Uh oh: Florida lawmakers' special session in jeopardy before it even begins

The Senate appears ready to go beyond the agenda set by the governor, which could derail a deal reached behind closed doors.

Published June 6 2017
Updated June 7 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A special session of the Legislature, intended to finalize a deal inked behind closed doors last week on education and economic development, is falling apart before it even begins.

Gov. Rick Scott called state lawmakers back to Tallahassee for three days starting today with orders to do three things: boost spending per student in K-12 education; fund the state's tourism agency, Visit Florida; and create a new economic development fund Scott can use to lure businesses.

But by Tuesday, the consensus collapsed, as Senate President Joe Negron called for lawmakers to address hospital funding and override some budget vetoes, threatening to derail a deal Scott struck with House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The odds of an on-time finish to the special session Friday look increasingly bleak.

Facing pressure from state senators who felt they were being asked to approve a deal worked out between the House and Scott with little in return for the Senate, Negron, R-Stuart, announced Tuesday that he will push to restore $260 million to hospitals and override Scott's vetoes of projects at state universities.

"I have made no agreement that would dictate an outcome for this special session," Negron said Tuesday in a memo to senators. "Nor have I made any agreement to limit the subject matter."

Negron's proposals would have to be accepted by the House, but Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, says he's not interested.

"Without question, the House will not allow funding for our schoolchildren to be held hostage to pork barrel spending and special interest demands," Corcoran said in a subsequent statement.

Reducing the hospital cuts would "raid reserves to give to hospital CEOs," he said.

After spending the past eight months attacking Scott's signature programs as "corporate welfare," Corcoran has now found him to be his main ally.

"The governor was very clear in what is included in his call for this week's special session," Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said in a statement.

Complicating matters further, the House and Senate have put forward different proposals for oversight and how to fund the agreed-upon $215 million for education, $76 million for Visit Florida and $85 million for a new economic development fund in the Department of Economic Opportunity.

That means that lawmakers still have negotiations ahead of them. And because the $20.6 billion base education budget is involved, senators decided to heed a 72-hour cooling-off period that the Constitution requires of the state budget.

In short: Unless either the House or Senate agrees to everything in the other chamber's school spending bill as it was originally written, a Friday night finish is impossible.

That seems unlikely, with Corcoran on Tuesday calling the Senate's proposal "a massive property tax increase." Negron said the House's could "negatively impact our budget, and potentially our bond rating, in future years."

One of the norms of special sessions is that all sides — House, Senate and governor — agree ahead of time, allowing them to avoid the appearance of crisis. The level of discord Tuesday suggests that may have been forgotten.

Looming over the deliberations is another issue that isn't even on the agenda this week.

A sweeping education bill (HB 7069) that Corcoran championed, negotiated in private and passed in the final hours of the regular session last month, has drawn sharp criticism from traditional public schools, as well as many state senators who feel they were forced to accept a bill they didn't like.

Among its effects, the 274-page bill would route more taxpayer dollars to charter schools and make it easier for them to expand in Florida, especially in areas served by traditional public schools that fail year after year.

Still, angst over the education bill has seeped into other areas of the session, particularly in the Senate, where it passed by a narrow 20-18 vote and some Republican lawmakers hoped Scott would veto it.

"The governor has the right and the responsibility to look at that bill and make individual decisions about what he allows to become law," Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said May 8. "We'll pass it down and let him do his job."

Scott hasn't decided whether he will sign it, though several senators believe he will if the Legislature passes economic development legislation.

"The only reason Richard Corcoran is considering Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida is because of 7069," Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens said.

Still notably absent from the special session: medical marijuana, which 71 percent of voters approved in November but lawmakers could not agree to implement in the regular session.

Although House and Senate negotiators have been working on it for the past week, a decision had not been reached Tuesday evening on whether to bring it into the special session.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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