Battle royale: Florida House gears up for what could be its biggest debate of the session

School vouchers, a blow to teachers' unions, specialized scholarships and much more will all be on the table Wednesday as the House brings its omnibus education bill to the floor for the first time.
A screen capture from a negative ad run by the statewide teachers' association opposing HB 7055 | YouTube
A screen capture from a negative ad run by the statewide teachers' association opposing HB 7055 | YouTube
Published Feb. 7, 2018|Updated Feb. 7, 2018

It's a debate worth about $26.9 billion, and involves the most fundamental, nagging question surrounding Florida's education system: What does Florida owe its students in public education?

And it begins today — at least this year's rendition.

The Florida House's omnibus education bill, HB 7055, is slated to be heard on the floor Wednesday afternoon — an event that promises to be one of the biggest debates of the 2018 session. The nearly 200-page bill incorporates everything from the creation of a new scholarship for students who struggle in reading to slapping potentially life-threatening requirements on teachers' unions.

It also includes a top priority for Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, in its voucher for students that are bullied which would allow them to attend another public or private school.

The bill is so much of a priority that, in an unprecedented move, House leadership tied the per-student funding language for all public schools, meaning that $21.1 billion of public school funding is "contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law," according to the budget.

Democrats may not have the votes in the 76-40 sea of red that is the Florida House of Representatives, but they have vowed to trade every bargaining chip, deploy every amendment and fight as hard as they can to stop or alter the bill and what they said is a legally-questionable budgetary tactic.

As of Tuesday evening, 37 amendments were filed for HB 7055. The House must debate and vote on every single one.

"It's not in my system to file 18 amendments. I'm the type to say, 'Let's work together and figure this out,'" said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee. "But I cannot sit back and watch our public education system blow up at the hands of … outside interests that want to continue to fill their pockets up."

He then added: "And if I don't see a dime in the budget or get another bill heard because of this, I'm OK ."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said he expects a debate but that it would be "surprising" if it does not pass out of the House.

Wednesday marks the beginning of debate for the budget and its amendments but HB 7055 will officially be voted upon Thursday.

"We'll present the budget, we'll present the bill, I'm sure they'll have an opportunity to present their debates and they will be voted on accordingly," he said. "We're in no rush. We'll take as long as it takes."

Trujillo is the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has accepted President Donald Trump's nomination to be a U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, meaning that once the U.S. Senate confirms his appointment, he'll move to Washington. He had originally said that the passage of 7055 was not tied to the per-student funding for statewide public schools, also known as FEFP. But after a reporter sent him the budgetary language, he confirmed that he had been mistaken.

"The assumption is correct," Trujillo said. "Obviously it's not our intention to defund the FEFP and it's something that if the bill is not reported favorably we will obviously amend to fix it."

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said even if it passes this way, having this hardball approach does not bode well for the House and Senate to be able to negotiate effectively when both chambers must reconcile the differences between their passed budgets.

He has filed an amendment to strike that language from the budget to separate 7055 from the FEFP.

"It's unlikely we're going to leave here without funding public education," Richardson said. "It's a budget blowup possibility then we're back in special session. It sets up a situation for a blowup before we've even started."