Legislature's most interesting man is also its most contradictory

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. [Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Jun. 17, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — If he were being cast for a television commercial, House Speaker Richard Corcoran would likely win the part this year as "the most interesting man in Tallahassee."

He behaves like a street fighter but operates like an Army general, marshaling a small platoon of loyalists to corner the adversary until concessions are inevitable.

The proof came in a daylong victory tour with Gov. Rick Scott, whom Corcoran spent the last year accusing of being a crony capitalist in charge of an "absolute cesspool" known as Enterprise Florida, the state's corporate recruitment agency.

Rather than punishing Corcoran for the blasphemous rhetoric, Scott rewarded him, inviting him along for the five-city "Victory Tour" and signing Corcoran's coveted education bill.

Corcoran, a former Republican political operative with more than 25 years of legislative experience, says he is motivated by "principle, always principle." He told the Times/Herald that, from his unique perspective, this session "was the most transformative and transparent in the Legislature's history."

His signature effort, a controversial education reform known as HB 7069, and the governor's priority, the $160 million in economic development programs, will be viewed "as the model for the rest of the nation, the world," he proclaimed.

But attached to the superlatives is a trail of contradictions that has raised questions about whether the "disrupter" image Corcoran tried to carefully craft really fits the man.

In his victory over the governor, he claimed an end to corporate welfare but then ushered in a series of market protections to industries and vendors in the medical marijuana bill.

He passed new budget rules that prohibited the last-minute insertion of projects into the final state budget, but then left a loophole that allowed Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron to force the approval of 15 so-called "conforming bills" that had not been reviewed, screened or approved by any committee in its entirety or by both chambers.

He called for ethics reforms that would be the "most transformative rules in the history of the Florida Legislature" and make them a "national leader in transparency and accountability" but many were whittled away in the face of resistance.

He suggested a rule that prohibits anyone in House leadership from campaigning for higher office while in the House and then created his own new political committee — that he admits might be used for a statewide run for governor or attorney general.

And after Corcoran persuaded the House to strip Enterprise Florida of what he called "extortion money" used to bait companies to the state, he orchestrated a rescue of the program in a way the legislatively inexperienced governor had rarely seen.

"He's passionate," Scott explained after signing the education bill Thursday at a private Catholic school in Orlando that serves children with disabilities. Six weeks earlier, his political committee had run an ad calling Corcoran's attacks "fake news."

As the two men patch up their differences, the relationship promises to reap rewards if both attempt to seek higher office.

Scott, a two-term Republican who is expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year, had come out of the May session as its biggest loser. Stripped of the corporate incentives fund by Corcoran, he was left with only one third of what he sought for Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, and only a fraction of the increase in public education he wanted. Corcoran's about-face restored the governor's biggest spending priorities.

The partnership offers Corcoran another important advantage: Scott's access to President Donald Trump provides openings for Corcoran to see his "Schools of Hope" reform idea embraced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

But the alliance remains awkward.

Corcoran appeared at the press conference with the governor Thursday and was asked to address the claim that the charter-school expansion, which steers $200 million to that industry, is another form of "corporate welfare."

With the governor who has been in charge of the state's public education system for seven years at his side, he launched into a breathless criticism of the status quo and how "kids are stuck in failure factories their entire educational career."

Scott politely half-smiled, then quickly added: "Let's go through the positives. Everybody can always say we can do everything better." He then listed his education accomplishments.

"It's just a political union for both of them," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, the House's minority leader.

For Cruz, who worked with Corcoran to formulate the rules that were intended to encourage legislators to own their issues, instead of relying on lobbyists, and open the budget process to more public scrutiny, the Democrats were "left completely in the dark in the last-minute budget negotiations. It's very disappointing," she said.

"It raises the question of whether things were better or worse overall this year," said Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, a government watchdog organization that endorsed Corcoran's ethics proposals. "But there has been a lot of people complaining about a lack of transparency and the fact that deals were cut behind closed doors."

With characteristic defiance, Corcoran will not concede that "the sausage making" behind his priority bill was anything but open and historic.

"[It] had more access, more publicity than any other bill," he said.

When he was sworn in as House speaker in November, there was no sign that Corcoran's political capital would be spent on education over ethics reform. He announced to the House chamber that "the enemy is us." He then proposed sweeping new House rules based on a white paper he drafted in 2012 with the 31 other legislators elected to office in 2010.

He called it "BluePrint Florida."

The goal, the 44-page document explained, was to dismantle the lobbyist-influenced hierarchy of the Legislative leadership chain by delegating and sharing power with members in a way that "gives all legislators equal footing," empowers committee chairmen to set the agenda and tasks legislators with the responsibility of pushing their initiatives.

"I'm the most disruptive person," Corcoran told the Times/Herald.

