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  1. Florida Politics

Florida Senate leaders resist Corcoran's calls for change in Capitol

New Florida House Speaker Richard Cocoran, R- Land O' Lakes shares a laugh with members of the Florida House during his Tuesday speech. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Tampa Bay Times]
New Florida House Speaker Richard Cocoran, R- Land O' Lakes shares a laugh with members of the Florida House during his Tuesday speech. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 24, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature entered a strange new world Tuesday as the incoming House speaker condemned the power of lobbyists and demanded changes in spending that will face resistance from the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott.

In his inaugural speech as speaker, Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, railed against a Capitol dominated by lobbyists and politically-wired vendors with lawmakers doing their bidding at the expense of taxpayers.

"Too many lobbyists see themselves as the true power brokers of this process," Corcoran told the House during a one-day organizational session. "Too many appropriations projects are giveaways to vendors and the decision of whether they get in the budget has more to do with their choice of lobbyist than the merits of the project … It all ends, and it all ends today."

Despite Corcoran's reformist zeal, he controls only one side of the Capitol. The Senate, led by Republican Joe Negron of Stuart, has very different ideas.

"Lobbyists and others and constituents have every opportunity to redress grievances," Negron told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate will resist new House rules, adopted Tuesday, requiring that lawmaker-sponsored spending projects be filed as stand-alone bills by next March 7, the opening day of the session.

"We shouldn't put ourselves in a straitjacket," Negron said. "The Capitol should always be open for business."

Negron's priorities are juvenile justice, the environment and higher education.

He'll propose a $1.2 billion borrowing program to buy land to increase water storage south of Lake Okeechobee, where harmful lake discharges have polluted the fragile Everglades and triggered devastating algae blooms in the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries.

The program is part of the implementation of the land and water initiative known as Amendment 1, a ballot measure passed by voters two years ago.

Negron also wants to give university leaders more financial freedom to recruit and retain top faculty, replace crumbling infrastructure, make college more affordable and improve four-year graduation rates.

"Let's make our good universities great," Negron said.

Negron avoided directly criticizing Corcoran, but a leading Democrat did the job.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, had a one-word verdict for Corcoran and his chief ally, Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

"Bulls---," Braynon said.

"He must be expecting criminals and unethical people to come to the House," Braynon told the Times/Herald. "If Richard Corcoran and Jose Oliva really wanted to change the culture of the House, to me they wouldn't be afraid to debate issues. They wouldn't stifle Democratic bills."

Braynon blasted "this foolishness, claiming we're cleaning up the process because people can't fly on jets or text lobbyists or get a promotion in a government job."

Like President-elect Donald Trump, who has promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington, Corcoran said lobbyists have too much power.

House rules bar lawmakers from flying on lobbyists' planes, prevent lawmaker-lobbyist business relationships and ban members from lobbying until six years after leaving office.

As Corcoran castigated lobbyists — a profession that includes his brother Michael, who is a partner in a powerful Florida firm — several former speakers who are prominent lobbyists listened in the front row. They included Democrats James Harold Thompson and Lee Moffitt and Republicans Tom Feeney and Dean Cannon.

Corcoran, whose wife Anne founded a Pasco County charter school, said the Florida Education Association, a teacher union and key Democratic ally, is "destroying the lives" of children by fighting school choice.

He also called for 12-year term limits for judges and for shifting the Medicaid program to states as Trump has proposed.

Not even the governor escaped the wrath of Corcoran, who wants to wipe out taxpayer-funded incentives Scott says are essential to attract new jobs to Florida.

"Too many hundreds of millions of tax dollars are wasted on corporate welfare because we've lost sight of what we believe," Corcoran said.

Scott, who is entering his final two years as governor, had left the House chamber by the time Corcoran spoke those words.

Corcoran, 51, a lawyer who has been a top House staffer and partisan political operative, becomes the second speaker from Pasco County in the past two years, after Will Weatherford.

A devout Presbyterian* and father of six, Corcoran enjoys long discussions of politics, especially while smoking fine cigars.

Negron, a 55-year-old wonkish lawyer from Stuart, secured the presidency more than a year ago after a three-year battle with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Latvala was given the second most powerful post, the chairmanship of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, in return for conceding the leadership fight to Negron.

In the Senate, 25 Republicans and 15 Democrats took the oath of office, including 20 newcomers, the largest freshman class in the history of the Senate.

The House seated 79 Republicans and 41 Democrats, including a freshman class of 46 — 24 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

The House freshman class includes Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, who won the closest election in the state and was declared the winner Tuesday by 53 votes over former Republican Rep. David Rivera, who fell short in a manual recount of ballots.

Corcoran's sweeping changes to House operations include a revamped House website, myfloridahouse.gov, where he posted an announcement Tuesday.

"There will be live and YouTube videos, a lobbyist database that the public can crowdsource with us to ensure ethics compliance, new and improved committee and floor calendars, and so much more," it said.

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

* Editor's note: This article has been corrected to show that Speaker Richard Corcoran is a Presbyterian.