Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

When Legislature faltered, Rick Scott took advantage

TALLAHASSEE — The midnight phone call to Senate President Joe Negron from Florida Gov. Rick Scott on June 1st was not unexpected.

Scott wanted the Stuart Republican to attend a press conference in Miami the next morning where the governor, Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran would announce a special session to redo the public education budget and an economic development bill the governor wanted to veto.

This was the second year in a row the Legislature had rejected the governor's priorities but, unlike last year, when he didn't get his $1 billion tax cut or $250 million in economic development funds and still declared victory, the offense this year cut more deeply.

Scott, a two-term Republican, is widely expected to announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate next year and legislators had deeply underfunded his economic development priorities and the K-12 public education budget. What's more, the governor's statewide campaign — which included a road tour and television ads — to personally call out Republican House members for supporting Corcoran's cuts to the tourism marketing and economic development agencies hadn't changed a single legislator's mind.

But by antagonizing Scott, Negron and Corcoran also brought the regular session to a messy end, thereby giving the governor a special weapon — veto leverage over their priority projects.

Negron agreed to appear at the news conference and, before seeing Scott's budget vetoes, also agreed to return for a three-day special session that ended Friday.

After a fractious week, legislators ended on time but, to get there, Negron overcame an embarrassing loss of confidence from his members for prematurely agreeing to a deal. Corcoran was forced to capitulate and fund higher education projects he had derided as "pork-barrel spending" and restore funds to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, which he claimed "threw away tens of millions of your taxpayer dollars."

And despite promises that this was the year Tallahassee would be "transformed," the special session ended by delivering more of the same: backroom deal-making that resolved differences over a trade.

"For all the bluster about how we're changing things and how we're doing things differently, it's par for the course,'' said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.

Legislators not only agreed to the governor's call to restore $215 million in public education funding and return $75 million to Visit Florida, they also gave Scott something he didn't have before: an $85 million infrastructure and workforce development grant program that gives him exclusive control of projects he can steer anywhere in the state, regardless of whether it produces jobs or not.

It was a more amicable ending than the regular session when Negron and Corcoran exploited a loophole in the rules and dictated the terms of 15 take-it-or-leave-it policy bills that would be subject to no amendments, leaving many legislators — especially in the more independent-minded Senate — angered and frustrated at the top-down demands that locked them into deals they had little role in.

"It's what happens when you have a legislative body that is essentially run on a para-military command structure — from the top down," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.

Among the bills was a controversial charter school expansion, HB 7069, that school districts distrusted and advocacy groups hated. Under Corcoran's direction, and with some Senate input, the bill was cobbled together behind closed doors and unveiled less than three days before lawmakers had to vote up-or-down on it with no chance to change it. It passed the Senate only by one vote, and then the public outcry began.

Calls and emails flooded the governor's office, urging him to veto or sign the controversial measure. Corcoran called the bill "transformational" and promised the $140 million in incentives for privately-run charter schools and $233 million for teacher bonuses would help rescue perpetually failing schools.

But public school advocates warned that it was designed to shut down troubled schools to open the door to for-profit charter operators, and could make thousands of children pawns in the experiment.

Scott, who has been a sideline player nearly every legislative session, quickly joined the criticism and chided the way the bill was passed, but he refrained from making a commitment about whether he would sign or veto it. That gave him leverage over the priority legislation and a rare negotiating advantage to demand fixes to the budget.

In an attempt to preserve the coveted gains Negron achieved with his priority bill, SB 374, which boosted spending for universities, and Corcoran achieved with HB 7069, they agreed to the special session.

In exchange for Scott's promise to sign HB 7069, Corcoran would agree to reverse course and agree to the governor's priorities. The Visit Florida program would be fully funded and a Senate proposal to allow local governments to obtain matching funds to pay for programs provided a back-door way to preserve efforts to cut it next year.

"We call ourselves the cardiac kids," Corcoran joked as he, Negron and Scott convened a post-session press conference. "We get you guys all worked up and come in for a nice smooth landing."

The House's reforms to Enterprise Florida, which Corcoran accused of engaging in corporate welfare, would remain, but in place of its incentives funds, they created the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund. Democrats openly and Republicans privately call it a "slush fund" controlled by Scott.

Although the money cannot be used to benefit any single company, there are no restrictions on where Scott directs the infrastructure or job training projects, especially in a campaign year.

"We have given him some flexibility in the use of these funds," said Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the bill's sponsor, before the House voted on the bill.

Sitting at his conference table in the speaker's office early Friday afternoon, wolfing down a lunch of meat loaf and red velvet cake, Corcoran marveled at the creativity of the concept.

"One-of-its-kind national model for doing economic development without picking winners and losers," he called it.

Minutes later, Latvala was telling the Senate they had agreed to replace the more restrictive bill written by the Senate with the more lenient House's plan, but predicted it may have to be refined in the future.

"I believe the demand from the public and the media will be for transparency and they will see that they're going to need to do a good job of making it totally transparent, totally accountable," he said. Adding later: "We ended up with a minimally accountable bill because we took the House language. I trust the governor to use it wisely, and I'm sure he will."

It was a remarkable about-face from Corcoran, who as recently as May 16 had penned an opinion piece blasting Visit Florida as "an agency that threw away tens of millions of your taxpayer dollars and even contracted to advertise to visitors in Syria. Yes, you read that right: Syria."

The contradiction was not lost on Negron, a lawyer, who used a press availability Thursday to denounce allegations that he had agreed to a deal to restore spending before he knew the money would come from vetoes of Senate projects.

"Who was there when the governor was being attacked for being a proponent of corporate welfare?" he said, referring to Corcoran's critique of Enterprise Florida incentive funds.

Scott wanted to continue incentive programs that benefit specific companies. Corcoran said no. The Senate wanted to use local property tax money for schools, override Scott's vetoes of higher education construction projects and dip into cash reserves to give more money to hospitals but Corcoran said no.

Scott expected the Senate to deliver, and when they didn't his loyalty to them quickly shifted. In the end, Corcoran delivered more to Scott than the Senate and the speaker seized the opportunity filled the void to make his own trade.

"If you're going to battle with Richard Corcoran, you better bring some body bags," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, a Corcoran ally. "He digs in, and he's not backing up."

For Latvala, the shifting allegiances are just part of doing business in the transactional environment that Tallahassee politics has become.

"For two months, the House speaker wanted a veto-proof majority on all of his priorities and, now all of a sudden this week it's wrong to override the governor," he said. "We've got three fiefdoms in Tallahassee — the House, Senate and the governor — and they are unchallenged within their own body. They get carried away."

Times/Herald staff writers Kristen M. Clark and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas

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