Sunday, November 19, 2017
Politics

Last-minute deal struck to end Legislature's special session on time

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers stopped fighting Friday and struck last-minute deals on schools, roads, tourism and water to bring a bumpy special session to a smooth finish.

The state's three Republican leaders, Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, each got something he wanted.

"There was a way for everyone to win," Negron said.

"This is an exciting day," said Scott, who a few weeks ago was publicly castigating legislators for cutting money for jobs and tourism.

State spending on public schools will rise by $100 per student next fall, and Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm, avoided a steep budget cut and will get $76 million.

After his coveted Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, was stripped of most of its job incentive money, Scott instead will control a new $85 million roads and infrastructure fund to attract jobs — a venture that skeptical Democrats call a "slush fund."

State colleges and universities will share $60 million in 17 specific projects that Scott vetoed a week ago, calling some "low priorities" of the state Board of Governors.

The Senate overrode those vetoes but the House refused, as Corcoran called them wasteful "pork barrel" spending.

Now they are tied to a bill that has the road fund and Visit Florida money, and Scott confirmed Friday he will sign the projects into law.

One of the biggest projects that survived is $12.7 million for a new School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University.

Miami-Dade College will receive $4.2 million to renovate the gymnasium at its north campus, and Florida Atlantic University gets $1 million for a technology initiative and $900,000 for a Max Planck Scientific Fellowship program.

"We're spending a lot of money today," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, as the three-day session reached an end.

It wasn't enough money for many Democrats, who said the per-student spending on students in Florida is still far below the national average of $10,600 and not worth celebrating.

"It's a hollow victory," said Rep. Rick Stark, D-Weston.

The session adjourned Sine Die at 4:42 p.m.

Dealing by phone and using staff members as go-betweens, Corcoran and Negron finalized a deal early Friday afternoon.

Corcoran said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who's likely to be the next Senate president, played a vital behind-the-scenes role.

READ: Richard Corcoran's letter to Gov. Rick Scott

In a surprise move, the Senate and House agreed to spend $50 million to begin improvements to the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee to reduce algae blooms that have heavily polluted estuaries.

It's one small part of a $2 billion federal project scheduled for completion in 2025.

Scott originally sought $200 million for the dike when he backed a bill by Negron to build a water storage reservoir near Lake Okeechobee to avoid another year of toxic algae discharges into nearby estuaries.

Scott discussed the project with President Donald J. Trump while he was in Washington on Thursday for an infrastructure conference.

"It was his idea to get the money in," Scott said. "The president has promised federal funds."

On tourism, lawmakers agreed to let county tourism groups use local bed tax revenue as matching money to collect state dollars, a priority of Latvala's and groups such as the Florida Attractions Association.

The tone of Friday's finale was in sharp contrast to the past three months in Tallahassee. After spending the two-month regular session bashing Scott for using public money for "corporate welfare," Corcoran addressed a letter to the governor that began: "Thank you for your leadership."

Scott returned the gesture. The governor who had called Corcoran a "job killer" and anti-family for his earlier attacks on Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, made an unusual visit to the House floor Friday.

Their months-long feud apparently ended, they shook hands warmly and made small talk, and after the House voted to approve the dike money, Corcoran said, "Congratulations, Governor."

With Friday's finish, the big unresolved question is whether Scott will sign Corcoran's sweeping charter school bill (HB 7069) that the speaker calls a "transformational" model for school choice but which school districts call a direct attack on public education and critics predict could result in some public schools shutting down. Also, uncertain is the fate of SB 374, a Negron priority, that reforms higher education reform bill, expands Bright Futures scholarships and restructures the Florida College System.

Scott said he's still reviewing the bills.

The special session, called by Scott a week ago, nearly collapsed Thursday after the normally implacable Negron lashed out at what he called a "fake narrative" that he had reneged on a deal with Corcoran and Scott. That was clearly aimed at Corcoran, who had told House members the Senate "did not stick to the plan."

Talks resumed late Thursday night involving both leaders, their top staffers and Scott's new chief of staff, Jackie Schutz Zeckman, and the result made a reality of an observation Corcoran made last week: "Everyone wants something."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen and Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.

 
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