in. How do you think people felt about a bill that undoes everything you did?” asked Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens. “We were being forced to vote for the same things we had spent our hard-earned time negotiating and refining all session.”

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

Determined to push through a long list of priority bills, Negron and Corcoran abandoned the difficult and often hard-to-manage job of achieving bipartisan and ideological consensus on education, economic development and state worker bills and instead employed a rule that allowed them to attach their policy bills to the budget package. The strategy allowed them to force the passage of sweeping policy changes in a way that avoided having to water them down with consensus-driven amendments.

“The way the Legislature functions is outdated and arcane,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat and former House member elected to the Senate last year. “It is designed for a small agricultural state with a seasonal Legislature that is very centralized. But we are now the third biggest state in the nation and it’s a disservice to a state as diverse as ours.”

When Florida’s Constitution was ratified in 1968, the Legislature met for 60 days once every two years “and people thought it should be the other way around — meet for two days every 60 years,” joked Gary Mormino, a history professor at the University of South Florida who has authored books on Florida history.

In 1968, Florida had 6.6 million people. Kissimmee was still a cow pasture and Miami was still majority non-Hispanic white. Today, each of the Senate’s 40 members represent about 470,000 people in ethnically and economically diverse districts. The 120 members of the Florida House have the luxury of representing only about 157,000 people, and their districts are more homogenous and more conservative.

The way the Legislature functions is outdated and arcane. It is designed for a small agricultural state with a seasonal Legislature that is very centralized. But we are now the third-biggest state in the nation and it’s a disservice to a state as diverse as ours.

Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami

Those factors make the Founding Fathers’ ideal of bridging differences through a bicameral Legislature far more challenging than they were 50 years ago.

“We’re trying to cram too much into a small funnel and it’s become difficult to get our work done in a timely fashion with adequate amounts of public input,” said Lee.

His conclusion: the needs of a diverse, politically divided state of 20 million people may have exceeded the ability of its system in place to govern it. “Sometimes the ends justifies the means because you have to cut corners to get things done in the time frame to get them done,” he said.

The bill that rankled Lee, SB 374, was one of a series of 15 “conforming” bills that set policy to align with the budget but were not subject to amendment. Negron and Corcoran agreed to them behind closed doors, in the final hours of the last day of session, with no opportunity for public testimony.

Florida Legislature (44)
Sen. Tom Lee, right, R-Brandon, talks with Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, on the House floor during late negotiations Friday May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Mark Wallheiser AP

“The agreement with the House is we would take their bill and they would take our bill,” explained Sen. Jack Latvala before the Senate voted on the package. “Perhaps they got a little carried away.”

In 2011, Latvala, R-Clearwater, led a rebellion of Republican senators against then-Senate President Mike Haridopolos for joining then House Speaker Dean Cannon in subjecting lawmakers to 44 controversial take-it or leave-it conforming bills that also circumvented consensus. Revolting senators rejected many of the bills and sent the session into overtime.

This time, in the interest of “reaching closure” on the budget, lawmakers approved all the conforming bills, including controversial provisions related to the pension system and the state employee health insurance program (SB 7022); imposed new rules on Visit Florida contracts, travel and salaries (HB 5501); increased performance standards and scholarships for universities (HB 374), and new incentives to privatize public schools and offer teacher bonuses (HB 7069).

The concepts for each of the controversial proposals had been discussed and voted on by various committees during the session, but the language that would become law had not been reviewed, screened or approved by any committee in its entirety or by both chambers before Negron and Corcoran signed off.

Each of the controversial conforming bills included new provisions that had not been debated in both chambers and they added elements that had been rejected in Senate committees.

The same kinds of things that people consider broken about Washington are happening in Tallahassee and legislatures across the country,” said Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who studies Florida government, noting that political polarization and one-party control have made “compromise a dirty word.”

“This is exactly what drives people crazy about Congress — these omnibus bills where they include everything but the kitchen sink and the leadership controls everything,” she said.