The rules, he told the House in November, would "create a firewall between those that seek to influence the law and those that make the laws." He promised "no more business deals with lobbyists. No more lobbyists texting during committees and during session. No more flying on private planes" and "no more lobbying after our terms of service is done — not for two, not for four but for six years."

"It all ends, and it all ends today," Corcoran exclaimed, as his voice reached a crescendo and was greeted with modest applause.

His said the rules would include requiring legislators to wait six years before padding their state pensions by taking public jobs after leaving office. They would prohibit House members from campaigning for higher office before finishing their term, prevent them from taking a new job with any company or organization that receives public money from the state while in office and require lobbyists to disclose the legislation they intend to influence.

Corcoran was so determined to make sure the rules remain in place when he leaves office in 2018, he received a commitment to continue them from Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who is designated to succeed him in 2018 as House speaker, and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R- Palm Harbor, who is poised to succeed Oliva.

He started off with a bang. The House voted 108-4 for a proposed constitutional amendment that would create a longer waiting period for lawmakers and statewide elected officials who want to become lobbyists.

Corcoran sent an email to supporters that highlighted the plan: "draining the swamp," it proclaimed.

The bill went to the Senate, where it and other House ethics bills never got a hearing.

Not all was lost, however. In crafting new rules over how to approach the budget, Corcoran succeeded in persuading Negron to some significant changes:

• All individual member projects added to the budget were paid for with one-time money and could not be added to the recurring "base budget."

• No projects could be added to the final budget that were not first included in the spending plans initially passed by the House and Senate.

• All budget requests must be published online and detail the names of lobbyists and legislators asking for the money and information about previous state funding.

On other reforms, the House was less successful. It failed to get the Senate to agree to have all appropriations projects filed as stand-alone bills. The rule passed in the House, allowing for the tracking of more budget projects than before.

The House banned members from flying on lobbyists' planes and texting lobbyists during committee meetings, but it required only self-enforcement. And instead of banning members from taking a job with a public entity that receives taxpayer money, the House rule required them to disclose the new employment.

"I don't know if they worked, but it certainly modified behavior," said Cruz, the House Democratic leader. "Forcing us to report and make public every allocation and every member project was good, too. If you want them, own them."

The House succeeded in forcing the governor's agencies to follow new transparency measures when contracting with outside companies on economic development projects and Visit Florida projects, and it ended taxpayer funding of incentives given directly to a single corporation.

But, in return, legislators agreed to give the governor unprecedented access to a $85 million training and infrastructure grant fund with few other restrictions.

When reporters asked Corcoran why the carve-out of two medical marijuana treatment center licenses for citrus companies wasn't the same as picking winners and losers, he snapped: "One of these days I'll do an hourlong course on conservatism and how it interacts with a free-market system."

"There is no such thing as a monumental, transformative change that isn't going to have elements of it that is controversial," Corcoran said Monday.

"Ethics will absolutely be back," he said. "There is always room for improvement. We didn't say we would be perfect."

Corcoran's ethics reforms might have gone farther in a year when the presiding officer had a modest agenda, but the first year of a speaker's term is the apex of his influence, and Corcoran knew that if he were to achieve his education agenda the time to do it was this year.

"Richard is capable of fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously," said Tom Feeney, a former Republican House Speaker who Corcoran worked for as a legal counsel. "But he's enough of a strategist that when some of those battles played out, he was constantly adjusting his priorities based on his best opportunity."

Corcoran admirers see the reach of the new rules as significant and potentially lasting, and proof of Corcoran's political skill — which distinguishes him from most presiding officers in recent years.

"I think Richard Corcoran is a rising conservative star, but everything in Tallahassee you have to take with the ecosystem you're operating in," said Rick Wilson, a Republican political operative who mounted an unsuccessful anti-Trump campaign in 2016.

"The governor was really dug in, and the much more moderate Senate is kind of a hot mess. His terms of reform were kind of bounded by the realities of the other bodies."

There was one ethics change that was just too impractical, even for Corcoran.

Corcoran's blueprint suggested ending the Legislature's "culture of self-promotion" by prohibiting members from using their committee posts to collect contributions by pledging that they not open campaign accounts or use their political committees for higher office until they had left the House.

"I left that one up to members," he explained last week.

By the time session had ended, Corcoran had opened a new political committee, Watchdog PAC, to raise money for his future ventures. After the press conference on the education bill, Corcoran left for a fundraiser held in his honor by Democratic trial lawyer John Morgan, the chief advocate for the medical marijuana amendment.

"We're old friends," Corcoran explained.

"We'll show you our deep thanks for A2," Morgan wrote on Twitter, then with a reference to his affection for bourbon and Corcoran's affection for fine, red wine, he added: "You made it happen. Plain & simple I'll bring Makers Mark & Caymus."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas