Saturday, September 22, 2018
Politics

PolitiFact: House Speaker Richard Corcoran misleads about education legislation negotiations

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran says his critics are wrong that the main education bill was hammered out behind closed doors.

Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, tweeted that it is "fiction" to say that the "best and brightest teachers and principals provision in HB 7069 was NOT made public."

"Fact: these provisions were contained in HB 7069 which was filed on March 10, 2017 passed two committees and the House 79-38 on April 13th, 2017."

We found the original legislation about teacher bonuses for the "best and brightest" was unveiled and voted on in public; however, the final version of the bill and important details were negotiated out of the public eye.

The legislative session began in March with dozens of education bills in the House and Senate.

But at the end of the session, at least 55 bills were crammed into one mammoth $419 million, 278-page education bill negotiated by legislative leaders.

The final outcome is now in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott, who can veto or sign the entire bill.

In March, both chambers produced bills — HB 7069 and SB 1552 — to expand eligibility criteria for bonuses to top public school teachers under the Florida Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program.

Lawmakers wanted to add in bonuses for principals, and the House budget proposal called for $214 million to the expanded program in the 2017-18 budget, up from $49 million this year.

Two House committees voted in favor of the bill at public meetings on March 10 and March 29.

Although senators also expressed interest in expanding the program, the Senate's initial budget proposal included no such funding. The decision was part of a strategic move in hopes that the Senate would get some of its priorities in later negotiations with the House.

On April 13, the House version passed, 79-38. The Senate voted unanimously — not to pass the bill, rather to send it to budget conference. HB 7069 was among four K-12 policy bills sent into conference negotiations.

Conference negotiations between members of both the House and Senate are common to work out differences in spending allocations, but it's unusual to resolve policy disagreements. Watchdogs raised concerns that policy and funding decisions would be hashed out in secret. Legislative leaders repeatedly vowed a transparent process.

By April 29, House and Senate leaders still hadn't released proposed language to be discussed, including about the bonuses.

House and Senate negotiators — Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs — told the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald they wouldn't release draft language until the two chambers were ready to exchange formal offers.

While Florida's Sunshine Law bans city or county commissioners from meeting in secret to hash out legislation, two legislators are allowed to meet in private under limited circumstances before voting in public on legislation.

While a budget conference subcommittee held a brief public meeting that Saturday morning to trade spending offers, they revealed little about their intentions for the policy bills.

Ultimately, legislators couldn't agree on the overall state budget on time, which extended the session from May 5 to May 8.

During the final week of the regular session, Corcoran and Negron — with help from other key lawmakers — negotiated in private a catch-all education bill that included a final version of the teacher bonuses language, the policies of the other K-12 budget bills and myriad other proposals unrelated to spending.

That final version of HB 7069 was made public for the first time on Friday evening, May 5.

Several newspapers — including the Times, Miami Herald, Tallahassee Democrat, Gainesville Sun, Orlando Sentinel — wrote that final legislation was hammered out behind closed doors.

There were a few differences in the teacher bonus program as outlined in the final version compared to the original House version in March. The most significant change — and one not previously contemplated or discussed in public — was adding the ability for teachers to get bonuses over the next three years of $1,200 if they were "highly effective" or up to $800 if rated "effective."

Corcoran and Negron publicly discussed HB 7069 for 10 minutes May 5 without any substantive debate of the contents before formally accepting it.

The Times/Herald submitted several questions to Corcoran's office after the final language of HB 7069 was made public. An explanation provided in the speaker's response: "Negotiating solutions when there are significant differences between the two chambers on an issue in conference sometimes requires adding new language and bringing in issues that were not part of the budget conference."

On May 8, the House (73-36) and Senate (20-18) voted in favor of the final compromise version of HB 7069 that was decided in budget conference.

We rate this claim False.

Edited for print. Read the full version at PolitiFact.com/florida.

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