TALLAHASSEE — After promising unprecedented openness, House Speaker Richard Corcoran has spent long days and nights negotiating an elaborate budget deal in secret with Senate counterpart Joe Negron, keeping most other lawmakers and the public in the dark.
Like two attorneys privately resolving a court case, the two lawyers are cutting deals on tax policy, public school spending, charter school expansion, major environmental projects and levels of local pork-barrel spending. They are also negotiating state worker pay raises, new pension and health care plans, changes to statewide tourism and job-incentive programs, and other issues — even a need-based college scholarship program for the children of farm workers, a Senate priority.
As they largely stayed behind closed doors Wednesday, both leaders maneuvered around their own budget chairmen, Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami and Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. The two appropriations chiefs have played a greater public role in negotiating budget details in past years.
"I think we've reached agreement on the substance of the budget," Negron said. "It's down to just a few issues, where we're trying to clarify some language to the satisfaction of both the House and the Senate."
Corcoran has not publicly faced reporters since his talks with Negron began in earnest last week.
The speaker declined Times/Herald interview requests Wednesday, but told a Tallahassee news outlet that his detailed talks with Negron were ongoing and that spending decisions were directly linked to a number of bills that have not passed the Senate.
Corcoran told the Capitol News Service that the details were being put on paper, but nothing was released.
"This is all the stuff that the House cares about, this is all the stuff the Senate cares about," Corcoran said. "I think it's all intertwined."
Corcoran appeared to have the upper hand by getting the Senate to drop its opposition to cutting VISIT Florida's budget to $25 million and wiping out $85 million for an array of economic incentive programs that Gov. Rick Scott says are necessary to attract jobs.
Lawmakers said Corcoran has signed off on the Senate's two biggest spending priorities, an $800 million start on a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee and more money for universities.
In return, the Senate has tentatively agreed not to collect more property taxes from Floridians for public schools, and to spend $200 million to expand charter schools, a House priority.
Florida's Legislature is not bound by the open meetings law that makes it a crime for two members of a city or county commission to discuss public business in private.
But state law and the Constitution require Corcoran and Negron to publicly announce prearranged meetings at which they are making decisions to be ratified in public later.
The Legislature has six days to agree on a budget that's subject to one up-or-down vote before it goes to Scott, who can veto any spending line item.
Scott, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on an Enterprise Florida trade mission Wednesday, cautioned "shortsighted" legislators not to reduce funding for the jobs and tourism programs.
Scott has the power to veto the entire budget, which would set off a full-scale political war with his fellow Republicans, who in turn can make their budget stick by overriding his veto by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.
Some lawmakers expressed frustration at being completely excluded from budget decisions that affect their constituents.
"I haven't seen a thing. I know nothing. I'm in the dark," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who chairs the 41-member House Democratic Caucus.
Such back-room dealing is not new in Tallahassee.
What's new is that Corcoran promised a new day. "The Florida House will set the standard for others to emulate," he said when he became speaker in November.
At Corcoran's urging, the House and Senate adopted rules demanding greater transparency and detail on members' projects, but the budget that will include or exclude them is being shaped privately.
Corcoran also promised to avoid the dictatorial, top-down style of some of his predecessors. But he antagonized some fellow Republicans Wednesday when their bills were suddenly set aside after they voted against a House leadership priority: a heavily-lobbied bill to allow Walmart and other big box retailers to sell liquor.
Corcoran voted for the bill, which passed, 58-57. The speaker's brother, Mike, lobbies for Walmart.
As nightfall arrived Wednesday with still no public budget discussions, some Republicans expressed alarm at their leaders' decision to connect spending to floor votes on policy.
"We can have valid disagreements on policy from each chamber," said Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa. "If that gets thrown into the mix of doing our constitutional duty to come up with a budget, that's not good for the process."
That's a risky strategy in the 40-member Senate, where bipartisan coalitions override partisanship on some issues.
For example, the House wants the Senate to pass Corcoran's priority of increasing the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, subject to voter approval in 2018.
As a proposed amendment to the Constitution, the homestead question requires 24 votes in a 39-member Senate with one seat vacant.
That gives the 15-member Democratic caucus added clout.
"Anything that was traded back and forth still needs to be voted on," Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, told his colleagues.
Some Republicans took their exclusion from budget decisions in stride.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, chairman of the House Governmental Accountability Committee, joked: "I know less than you think I know."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark, Mary Ellen Klas and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] and follow @stevebousquet.