Friday, November 17, 2017

Another backroom deal stokes distrust in Florida's Legislature


TALLAHASSEE —Another backroom deal, this time involving the governor who has blasted the Legislature for secrecy, is leaving a trail of frustration and distrust in the state capital as elected lawmakers are being called back for a special session this week to rubber stamp a budget they were excluded from negotiating.

After stoking rumors that he might veto the Legislature's budget and an accompanying controversial public school reform bill because they were negotiated behind closed doors, Gov. Rick Scott emerged this week with House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron in Miami with an announcement. He would sign the budget, veto $409 million in local projects, and order lawmakers back on Wednesday to add $215 million to the public education budget.

The announcement caught most legislators off guard, even ranking Republicans who were left out of the deal-making.

"Other than a seeing a press release, I haven't talked to anyone about any of it," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate budget panel on tourism and economic development.

"Is this how the process is supposed to work?" he asked. "There has to be a better way."

The secret deal, negotiated between Scott and Corcoran and then presented to Negron, who agreed to it, did not violate the state's Sunshine Law, the leaders said, because none of them were together in the same room when it was worked out.

That drew the criticism of education and open government advocates.

"Major decisions regarding the expenditure of vast sums of our tax dollars have been made in secret," said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. "Florida's Supreme Court has said anything done to avoid the Sunshine Law can itself be a violation of that law."

She noted that just because legislative leaders may be able to make deals behind closed doors doesn't mean they should.

"If this isn't a violation of the constitutional right of access to legislative meetings under Article III, s. 4(e), it should be," Petersen said. "And it most certainly is a violation of the spirit and intent of our constitutional right to oversee our government."

For many, it's a rerun of the bitter way the regular session ended on May 8, with Corcoran and Negron dictating the terms of an $83 billion budget package that included 15 policy bills, including controversial public school reform.

House and Senate leaders forced through the proposals on an up or down vote with little debate and no amendments, leaving lawmakers angry, public school advocates seething, and democratic traditions in tatters.

Senate Democrat Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens recalled how Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala stood on the floor of the Senate and promised that the chamber would never again be forced to sign onto a deal negotiated in private by the Senate president without their input.

"We were told this wasn't going to happen to us again,'' he said. "To me this is happening again."

Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Times/Herald that unlike the budget deal Negron made with the House, this one is different because this time Negron "did not agree to any language, and he's not speaking for the Senate."

"We are going to lay it out there and people can vote the way they want," Latvala said. "It's absolutely a jump ball."

He said Negron attended the press conference with the governor and Corcoran "just to participate in the announcement" but he said he never promised the Senate "was going to pass anything."

Then, Latvala added: "I think the majority of the Senate will vote to increase spending for schools, tourism and jobs, but I haven't asked anybody to support this."

Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, the chair of Senate budget committee on K-12 education, was among the three Republicans who voted against Corcoran's priority, HB 7069, a bill designed to expand the charter school movement and allow for an infusion of funds to help about 12 percent of the state's failing schools.

The House proposal contained "multiple defects" that include "draconian" provisions that will punish children in failing schools today in an effort to improve things for other children in the future, he said.

"It has some good things for Florida," Simmons said of HB 7069, "but the process by which it was arrived at is wholly defective. You put something together like that without fully vetting it or debating it you have a propensity to put things together that won't work."

So, after trying to persuade the House to accept the Senate's changes, he voted against it when Negron negotiated a trade that committed the Senate to passing HB 7069 in exchange for the House's accepting Negron's higher education policy bill, SB 374.

"When you're dealing with public trust, the process must be as pure as the product. The ends don't justify the means," he said.

Democrats, who were shut out from budget negotiations during the regular session, are also returning to Tallahassee in a foul mood.

"This special session is a farce being inflicted upon the people of Florida,'' said House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa. "To pretend this newest backroom deal will help public education in our state is laughable."

Rep. Shevrin Jones of West Park, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee, said he learned of the governor's budget compromise when he saw it announced on Twitter, and he was forced to explain to his colleagues what it means, or defend it, when he wasn't kept in the loop.

"We all want to be a part of what we've been elected to do," he said. "Not having to play cleanup in our districts and explain what's happening when we don't even know what's happening ...It's not a fair process."

Although many Democrats' bills never got perfunctory hearings, many of the hometown priorities they managed to get in the budget were slashed by Scott. The governor had a veto target — prearranged in secret with legislative leaders — to find enough money to pay for the governor's three priorities on schools, jobs and tourism.

Now, Democrats see themselves as pawns in a political game controlled by three Republicans and some of them are very angry about it — especially the secrecy.

"Expediency became more important than transparency," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. "They just couldn't get it done in public. This was all done in the dark."

The deal between Scott, Corcoran and Negron restored money to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency that Corcoran proposed eliminating. It created a new economic development fund intended to recruit new jobs to Florida, augmenting the work of Enterprise Florida, the public-private agency that the governor wants expanded and Corcoran wants closed. And Corcoran and Negron have agreed to adopt new legislation that will modify the restrictions on how the money is spent.

It was an about-face for the Florida House and Corcoran, who decried the incentive programs as "corporate welfare" and recommended eliminating the programs.

Jenne, who has good personal rapport with Corcoran, flatly dismissed as false Corcoran's pronouncements that the budget deal ends "corporate welfare" in the form of tax breaks to private companies. 

Corcoran's new grant program to produce jobs still allows Scott to steer money to "targeted industries," according to a memo sent to House members summarizing the proposed changes and, with $140 million in Corcoran's education policy bill available to charter school companies, including those that are for-profit, there will be many corporate beneficiaries.

"The House completely capitulated to the governor, and to corporate welfare,'' Jenne said. "The real winners here are corporate interests and not the people of Florida. This creates more cronyism ... It's doubling up on corporate welfare."

Absent from the announcement on the budget deal was what will happen with HB 7069, which the House has not yet sent to the governor for his signature and Scott has not said whether he will sign or veto.

Many in the Senate say Corcoran would never have agreed to the added funding for public schools, Visit Florida or economic development without the governor's agreement to sign HB 7069, so the governor is holding out his public proclamation over the bill as leverage — to make sure lawmakers come through on the increased funding for tourism, jobs and schools.

"God bless the governor for taking the position he took," said Simmons, the Senate's lead negotiator on the bill. He has drafted legislation to "fix" the flaws in HB 7069 and hopes he can persuade his colleagues, and the governor, to add it to the special session and approve it.

Corcoran told the Times/Herald last week that the budget rewrite will be sent to budget committees when lawmakers meet next week, but "the extent to which they will need to be drastically amended is doubtful because the process of amending and getting input was done in the last 60 days — exhaustively."

Jenne notes that the overwhelming majority of Republicans in the House will allow them to ramrod through the carefully packaged deal.

"Everything is locked in for 118 people to rubber stamp the speaker's budget," he said, "and with no input from about 95 percent of the Legislature."

Herald/Times staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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