TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Legislature's chaotic session hit a new dysfunctional low Wednesday as an irate Senate demanded that House leaders bring lawmakers back to work or risk violating the state Constitution.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who had sent members home a day earlier, showed no signs of backing down. With increased vitriol on both sides, it appeared less likely than ever the House and Senate could come together for critical budget talks.
"The culture is toxic right now," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the House "trick" of shutting down Tuesday could violate a provision in the Constitution that says: "Neither house shall adjourn for more than 72 consecutive hours except pursuant to a concurrent resolution" signed by the two chambers. The session is scheduled to end by midnight Friday.
"You adjourned the Florida House of Representatives in contravention of express provisions of the Florida Constitution," Gardiner wrote in a letter to Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. "I respectfully request that you reconvene your chamber to finish the important work of the people of Florida."
After the letter was read and senators gave Gardiner a standing ovation, he told them: "This new trick that they did is not part of the negotiating tools. It's wrong, not just for the Senate, but it's wrong for the state of Florida, to essentially say that one chamber is not relevant."
The issue has been raised only once before, in 1956, when Gov. LeRoy Collins alone stopped a legislative session to prevent a resolution expressing opposition to racial integration.
Senators urged Gardiner to immediately ask the Florida Supreme Court for an advisory opinion on who's right, but Gardiner said no decision has been made to go to court, and other senators said it was unlikely.
Crisafulli answered with a letter that said the House is "willing and able" to meet in a special session, but gave no indication the House would return by Friday.
"I understand that you are angry that the House concluded our business," Crisafulli wrote. "I told you that the House could not pass Obamacare expansion. It's not something that I can force them to pass. … This is a matter of the House exercising its constitutional duty to represent those who elected us."
Crisafulli abruptly adjourned the House at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday, the first time that one house went home on a different day than the other since at least 1971, when such records were compiled.
Gardiner's letter further strains relations with the House as the two sides remain locked in an increasingly bitter stalemate, unable to begin budget talks because of a philosophical divide over the use of federal money to expand health care to low-income residents.
Time will emerge as a major factor because the state must have a balanced budget in place by July 1, but the two chambers are farther apart than ever.
The Senate sent a batch of House-passed legislation to Gov. Rick Scott Wednesday, including creation of an online voter registration system by 2017, reforms to the Public Service Commission and a requirement that public places post signs to promote awareness of human trafficking.
But Gardiner's claim of a runaway, unconstitutional House added to a surreal scene in which one Republican senator after another heaped criticism on absent House members for leaving them no way to make last-minute legislative compromises.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, passed a bill (HB 7109) to impose new oversight on the PSC and to provide for up to $600 million in savings to Duke Energy.
But he bluntly accused the House of bowing to pressure from Florida Power & Light, the state's largest utility, which opposed having to hold hearings in their local service areas once every two years.
"What are they scared of?" Latvala fumed.
The Senate grudgingly passed a bill to impose criminal penalties on people who commit "revenge porn" by posting sexually explicit photos and videos of others online with the intent of inflicting emotional distress.
The House had amended the bill (SB 538) so that posting the images is illegal only if the person photographed is identified by name.
"It certainly does not give us what we need or what the people of Florida deserve," said the disappointed sponsor, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "We're supposed to be in this to the end, to be sure the people's work is done."
On live TV, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said the House did a "half-a----" reworking of a mental health bill that he refused to allow to come to a Senate vote.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, accused the House of ruining a bill to provide $10,000 scholarships to special-needs students, a top Senate priority. The House added a provision to deduct $300 from each award and give it to Step Up for Students, a private group that runs the program.
"It is an organization whose bills I have carried and whose issues I have supported," Gaetz said. "But it is an organization whose hands grab for too much."
The Senate symbolically passed its version and sent it back to an empty House "at the foot of that locked door," Gaetz said.
The House doors weren't locked, and Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, was one of the few House members visible Wednesday. Wearing madras shorts, he took pictures of the deserted chamber.
Watching on TV, House members fired back on social media.
"If @flsenate would've come to terms w/fact that Medicaid expansion was not going happen bc 2 bodies of govt didn't support it, then things wouldn't be this way," tweeted House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa.
Florida's Constitution states that if the two legislative chambers can't agree on when to adjourn, Gov. Rick Scott should serve as a mediator.
Scott has sided with the House in its opposition to Medicaid expansion, and Senate leaders have said it would be "ill-advised" for the Republican governor to intervene in a legislative stalemate.
Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said a "real governor" would have intervened weeks ago and tried to mediate a solution.
"The governor has major culpability in this collapse. But he's steeped in CEO-type leadership where one person runs the show," Joyner said.
Simmons, a constitutional law specialist known for his lawyerly manner and long-winded speeches, said he told Gardiner on Tuesday that he thought the House acted in violation of the Constitution.
"There was a reason that our founding fathers put this rule in the Constitution — to ensure that the important work of the people is accomplished,'' Simmons said.
In the Senate, references to the House shutdown were part of every discussion — even a ceremony honoring Don Severance, the affable Senate sergeant at arms who will retire in the fall after a 39-year career.
"He thought he'd seen everything that could possibly happen in this building, up until yesterday," Latvala said as the Senate erupted in laughter.
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Mary Ellen Klas, Kathleen McGrory and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.