No, Florida Legislative Black Caucus didn't cut a deal to support incentives, chairman says
Not everything in Tallahassee politics happens because of ulterior motives or politicians' scratching each other's backs.
But the existence of a back-room deal was exactly the conclusion drawn by some in the Florida Capitol this week, when 19 House Democrats in the Florida Legislative Black Caucus voted in favor of an economic incentives bill that's a priority for Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The members' support and that of six other Democrats was crucial for Republicans to pass the measure, 79-39, because 27 Republicans and 12 Democrats opposed it.
It's rare that Democrats hold so much sway in the chamber, which has 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats.
Surely -- the rumors swirled -- the black caucus must have planned to vote together and gotten something in return for crossing party lines en masse?
"It's not true," said Tampa Democratic Rep. Ed Narain, the caucus' chairman.
Narain told the Herald/Times that speculation and media reports alleging a "deal" had been struck between Republican leaders and members of the black caucus have confused and dramatized what really happened during and after this week's floor sessions in the House.
"There was no quid pro quo. The Speaker doesn’t operate like that; I don’t operate like that," Narain said.
What actually happened, Narain said:
Earlier Tuesday, Narain and five other members of the black caucus met with House Speaker Steve Crisafulli to talk with him about three key issues:
-- the importance of a civil-citations bill that they want approved this session, which would expand citations for juveniles who commit misdemeanors;
-- their objections and plans to protest a "stand your ground" bill that Crisafulli had put back in play in the House;
-- and, the absence of any black House members on the 18-member Judiciary Committee.
The other lawmakers in the room -- Narain said -- were: South Florida Reps. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale, Shevrin Jones of West Park, Bobby Powell of Riviera Beach, Cynthia Stafford of Miami and Barbara Watson of Miami Gardens.
Narain said Crisafulli was receptive to their concerns, particularly about the lack of diversity on the Judiciary Committee. He said Crisafulli said he didn't realize there weren't any African-Americans on the committee but it was too late to change that with two weeks left in this session. Crisafulli offered to relay the members' stances on the "stand your ground" and civil citations bills to Judiciary Chairman Charles McBurney.
(McBurney had the prerogative to hear the bills Thursday, the committee's last meeting of the 2016 session. The agenda for that meeting came out as Tuesday's House session broke, revealing that McBurney had opted to not take up the "stand your ground" measure -- putting it to rest -- but he did want the committee to consider the civil citations bill. A vote on that bill was ultimately postponed during the hearing, because, McBurney said afterward, "the votes weren't there" to pass it. Because Judiciary isn't meeting again, the bill is likely dead.)
Narain said Crisafulli promised nothing in his meeting Tuesday with the six representatives.
"It was a conversation. The speaker is a good man, and he heard a concern," Narain said.
Narain said he brought up the business incentives bill more as small talk as they were leaving Crisafulli's office, because House members were still discussing it on the floor at the time.
Crisafulli's office confirmed Narain's account of the meeting.
Afterward, Narain said he reached out to the Department of Economic Opportunity to have a staff member come speak to the black caucus and address lingering questions members had about the incentives bill.
Later Tuesday, Narain said he fell ill and needed to leave but first wanted to update the caucus on the day's discussions. That's why the members were seen huddling right after Tuesday's session in "the bubble" -- a meeting room at the back of the House chamber with a large pane of clear-glass windows.
"I wanted to share that I'd met with leadership," Narain said, adding that he also wanted to update them on the status of the "stand your ground" and citations bills, since by then the Judiciary agenda was public.
After Narain told his colleagues of the invite he extended to DEO, "a member said, 'Do we have to support EFI?' " Narain recalled. "I said, 'No, I'm probably going to support it, but we're not taking a caucus position on it. Look at it and make up your own mind.' "
But when every caucus member aligned with some Republicans to support the economic incentives bill on Wednesday, rumors fueled there was a deal.
(There's been little mention of the six other Democrats who also helped Republicans pass the bill: Reps. Katie Edwards of Plantation, Dave Kerner of Lake Worth, Jared Moskowitz of Coral Springs, Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda of Tallahassee, David Richardson of Miami Beach and Richard Stark of Weston.)
"We went into the bubble two other times on Tuesday but nobody wrote about that," Narain said of the black caucus. "We’re all pretty disappointed that people are making it appear like the black caucus can be bought and put up for sale."
Both Crisafulli and McBurney also have denied claims of any agreement with the caucus.
"They took it upon themselves to take a position on it; many of them gave debate saying why," Crisafulli said in response to reporters' questions after Wednesday's session. "I think that's a legitimate reason."
McBurney, R-Jacksonville, on Thursday told reporters he alone made the decision on whether to agenda the "stand your ground" and civil citations bills. He acknowledged talking with Crisafulli's office but said "one (bill) was not related to the other" in those discussions.
"I never talked to anybody from the black caucus about agenda-ing the (civil citations) bill," McBurney added.
For his part, Narain said he supported the economic incentives bill because it didn't have funding attached and it required accountability for the governor when Scott uses incentive dollars to recruit businesses to Florida. He said he would've liked the bill to have gone farther in emphasizing minority-owned businesses and jobs for minorities.
"I don’t see supporting that bill yesterday as giving him that blank check," he said Thursday. "Rather, it says we want accountability when you go out, and that you help our communities while you’re doing that."
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, said the Democratic caucus didn't take a position on the incentives bill and he wasn't aware of how members of the black caucus intended to vote. He said he was focused on killing Scott's incentives package.
"I was hoping that we’d be able to join in a bipartisan effort to do that," Pafford said. "I’m just disappointed there weren’t a few more people who voted to defeat it."
With Senate consideration and conference negotiations still to come, Pafford remains optimistic of that outcome.
"When the governor called me for my support, I knew it was in trouble," Pafford said. "There’s still some very important people that don’t like the bill. It’s an issue of corporate welfare. Many Republicans and Democrats agree that’s something we shouldn’t engage in."