Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

Why are state lawmakers still in Tallahassee?

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers return to the Capitol today for one day of overtime, where they're expected to debate and pass an $82.4 billion state budget and a series of sweeping policy bills negotiated in secret and disclosed publicly last week.

After disagreements on health care spending delayed a budget deal — the one thing the Constitution requires the Legislature to do — lawmakers missed a key deadline and were forced to extend their annual session, which was supposed to end Friday.

Lawmakers are expected to overwhelmingly pass the budget, but their approval alone isn't enough. It then goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who can veto individual line items or the entire plan.

That possibility has some in the Legislature bracing to return to Tallahassee to override Scott's vetoes, a move that requires two-thirds of the House and Senate to agree. At least some Democrats would have to join with Republican leaders to do that.

"My advice to you is not to take any summer vacations out of the country," House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, told Democrats last week.

Today's session marks the second time in three years that the Legislature has needed extra days to write a budget. In 2015, health care spending derailed the final week of session, and lawmakers left without a budget. They came back to Tallahassee in a June special session to write a budget and keep the state government open.

On top of the state's spending plan, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, agreed to push through more than 850 pages worth of policy changes as part of the budget process.

Among them: an education bill (HB 7069) that brings together several high-priority proposals from the House and Senate. It includes bonuses for highly effective teachers, $140 million to help failing schools, language meant to encourage charter schools to open near failing schools and a mandate that traditional public schools must give students 20 minutes of recess each day.

Other proposals include pay raises and a new benefit plan for state workers, updated standards for colleges and universities, as well as tight new restrictions on Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm.

Lawmakers will take a straight up-or-down vote on each of these bills, which often contain several programs. They won't be able to make any changes.

It's almost unheard of for bills put forward by the House speaker and Senate president through the budget process to fail. That inevitability has drawn criticism from some lawmakers.

"It's probably a more extensive deal than I've ever seen before, and I'm very hopeful we don't do that again next year," Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Friday.

The deal was struck behind closed doors by top negotiators in the House and Senate.

But Corcoran insists the Legislature — which he calls the "most important" branch of government — has been transparent in the process of writing these sweeping policy changes.

"We're the body closest to the people, the Legislature, and what we're going to do is we're going to grab that authority," Corcoran said.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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