Florida Politics

No hometown handicap for Miami in powerful House speaker’s first legislative session

Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, is applauded by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, left, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, center right, and Lt Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, far right, at the end of session Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, is applauded by Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, left, House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, center right, and Lt Gov. Jeanette Nuñez, far right, at the end of session Saturday, May 4, 2019, in Tallahassee, Fla. AP

When Miami lawmakers and lobbyists trekked to Tallahassee this year for the annual legislative scramble, they arrived with a lengthy list of long-standing issues to address, including inequitable support for schools, a need for sustained hospital funding, rock blasting, and cancer coverage for firefighters.

And they had reason to hope: South Florida this year claimed among its delegation some of the most powerful leaders in state government, chief among them House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes.

But the 2019 legislative session ended with disappointment on a number of big issues for some of Miami’s biggest institutions. And successes were at times overshadowed by a civil war that erupted between local and state politicians as the latter pushed conservative priorities that proved polarizing back in their more liberal hometown.

At the center of it all was a speaker now halfway through his tenure and ambivalent about how to assert his legislative power. Oliva — a Republican cigar businessman first picked in a special election to represent his home district in 2011 — has said he intends to return home to Miami Lakes after his time is done next year. But he has never promised to govern parochially while holding arguably the most powerful position in Tallahassee.

“A lot of the policies that we pass are not region-specific — they have to do with the entire state,” he said after his first session concluded. “The things that we pursue are those things that certainly can help our area but that help the whole of the state, because when you help all the citizens of the state you help every area.”

Republican Jose Oliva of Miami Lakes presided over the 60-day (plus one) session as Speaker of the Florida House. This photo is from the House session on Tuesday, April 30, 2019, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times

Even so, Miami had some clear victories this session.

In a significant step for the Miami-Dade school district, the state agreed to create a new public school funding formula to more heavily consider how the cost of living affects the value of a buck — a fight the school system has been waging for more than a decade. Miami’s firefighters also passed a bill they’ve sought for years to guarantee coverage for treatment of rare cancers tied to the blazes they’re paid to put out. And a pilot needle exchange program in Miami was granted statewide approval.

But on several high-profile issues, Oliva and some of his top lieutenants blasted the mayors and school board members in their own backyard and fought with local agencies, politicians and labor groups.

Hialeah Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., the chairman of the Senate’s Education Committee, accused local school officials of deceitfully campaigning for a local tax to boost teacher pay as he pushed to make sure charter schools will get a cut of any future tax referendums. Rep. Bryan Avila, also from Hialeah and the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, worked with Diaz on the charter school tax language and also on a state shutdown of a local highway tolling authority.

“I remain 100 percent completely in shock that our own people would essentially be traitors against the residents of this county, up there in Tallahassee,” Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins said last month amid a fight over the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority.

bryan avila
Rep. Bryan Avila, R-Hialeah

Even in the case of the firefighter cancer bill, Oliva was accused of holding up the legislation as a form of political retaliation before he acquiesced and allowed the bill to progress in the House. His chamber also tried for a time to hand charter schools a retroactive share of last fall’s tax hike to pay for teacher raises, prompting Miami-Dade School Board member Marta Pérez to blast her own delegation recently during a meeting of the school district.

“I was up there with the other school boards from around the state, and they’re furious at Miami-Dade,” Pérez said. “Our legislators are the ones doing the most damage to public schools.”

Long-running acrimony

For years there has been a rift between local leaders and Miami’s state delegation, often over issues of local control. This year, cities like Miami Beach watched the state government move to block them from banning plastic straws and regulating home gardens and the sale of sunscreen lotion. In past years, it was Airbnb and sports stadiums.

Despite their frustrations, most Miami officials grousing about the state’s decisions this year knew that they were facing a difficult situation under current leadership because Oliva is widely regarded as a straight-talking negotiator.

“In fairness, I don’t ever think he’s portrayed himself as an advocate for Miami-Dade County,” said Democrat Cindy Polo, who shares a district boundary with Oliva and still hopes to work with him next year to address rock blasting near the Everglades. “He could have been from Naples for all I could have known. There was nothing that came out of this session that would have put Miami-Dade County in some better spotlight. Quite the opposite.”

Oliva’s bête noire in healthcare — what he regularly calls the “hospital-industrial complex” — also ran headlong this year into conflict with one of his home county’s key employers: Jackson Health, the largest “safety net” provider in the state.

Representatives for Jackson and other hospitals, eying Oliva’s long-stated priority to trim state spending on healthcare, had worked for months to convince the speaker that the hospital needed to retain an additional “enhancements” fund that is part of how the state reimburses for Medicaid care. Last year, Oliva had helped fend off cuts to that fund, which benefits Jackson and 27 other hospitals that serve high levels of Medicaid patients.

But this year, the Legislature with Oliva’s blessing agreed to put hospitals on a “glide path” to weaning off those additional earmarked dollars, as well as land another long-sought conservative priority to roll back approval mechanisms the state uses to control new facilities or expansions and the offering of additional services.

During the session, Oliva had told reporters that the enhancements funding was part of “a tremendous amount of spending that we do without justification.”

“The only thing we’re arguing is, ‘These groups of people need these monies.’ ‘No, these groups of people need these monies,’ ” he said at the time. “We’ve done it to help, but it puts future Legislatures, as we try to craft a budget, into conflict. ... I can tell you the better deal would be to tear that whole system down and rebuild it … but I don’t see that happening.”

School funding issues

When it came to schools, arming teachers, private school vouchers and charter school tax dollars got most of the attention this session. But Oliva also helped begin a process of reversing a funding change pushed by the last House Speaker from Miami — current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — who shifted money away from Miami-Dade County while maneuvering to the top position in the House.

This year’s education budget creates a transition plan to bring more money back to high-priced South Florida as long as the Legislature approves the new plan next year. “I think the Speaker making this a priority was hugely influential in it coming to pass,” said Miami-area Rep. Vance Aloupis, who helped carry the issue. “Without him, I don’t think the conversation gets off the ground.”

Miami also got its share of pork in the $91.1 billion state budget, although Gov. Ron DeSantis hasn’t yet issued his vetoes. If he’s considering cuts to South Florida, the region could have a friendly voice with Nuñez serving as his lieutenant governor, although she, too, has made clear that she considers herself a statewide official who happens to be a former Jackson Health government relations executive from Miami, as opposed to the other way around.

Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation and the sponsor of a needle exchange bill, said in the waning hours of the legislative session last week that it would be unfair to say that Miami had a bad year. But he said there are plenty of local politicians blasting Oliva and his lieutenants today who campaigned for them in November despite knowing their politics.

“What’s happening now is like the Malcolm X speech,” Braynon said. “It’s the chickens coming home to roost.”

Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright contributed to this report.