State Politics

Deal or no deal? Special session nears collapse

Senate President Joe Negron, R- Palm City, talks to the media on the Senate floor at the end of the second day of the special session of the Florida Legislature Thursday June 8, 2017 at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee.
Senate President Joe Negron, R- Palm City, talks to the media on the Senate floor at the end of the second day of the special session of the Florida Legislature Thursday June 8, 2017 at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. AP

As a rocky special legislative session veered to the edge of collapse Thursday night, Senate President Joe Negron raised the stakes by demanding that the House restore $75 million in higher education vetoes by Gov. Rick Scott.

Negron aggressively refuted what he called a “fake narrative” — that by appearing in Miami last Friday with Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, he had agreed to support terms of a special session budget deal, when in fact he had not.

To bolster his position, Negron said his staff asked that his name be removed from a special session proclamation and that a suggested quote attributed to Negron not be included.

“I wasn’t part of what was occurring here,” Negron said.

The Stuart lawyer spoke to reporters for 40 minutes and he all but assured that the session would collapse Friday. That’s because Corcoran is adamant that the House won’t agree with the Senate to override vetoes of 18 college and university building projects.

“We would be the first Republican Legislature that overrode a Republican governor on pork barrel spending. It’s not what we do,” Corcoran flatly told reporters Friday, putting put the House and Senate on a collision course. “That’s a principle we’re not ready to violate.”

Negron’s rant to reporters was an act of defiance against an increasingly hostile House.

The day before, speaking to reporters, Corcoran accused Negron of lying about the deal, and repeated the accusation at a meeting of the Republican caucus. Then, after the House adjourned on Thursday, he hinted that by overriding the veto, Negron was not a dutiful Republican.

“I don’t know any situation where Republican legislators have overriden Republican governors on pork in the budget,’’ he said.

Senators have increasingly voiced their displeasure with the way the special session was convened, complaining they were being set up to rubber stamp a deal they had no part in making.

To appease some Senate Republicans, and hold the coalition, the Senate decided early Thursday to reverse its decision on allowing some property taxes to increase next year to fund K-12 funding.

There were signs of rebellion from senators, who see Corcoran as having gained too much of an upper hand by negotiating a three-part agreement that gave Scott much of what he wanted, reducing the Senate to bystander.

Negron noted that for a year it was Corcoran, not him, who battled Scott and promised to abolish Enterprise Florida and eviscerate the state tourism agency, Visit Florida.

Now, he said, Corcoran and Scott have to respect the Senate’s priorities, which also include a restoration of $260 million in Medicaid cuts to hospitals.

“We’re not just going to rubber stamp an agreement that two parties made without our priorities being taken into account,” Negron said of Corcoran and Scott, who spent the day in Washington visiting the White House. “The Senate’s united in not simply ratifying an agreement we weren’t part of.”

Last Friday, when Scott announced the special session last Friday at Miami International Airport, Negron chose his words carefully and did not commit the Senate to any deal.

“We will consider any proposals that emerge,” Negron said in Miami. “Each individual senator has his or her vote.”

Fast forward to Thursday, and legislators are running out of time to agree on changes to classroom spending, jobs and tourism programs— issues that forced Scott to call a special session to ratify a behind-the-scenes deal.

If the chambers can’t bridge their differences, they can’t go home.

“The ball is in their court,” Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said of the House.

Scott’s newfound ally, Corcoran, said earlier Thursday he was optimistic that a compromise can be worked out to avoid a meltdown.

“We’re talking about school children and jobs,” Corcoran told reporters. “It’s not over till the fat lady sings.”

The combative speaker from Pasco County said the House would never agree with the Senate to restore cuts in payments to hospitals or overturn Scott’s vetoes of $75 million in college construction projects throughout the state.

The Senate invited a new fight with Corcoran by adding new restrictions to its economic development bill (SB 2A), including a specific rate of return on investments and abolishing a new jobs incentive fund in 2019 unless the Legislature keeps it alive.

The current bill provides $85 million for state and local infrastructure projects and workforce training grants. It ends the practice of awarding tax money to specific companies as a reward for new jobs. But most new money would be controlled by the governor and a jobs agency he controls, which Democrats call a “slush fund” for Scott’s pet projects.

The biggest breakthrough in the three-day session is an agreement to carry out the will of voters, who last fall overwhelmingly legalized the medical use of marijuana.

Lawmakers also moved closer on how to pay for a $100 increase per student in state support for K-12 public schools starting on July 1. The Senate dropped the idea of tapping local property tax money on new construction to pay for the $215 million increase. The original budget boosted per-pupil spending by $24 per student or 0.34 percent, but Scott called that insufficient and ordered lawmakers back to work.

Senators made a last-ditch effort to gut the most controversial bill of 2017, House Bill 7069, which is Corcoran’s ambitious education policy rewrite that expands teacher bonuses and charter schools that critics say could force D- and F-rated public schools to close and hundreds of teachers to lose their jobs.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, tried to strip most of the money from HB 7069 to boost public school spending $200 higher per student.

“This is your last chance to fix it,” Farmer told senators.

But led by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, Republicans warned that Farmer’s raid could wreck the entire session, and they defeated it.

Negron ruled that Farmer’s amendment passed on an unrecorded voice vote, but it failed minutes later on a recorded vote by a 22-to-15 margin.

One Republican publicly broke with his colleagues.

In a fiery floor speech clearly aimed at Corcoran, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said: “Little by little, there has been the erosion of the public school education funding system to ensure that more money goes in another direction. If you’re against corporate welfare, [you] should be against corporate welfare across the board.”

In private negotiations in recent weeks, Corcoran agreed to Scott’s demands for $76 million for VISIT Florida’s tourism efforts and for the new job fund in hopes that Scott would sign HB 7069.

The bill squeaked through the Senate, 20-18, in the regular session. Corcoran has not sent the bill to Scott, but said he would “imminently.”

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at sbousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet

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