1. Florida Politics

Richard Corcoran takes his fight with Rick Scott behind closed doors

Despite vowing that he would set a new standard for transparency, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran held a private meeting with his Republican colleagues on Wednesday, refusing to let a Times/Herald reporter to attend. [Steve Bousquet | Tampa Bay Times]
Despite vowing that he would set a new standard for transparency, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran held a private meeting with his Republican colleagues on Wednesday, refusing to let a Times/Herald reporter to attend. [Steve Bousquet | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Feb. 17, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who vowed a "new era of transparency," called a private caucus of Republican lawmakers and urged them to "stand strong" in the face of opposition to his plan to shut down the state's two largest economic development programs.

Corcoran invited his GOP colleagues to a Wednesday night reception at the Edison, a trendy Tallahassee restaurant where they watched a taxpayer-funded video that accused Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida of "corruption." The video was made public Thursday.

Corcoran declined requests by a Times/Herald reporter to go inside. He called it a social event that was about his philosophy, not about legislation.

"There's no agenda," he said as he arrived. "I'm going to be talking about maintaining the moral high ground and process and substance."

The brief reception with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres was paid for by the Republican Party of Florida. The hottest legislative topic, the future of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, was clearly on the menu.

At the caucus, Corcoran played a 31/2-minute video that used local TV news clips and graphics that said "No more foolish spending" and "No more corruption" to portray Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida as costly failures.

One business deal portrayed as a failure in the video, Sanford Burnham Medical Institute in Orlando, began when Jeb Bush was governor. The other, Digital Domain in St. Lucie County, began under Gov. Charlie Crist and was not an Enterprise Florida project.

Gov. Rick Scott criticized the video Thursday, saying both projects were approved by the Legislature long before he took office and that he imposed new requirements that jobs must be certified before incentives are paid.

The video cited Visit Florida's $1 million deal with the rapper Pitbull to promote Florida to tourists, a secret deal that Corcoran forced the agency to disclose that led to the abrupt departure of Visit Florida's CEO.

Corcoran and Scott are locked in an increasingly personal clash over the two programs, which still have support among business and tourism leaders and many senators.

Corcoran supports eliminating them and is fast-tracking a bill to a vote by the full House, possibly by the first week of the legislative session, which begins March 7. A show of overwhelming support for his position could strengthen his bargaining position.

Scott is aggressively pushing back and has accused Corcoran of putting his political ambitions ahead of the state's economy and his supporters of putting more than 1.4 million jobs at risk.

Tensions are high in the House, where 23 of 79 Republicans are first-time lawmakers who have not cast a single difficult vote. The caucus meeting was their first time together since the election in November.

Scott also this week went to the home districts of three House Republicans who support Corcoran's stand and criticized all three by name, an extraordinary strategy that has surprised and angered members of Corcoran's caucus.

Corcoran said he didn't want a reporter at the reception because he would make lawmakers uncomfortable.

"You'll change the dynamic," he told the Times/Herald.

Florida's Constitution requires that prearranged gatherings of more than two legislators must to be open to the public if they are meeting "to agree upon formal legislative action that will be taken at a subsequent time." But there's a giant loophole in the provision that voters statewide approved in 1992.

Each house of the Legislature has the sole power to interpret, implement and enforce it.

Similar language is in the House rules. Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation said it's vague enough that the caucus does not appear to be a violation, but the perception matters.

"Corcoran has put himself out there as the transparency guy," Petersen said. "So why does he have to have a secret pep rally?"

House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said she agrees with Corcoran that the two programs are "corporate welfare," but added: "Transparency when conducting the people's business is of the utmost importance, and that's why our caucus room is always open to the public."

Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes lawyer, became speaker in November. He called it "a new era of accountability, professionalism and transparency."

Corcoran has been more accessible than his most recent predecessors. He held two news conferences in recent weeks and meets with reporters, as he did Thursday with the News Service of Florida. But he did not hold an expected press event Thursday afternoon.

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, who attended the caucus, said: "Richard is Richard. He talked about our principles, our ethics and how we have to be above reproach and held to the highest standards."

Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @SteveBousquet