Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Legislature's session isn't so special. It's getting testy.

TALLAHASSEE — The impasse over the state's public school and economic development budgets grew wider Wednesday as legislators advanced proposals so different it seemed unlikely they would resolve their differences in the three days the governor has set for their special session.

In act of aggression against the Republican governor but explained as an "insurance policy" against an antagonistic House, the Senate voted to override the governor's veto of the $11 billion public education budget as well as $75 million in projects at state universities and colleges.

"I don't believe in legislation by ultimatum," said Senate President Joe Negron after his chamber voted to override 19 of the higher education projects late Wednesday.

It was a reference to warnings from House Speaker Richard Corcoran who, in a conversation with reporters Wednesday, accused Negron of violating his agreement to support a budget deal worked out with the governor by pursuing the override votes.

Scott on Friday formally rejected the Legislature's approved funding for the fiscal year that starts July 1, saying it had insufficient increases to K-12 public education. In doing so, he instructed the Legislature — with agreement from the House speaker and Senate president — to return to Tallahassee for a special session during which one of their tasks would be to add $215 million more in school funding.

Corcoran said that prior to the session the House and Senate leadership teams, as well as Negron and Corcoran, talked about the "nuances" of the session "and all of it was absolutely understood where we were going to head during the special session."

Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters he was not involved in any of that conversation and rejected that a deal over specifics had been made. "It was very clear to the governor in my communications with him, also through our staff, that any particular details of how the special session would unfold had not been agreed to by the Senate," he said.

Corcoran responded: "Well, the polite way of saying that is it's just not true."

As the Senate voted to override the governor's $11 billion K-12 budget, the full House met briefly for 15 minutes and then adjourned to convene the Appropriations Committee. It quickly passed two bills that appease the governor by injecting $215 million in additional funding for K-12 public schools and $160 million for economic development.

But in the Senate, where leaders became more vocal about distancing themselves from the deal between the governor and Corcoran, the level of distrust was tangible.

Both the House and Senate agree on boosting K-12 funding by $100 per student above this year's budget, which would cost an extra $215 million, but they disagree on how to get there.

• The House simply wants to use the money freed up from Scott's recent vetoes to pay for it for one year, leaving a potential hole in the public education budget in the 2018-19 school year.

• The Senate, by contrast, is proposing to replace the portion of the budget it has voted to override with a recurring funding source for schools, alleviating the need for legislators to have to return to fill the hole. Under the Senate plan, schools would get $72 million in general revenue money from the governor's $409 million in vetoed projects and $143 million in property tax revenue gleaned from new construction to reach the $215 million benchmark.

But the House has no intention of following the Senate's lead. Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, told reporters the House would not seek to override any of Scott's vetoes, including for K-12 schools, and blasted the Senate proposal as "a massive tax increase."

"Taxing property owners to pay for the increase in student education is not what we are doing," he said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told senators that Scott and his staff were not informed or consulted about the Senate's plan to override the veto. "I'm sure they're watching on TV," he said.

It passed with almost no opposition in a series of procedural votes. Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, was the lone "no" vote on all of them.

"I don't trust the House," Farmer told the Times/Herald. "I'll be very candid and upfront about it: I don't believe we should be overriding those vetoes right now, because I believe that takes away incentive from the House to pass a fair and balanced and meaningful (K-12 spending) package."

The Senate met again late in the afternoon to take up 19 veto overrides of the governor of the higher education projects. They include a $5 million veto of a remodeling project at Miami Dade College and a $370,000 veto of Moffitt Cancer Center's project on medical cannabis research and education.

The education overrides are a strategic move intended to provide the Senate with an "insurance policy" against the House in the event it decides to reject the Senate's budget approach and adjourn without finishing the budget, Latvala said.

He recalled how two years ago the House adjourned early to protest the Senate's handling of the budget, leaving the budget incomplete.

"We don't want something like that to happen this year and leave our schools to be subject to being closed down on July 1," he said. An incomplete budget would leave 4,200 public schools without billions of dollars in state funding on July 1.

The Senate also wants to spend more money to reduce the impact of cuts in Medicaid to hospitals, an issue that both the House and governor have refused to add to the session agenda.

The only agreement reached Wednesday came in the form of the one bill that was not on the agenda: medical marijuana. After House and Senate leaders agreed to language for a bill to implement the constitutional amendment approved by voters, Scott expanded the session to include the bill.

In addition to the differences over education funding, House and Senate committees advanced economic development bills that both restore $76 million to VISIT Florida's budget and create a new $85 million grant fund for job-related construction and workforce training.

But while the House bill gives the governor nearly unfettered command over how to spend the grant money, the Senate adopted a series of restrictions that impose some oversight and limitations.

Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, grumbled that the new jobs fund is a "slush fund" for Scott, whose Department of Economic Opportunity would be in control of how most of the money is spent.

"It's a big bucket of money with no oversight," said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.

But most Democrats joined Republicans in voting for the bill.

In an effort to secure passage of Scott's priorities, his handpicked tourism executive, VISIT Florida CEO Ken Lawson, testified in support of the House bill, which is also backed by local economic development boards and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. 

Eleven Florida county school superintendents, led by Pasco's Kurt Browning, testified in support of the school funding increase. They said that while it's appreciated, it's still not enough money, and that even the larger boost won't cover some school districts' costs of payments to the state pension fund for their employees.

"This is certainly not a panacea," Browning testified. "We will continue to have to reduce our budget in order to meet the increased costs of operating our school district."

But Browning said layoffs and cuts to classroom programs were "inevitable" if the original education budget became law.

With the session set to end Friday at 6 p.m., the differences appeared insurmountable. But Negron and Latvala were optimistic.

The veto overrides and the call for more hospital funding are an attempt to give the House something to provide the Senate in return for the deal with the governor, Latvala said.

"They give us hospitals. They give us some overrides and then we vote for that (school funding) bill," he said. "It's really not fair to bring us back up here when the House has made their deal in getting what they want and the governor is getting what he wants. What about the Senate?"

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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