Lawmakers hatch deal on budget, inviting possible veto by Rick Scott

Published May 4, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron agreed Wednesday on an $83 billion budget that will worsen tensions with Gov. Rick Scott, who saw his priorities get soundly rejected.

The two leaders finalized the budget, largely behind closed doors, a day late. The Legislature will need an extra day on Monday to pass the budget before sending it to Scott, whose veto pen could be in for a major workout.

"I have no earthly idea what's in the budget," Scott said in Tampa on a 10-city swing to blast "politicians in Tallahassee" for eliminating job-incentive programs at the state's economic development agency, Enterprise Florida, and for slashing Visit Florida's tourism ad budget by two-thirds to $25 million.

The budget is missing Scott's late-session request for $200 million for renovations to the aging Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee. Scott also said the budget has too few tax cuts and too little money for schools — issues sure to resonate with voters.

"This is just a few people, you know, back door, deciding the budget for the entire state," Scott said.

When asked if he would veto the budget, Scott didn't rule it out.

"That's an option I have," Scott said, referring to the veto. "I represent everybody in the state."

The last time a governor vetoed a budget was in 1992, in a confrontation between Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and a Democratic Legislature that refused to raise taxes.

If Scott did, he would force lawmakers to start over or to override his veto by a two-thirds vote of both chambers, an act of defiance by the Legislature against a fellow Republican who is considering a 2018 run for U.S. Senate.

There's much at stake. A veto will wipe out the Senate's signature issue, $800 million for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, along with two Corcoran priorities of $200 million to assist students in struggling schools and $213 million for teacher bonuses.

Corcoran said Enterprise Florida, one of Scott's prized agencies, has to be "obliterated."

Corcoran downplayed the threat of a veto, saying the House and Senate can muster enough votes to override it. If Scott's veto is overridden, all spending would be restored, even local projects Scott might oppose.

Another Corcoran priority, an audit of Tampa International Airport's expansion, remained in the budget.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, called Corcoran's demand for an audit a "publicity stunt," saying Corcoran could make the request to a legislative auditing committee.

But Latvala took issue with Scott's claim that he doesn't know what's in the budget, saying he talks with Scott's aides "two or three times a day."

The budget has $50 million for beach nourishment, a priority of Latvala's and senators, in an apparent trade for the House wanting $37 million to settle citrus canker property claims with landowners in Broward and Lee counties.

A key to ending the logjam was a compromise on cuts to hospitals as lawmakers reduced a $651 million cut in Medicaid to $521 million with a 7 percent cut in rates hospitals get for Medicaid.

Lawmakers will continue giving Medicaid recipients in nursing homes a monthly allowance of $105. The House wanted to cut it to $70.

Legislators came closer to deciding how school construction money will be distributed, with $50 million each to traditional schools and to charter schools. Still to be decided: how that money will be distributed.

Also in the budget is $4.3 million for a forensic center in Land O'Lakes to investigate cold-case murders. A Corcoran priority, the center is to be named for Thomas Varnadoe, who was 11 when he died from abuse at the former Dozier School for Boys.

Corcoran, a Republican lawyer from Land O'Lakes, promised unprecedented transparency in the House and ushered in rules that lifted much of the secrecy about lawmakers' pet projects.

But he and Negron did not hold any public meetings to discuss differences. They haggled by phone and huddled with other lawmakers in private, which Corcoran said is no different than in the past.

Some lawmakers were left in the dark.

"I don't know," said Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, when asked about the status of his projects.

A lack of transparency figured in a Senate decision to eliminate a House plan to let vendors charge extra fees to motorists for license and tag renewals.

"No one talked about it," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

So many budget details were still unsettled Tuesday that lawmakers missed a midnight deadline to finish the session on time by Friday. State law requires a 72-hour cooling-off period before lawmakers can pass a budget.

Corcoran told House members that decisions on all other legislation would end Friday and they should return to the Capitol by 1 p.m. Monday to vote on the budget and related bills.

Times/Herald staff writer Jeremy Wallace and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at Follow @stevebousquet.