Negron and Corcoran defended the tactic as part of the normal give and take of budget negotiations. Corcoran predicted that the House’s education bill “will go down as one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida” and “most everything in that bill has been vetted and if it hasn’t been vetted it’s been discussed in all levels of the committee process.”

Negron admitted some of the proposals were “hard to pass” but said the “process has been very open” and reflected “broad consensus” in the Senate. But when reporters ask why the bills couldn’t withstand a vote in both chambers without being attached to the forced vote on the budget, he demurred.

“These are all ideas that have been discussed and by doing it as part of the budget process more senators were involved,” he said.

Although Negron and Corcoran are both Republicans, neither shared a single top priority this session. They reached agreement by trading issues. For example, the Senate got House leaders to agree to a public employee pay raise in exchange for changes to state health insurance benefits and the state pension plan. The House drafted the K-12 conforming bill and the Senate drafted the higher ed bill.

“Horse trading happens all the time but even when it does there is some input by both chambers,” Farmer said.

Late on May 5, Negron and Corcoran signed off on the higher education bill, HB 374, and unveiled HB 7069 — a 292-page K-12 bill that combined several education policy bills into what would become Corcoran’s signature piece of legislation. They convened a meeting, called the education bill “transformational” and asked for public comment. No one came forward. The meeting was over in less than 25 minutes.

Like a Russian Potemkin Village, a façade built to portray something as better than it is, Florida’s legislative leaders met behind closed doors in an orchestrated plan to push through massive reforms without thorough debate.

The reaction, particularly to HB 7069 and its $140 million in incentives for privately-run charter schools to help perpetually failing schools and $233 million for teacher bonuses, has been intense.

Parents, teachers and education groups have called for the governor to veto the bill. Gov. Rick Scott, who has spent seven years with little admiration for Florida’s open meeting and public records laws, even condemned the bill as compromise because it was reached in secret.

And Latvala, the Senate’s budget chief, promised “we won’t do this again under my watch” and then quietly encouraged the governor to get out his veto pen.

When the bill came before the full Senate on the last day of session, Farmer observed: “The mood of this chamber is very somber today ... We don’t like what’s being forced down our throats.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, tasked with being the lead negotiator on the compromise education bill that Corcoran and Negron had replaced, attempted to answer questions about provisions that were new to most senators.

“You’ll have to bear with me on this,” he said. “It’s a lot to digest in a short period of time.”

He added: “Even the proponents in the House have discussed there are problems ... It’s going to be difficult to implement ...We are going to have to fix it next year.’’

Sen. Doug Broxson, a Republican from Pensacola elected to the Senate after serving six years in the House, told his colleagues how he looked forward to serving in the Senate where, unlike the House, he expected to “engage in independent votes” not directed by leadership, but the high-level override of Senate leaders in favor of the House product made that impossible.

“It disturbs me,” he said. “This is really more than a vote on this bill. It’s a vote to come back in special session.”

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former superintendent of Leon County schools and the current director of the Florida Superintendents Association, explained the reason for the angst. “Most of these issues have been around for years,” he told the Senate. “They just never have been accepted because this body concluded that it was not good for students.”

Why did House and Senate leaders resort to extraordinary means to pass controversial priorities?

Lee attributes it to term limits, “the extraordinary power that’s given to leadership under our rules,” and a diminished appreciation for the sanctity of the rules.

“Big pieces of legislation are often multiyear projects,” he said, but Negron and Corcoran, who have only one year left because of term limits, weren’t willing to wait. A 60-day session, coupled with complex and controversial ideas led to “an absence of time for adequate public input and debate.” The presiding officers were unable to “show restraint” and refrain from exploiting the rules.

Mormino, the USF history professor, believes another factor was at play — the lack of competition in Legislative elections.

“There was no fear in the consequences,” he said. “How much legislative turnover is there each election cycle? Almost none.”