Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Politics

As budget talks crash, Corcoran wants 'continuation' budget, no new spending

TALLAHASSEE — A bitter stalemate over spending forced the Legislature to suspend work on a budget Monday, stirring more bad blood among Republicans and putting an on-time adjournment in doubt.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, bargained privately by phone through last Friday and were making progress on issues such as public school spending and raises for state workers.

But problems began cropping up on the size of a cash reserve, total amounts for hometown spending and other areas, and ugly politics and seething animosity took over.

The confrontational Corcoran, saying he's fed up by a "liberal" Senate's insistence on much higher pork barrel spending, said he would offer the Senate a "continuation budget" with current spending frozen in place for the fiscal year starting July 1.

"We would prevent an unnecessary government shutdown, protect the state's future, and still enable us to fund new priorities in the future," Corcoran told House members in a memo, abandoning use of the "continuation budget" and rebranding it a "standard operating budget."

The House called an emergency budget committee meeting for 8 a.m. Tuesday to pass a continuation budget.

"It's a take-it-or-leave-it offer," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, a key Corcoran ally. "That's where we are."

Corcoran told the Times/Herald that Negron and his chief budget-writer, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, in pushing for more spending, were acting like liberal Democrats.

"I tell people I'm dealing with Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders," Corcoran said. "There's not a conservative bone in their bodies."

Senators were blindsided by the move, rejected it and accused Corcoran of an approach never used by the state but often used by Congress, which is paralyzed by gridlock and held in notoriously low public esteem.

"We laughed and went home," Latvala said, as weekend talks collapsed. "It's fake news to say that we're being liberal."

Before budget talks began in private more than a week ago, the Senate's $85 billion spending plan was $4 billion more than the House's.

Corcoran's talk of a continuation budget puzzled senators because it preserves Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, which the speaker targeted for extinction as wasteful cases of "corporate welfare."

Corcoran's criticism of senators as liberals prompted Latvala to compare him to a past House speaker and of grandstanding to advance his ambitions to be governor.

"I call it 'Johnnie Byrd 2.0,' when you say everybody else is a liberal except you," Latvala said.

Byrd, of Plant City, was House speaker in 2004 when he faced intense criticism for attacking senators as supposed tax-raisers while using the House as a springboard to run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate.

Corcoran has made no secret of his interest in higher office, possibly governor in 2018, and Latvala also has said he may run for governor. Both lawmakers are Republicans.

Monday's meltdown recalled the 2015 session when the House, in a budget battle with the Senate on expanding health care, abruptly adjourned and left town, a move orchestrated in part by Corcoran that was subsequently ruled illegal by the Florida Supreme Court.

If the House carries through on a threat to send the Senate a "take it or leave it" budget Tuesday, it could trigger a chain reaction and scuttle major policy initiatives, all of which are related to the budget, including:

• A $200 million "Schools of Hope" program to expand charter schools, a House priority;

• A new water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce toxic discharges, a Senate priority;

• An across-the-board pay raise for all state workers, a Senate goal;

• A modest boost in per-pupil school spending without requiring higher property taxes, a compromise between the chambers;

• A statewide referendum in 2018 that would ask voters to boost the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, a top House goal.

Passing a budget is the only act that the Legislature must take each year under the state Constitution.

The Constitution also says that meetings between legislative leaders that could result in formal action must be made in public.

Private phone conversations between the Legislature's presiding officers on major issues are nothing new, but upon taking office as speaker last November, Corcoran vowed to usher in a new era of transparency in the House.

As Corcoran rallied House members to fight the Senate, Negron sent senators a memo, calling a continuation budget "ineffectual" and saying Florida taxpayers deserve better.

"I had never encountered this term in state government until it began to appear in these negotiations," Negron wrote. "I understand the concept of a 'continuation budget' to be a Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget and then simply carries forward the current budget … I have no interest in adopting this ineffectual practice."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the chief House budget-writer, said he was prepared to propose extending the current budget for another year with two changes: removal of lawmaker-sponsored projects paid for with one-time expenditures and the inclusion of an estimated $1.5 billion in federal and state money to compensate hospitals for charity care, a program known as the low-income pool.

"If we pass this budget, we have $3 billion in reserves. We're fine with that," Trujillo said. "Every single government service will get funded … We're not growing government. I'm not sure the Senate can walk away from their projects."

Times/Herald staff writers Kristen M. Clark and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.

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