State Politics

With stinging critique of Florida House, Corcoran faces pushback

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the House appropriations chair, listens to debate on the health care bill from the back of the chamber during a special session, Friday, June 5, 2015, in Tallahassee.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, the House appropriations chair, listens to debate on the health care bill from the back of the chamber during a special session, Friday, June 5, 2015, in Tallahassee. AP

The 44-page manifesto titled “BluePrint Florida,” released this week by Rep. Richard Corcoran after he was officially designated House speaker for the 2016-18 session, reads like a nine-step plan to addiction recovery.

It calls on legislators to develop coping strategies, challenge their creativity and adopt a cause to end the “dangerous” dependence on special interests and lobbyists that have “excessive influence and power in the process.”

“Government is broken because elected officials fail,” wrote Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, in the white paper penned in the fall of 2012 after Corcoran and 31 fellow freshmen Republicans had finished their first year as legislators.

The blueprint declares war on “self-promoting,” ego-driven and self-interested legislators. It blames leaders who “willingly trade significant policy achievements that would benefit Florida for trinkets sought by lobbyists,” and it casts special interests as predators ready to exploit Florida lawmakers for their own agendas.

It is a stark indictment of the House of Representatives and the Republican leadership that has dominated its leadership since 1996. And it is the most candid self critique by Republicans since Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, used his Senate presidency in 2005 to force lobbyists to disclose fees and stop courting legislators with secret gifts, trips and dinners.

Corcoran released the blueprint as part of his campaign to push for reforms aimed at countering the influence of special interests on Tallahassee. But, like any intervention, it is rife with challenges, and many believe that Corcoran, a lawyer in the Tampa office of Broad and Cassel who has risen to power on the strength of the status quo, must himself come clean.

“These trend lines were created to give the Republican Party a firm hold on political dominance, and I’m not sure they’re willing to reform themselves at the expense of their power,” said Dan Gelber, a former Democratic legislator from Miami. “I give him points for high-minded platitudes, but it’s not going to matter unless they actually do something.”

As Corcoran was announcing his reforms to standing ovations on the House floor, lobbyists were buzzing about his dependence on their money. As head of the House Republican 2016 election efforts, Corcoran is in charge of raising millions for GOP campaigns from the same special interests he criticizes.

In the last week alone, the political committee he runs was busy arranging nearly a dozen cocktail receptions and fundraisers just blocks from the Capitol in Tallahassee. An analysis of the Republican Party of Florida campaign finance data by Politico Florida estimated that Corcoran has spent $238,000 in the last five months already, including purchases of cuff links, cigars and fundraising ventures from Las Vegas to Washington.

Fox Business news then riffed on the issue for nearly four minutes with one Republican commentator noting, “this is what people hate about politicians.”

But neither Corcoran in his speech, nor his blueprint, made any mention of the unlimited soft money contributions that legislators can collect from lobbyists for their political committees — a system that was voted on and approved by nearly every member of Corcoran’s team in the 2013 legislative session.

Republicans for statewide and legislative offices raised a staggering $209 million in 2014, according to an analysis by the Herald/Times and the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.

Massive checks were sprinkled into the political committees of legislators like seedlings, with the largest contributors being the gambling industry, utilities, the sugar industry and healthcare companies.

Corcoran makes no apologies and argues that by asking for money to elect Republicans he is not asking legislators to give up their right to be independent. He says he does not take flights and dinners from lobbyists as in-kind contributions but works to keep costs down by leasing a Cirrus turbo-prop and is trying to make party expenses more transparent than ever.

“Going to war against the special interests to protect the integrity of the chamber is not the same as writing a check to the Republican Party so that we can get our message out,” he told the Herald/Times. “There’s no comparison.”

He argues that if his reforms are adopted, individual members will set the agenda, not special interests — which dictate the agenda when legislative leaders leave a void.

“Want to see how leadership’s lack of an agenda is benefiting special interests? Take a look at the campaign reports,” the blueprint states. “It shouldn’t be surprising that the most influential committee chairs raise far more contributions than their counterparts on less prominent committees.”

Since Corcoran’s blueprint was written, legislators have continued to give their top donors special treatment. In 2013, for example, the House sided with the state’s large electric utilities and killed a constitutional amendment that would have given tax breaks to businesses that install solar panels, and it watered down a bill to repeal the utility tax on nuclear power.

Legislators passed a bill shielding nursing home investors from some lawsuits by targeting the tactics of a Tampa-based law firm. And they set aside $100 million for capital expenses for privately managed, for-profit charter schools — twice the amount earmarked for traditional public schools.

In 2014, a massive bill to rewrite the state’s gambling laws — a priority of the gambling industry — advanced in both the House and Senate until the governor started negotiations with the Seminole Tribe, which stalled the legislation indefinitely.

Corcoran says he and his supporters have quietly killed “anti-consumer” insurance measures and other bills they believed were designed to protect special interests in the last four years, but “tried to stay under the radar.”

His silence, and subsequent prominence as one of the most active fundraisers in Tallahassee this cycle, have subjected him to a drumbeat of criticism among many members of Tallahassee’s lobbying corps.

“The hypocrisy is they are complaining because they can’t control the House,” he responds.

Lee, the former Senate president, who supports Corcoran, said he faced the same criticism when he was trying to push through the gift ban.

“I understand that allegation of hypocrisy, but how else can you get to become a presiding officer without having lived the cultural defects in the process?” he said. “Ethics reform is something that can only be done by a presiding officer. We don’t make the rules of engagement but, once we become the presiding officers, we have the ability to change them.”

In his speech to the Republican caucus in Tallahassee on Wednesday, Corcoran outlined the top goals of his blueprint: a constitutional amendment to ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for six years; a House rule requiring lawmakers to wait six years before padding their state pensions by taking public jobs after leaving office, unless they are elected to another office; a prohibition on legislators taking a new job with any company or organization that receives public money from the state while in office; and a rule to require lobbyists to disclose the legislation they intend to influence.

Gelber noted that Corcoran was House Speaker Marco Rubio’s chief of staff when Rubio proposed his 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future and touted them as ideas generated by the public, not the special interests.

“It’s not the first time an incoming presiding officer has said high-minded things only to see them come crashing down over the inertia of the system,” Gelber said. “All Marco really did was generate Republican talking points and it wasn’t the kind of innovation that was expected.”

As Corcoran and his colleagues were developing their “manifesto” in 2011 and 2012, House Speaker Dean Cannon and his staff were working with political consultants to circumvent the Constitution and influence the redistricting process to help make sure that Republicans could be re-elected, according to court records.

Nowhere does the blueprint spell out a need for more competitive elections.

A main focus of the blueprint’s “nine solutions for reforming the process” is the Legislature’s “culture of self-promotion” which, the blueprint suggests, would end by requiring “any member who wishes to serve in a leadership role to take a pledge not to seek another elected office, at any level of government, until after the completion of the second regular session.”

And to shield members from using their committee posts to collect contributions, they also would pledge not to open campaign accounts until they no longer have the jobs.

They are ambitious and controversial ideas, Lee warns, and Corcoran “better be prepared to walk the talk.”

During Lee’s attempts to pass the gift ban, he was “followed by a private investigator” and faced an assortment of false rumors about his family, he said. “They will try to tarnish the messenger to derail the message.”

Corcoran says he is confident he will prevail. “When all is said and done, there will be zero doubters,” he told the Herald/Times.

Mary Ellen Klas is Tallahassee Bureau chief for the Miami Herald. She can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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