State Politics

School funding runs out June 30. Senate seeks fail-safe; House won’t agree.

Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Senate members wait to meet members of the House of Representatives in the rotunda between the two chambers at the close of the 2017 legislative session Monday night, May 8, 2017, at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida.
Florida Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, left, and Senate members wait to meet members of the House of Representatives in the rotunda between the two chambers at the close of the 2017 legislative session Monday night, May 8, 2017, at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida. AP

Wanting to ensure Florida’s 4,200 K-12 public schools can “keep the lights on and keep the doors open” after June 30, the Florida Senate took the unusual step on Wednesday of voting to override a veto by Gov. Rick Scott.

Not because the senators particularly like the spending level they approved last month — which raises per-pupil spending by a meager $24 for the 2017-18 school year.

With tensions between the House and Senate high, and accusations that each side was betraying a trust, Senate leaders said they don’t have high hopes they’ll reach compromise with the House during a special session this week. The governor asked the Legislature to approve a spending increase of $100 per pupil, a cost of at least $215 million in additional funding.

“In consultation with [President Joe Negron, R-Stuart] and other Senate leaders, we think it’s really important that we give the public confidence that our public schools will be open,” Senate budget chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said on the floor.

He added that the Senate doesn’t want “to be responsible ... for getting into a situation where we leave town and we do not have funding in place” for schools.

But the procedural votes by the Senate — which came with little opposition — will have little practical impact.

We voted for that [spending level] once, so as a back-up, as a worst-case scenario, that’s where we’d be going — but that’s not what we plan on doing.

Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, Senate Appropriations chairman

The House has no intention of following the Senate’s lead and restoring the K-12 funding Scott vetoed even as a temporary safeguard, Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, told reporters.

“They want to go back and play hide the ball with the voters,” Corcoran said. “So they’re saying, ‘OK, we’re going to try to look like the good guys in that we didn’t veto K-12 educational funding, and so we’re going to do the veto override.’ ”

Corcoran accuses the Senate of seeking “a massive tax increase” by proposing to pay for the extra K-12 funding in part through property taxes from new construction. He said the Senate’s override was an attempt to “mask” that goal, and he dismissed the potential of the special session collapsing.

“I think we’ll absolutely get to a point when the better judgment of all will prevail and the funding for K-12 education will happen — and it will happen without a massive tax increase,” Corcoran said.

The divide over school funding is one of many in a tense, acrimonious special session that Scott called so lawmakers could redo the K-12 budget and also add more money to Scott’s top economic development priorities.

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

Scott on Friday formally rejected the Legislature’s approved school funding for the fiscal year that starts July 1, saying the extra $24 per student was an insufficient increase to public education.

Gov. Rick Scott announces a budget deal during a press conference at the Miami International Airport on Friday, June 2, 2017. Scott was joined by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Lieutenant Governor of Florida Carlos López-Cantera and Senate Presid

But amid growing distrust between the House and Senate — including over how to pay for those extra dollars — senators wanted what Latvala described as “an insurance policy.”

Latvala reminded senators of the budget blow-up of the 2015 session — when House members walked out of session early over a dispute in healthcare funding, preventing lawmakers from approving an annual budget on time. To avoid a similar result, Latvala said the Senate should do what it can to ensure public schools have money by the start of next month, even if it’s a level of funding the Legislature dislikes.

He said the House and Senate would still seek to add $215 million to school funding — or potentially more — and insisted the veto override was merely a fail-safe.

“If we don’t do this, we’re left with nothing,” Latvala said, noting that the original budget was approved “fairly decisively” a month ago.

“We voted for that [spending level] once, so as a back-up, as a worst-case scenario, that’s where we’d be going — but that’s not what we plan on doing.” Latvala said. “It’s our full intention — and my full intention — ... to add $215 million” to the K-12 budget.

Latvala indicated Scott and his staff were not informed or consulted about the Senate’s plan to override the veto. “I'm sure they’re watching on TV,” he said.

Farmer
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

It passed with almost no opposition in a series of procedural votes. Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, was the lone “no” vote on all of them.

“I don’t trust the House,” he told the Herald/Times. “I’ll be very candid and upfront about it: I don’t believe we should be overriding those vetoes right now, because I believe that takes away incentive from the House to pass a fair and balanced and meaningful [K-12 spending] package.”

After the Legislature drew severe criticism over crafting its original budget deal in secret and then did so again with last week’s deal among Corcoran, Scott and Negron, Latvala cast the Senate’s override votes as a means to show transparency.

“What we’re trying real hard to do here is do it one step at a time in a collaborative, participatory environment that’s not two guys in a room cutting a deal,” he said. “We want everyone to see what we’re doing and this is step one of that.”

However, some senators had little advanced warning of the Senate’s strategy before Latvala shared it publicly on the floor.

“No one has talked to me about this. I didn’t even know this was coming up until five minutes ago,” Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said in asking questions of Latvala. “It seems like we’re predicting failure here.”

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

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