1. Florida Politics

Miami-Dade state lawmakers hope to make big moves

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes.. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Tampa Bay Times]

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes.. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Nov. 19, 2016

For the next two years and potentially beyond, lawmakers representing Miami-Dade County are poised to wield extreme influence in the Florida Legislature — the likes of which they haven't had in a decade or more.

At least seven Miami-Dade legislators — and potentially a few more yet to be announced — will hold powerful leadership positions from now through 2018 under incoming Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

These roles should ensure Miami-Dade's mark on everything from school choice measures and gambling regulations to which local projects get funding priority.

The 2016-18 Legislature will be sworn in Tuesday during a one-day organizational session, when Negron and Corcoran will also formally take over as chamber leaders.

Both the new Senate president and House speaker have chosen Republican women from Miami as their top lieutenants: Sen. Anitere Flores and Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, respectively.

Below them will be a slew of committee chairs from Miami-Dade, too, who will have the ability — particularly in the House — to hold sway over statewide policy and the purse strings of the state's $82 billion budget.

Among those chairs is Miami Lakes Republican Rep. Jose Oliva, who Corcoran named leader of the powerful House Rules and Policy Committee. Oliva is also what his Miami colleagues call the "speaker in waiting," poised to succeed Corcoran as head of the chamber two years from now.

For local residents, these positions of influence for Miami-Dade legislators mean the senators and representatives they elected — especially the Republican ones, since that party holds the majority in both chambers — will be among the key decision-makers in Tallahassee with the ability to put the county's needs and priorities at the forefront for possibly years to come.

"It's access to where decisions get made," Nuñez said. "We really are in a unique position and our citizens are the better for it."

"This delegation is probably the most talented and well-positioned group of legislators in the history of our county, so that's a big deal," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who leads the county's 24-member legislative delegation and is the incoming chairman of the House Commerce Committee.

Several Miami-Dade lawmakers agreed this level of power is likely unprecedented for the county delegation. They say the key to their new-found concentrated power is something that the bipartisan delegation previously lacked for years: Unity.

"There's strength in peace," Diaz said. "When everybody's on the same team, we can accomplish everything together."

The last time the county had anything close to this kind of influence in the Republican-led Legislature was a decade ago — back when now-U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was House speaker from 2006 to 2008.

But that time, and the couple years after it, was marred by vicious in-fighting in the delegation, particularly because of a power struggle among its Republican members. Perhaps most memorably: Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos was ousted from his bid for the 2008 Senate presidency, and then as he sought reelection — ultimately with success — he was the subject of a vicious, multimillion-dollar smear campaign.

Today's "senior" class of Miami-Dade House members — who, like Diaz, were elected in 2010 and are entering their fourth and final terms in the chamber — say their predecessors' divisive behavior inspired their dedication to cooperate.

"The Dade delegation before us was completely fractured. They spent more time trying to kill each other's priorities than working together," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who Corcoran named House Appropriations chairman.

"I actually decided to run for office because I had seen how divided our delegation was," Diaz said. "There were different factions, and if Team A was supporting Miami Children's Hospital and Team B was going to support Jackson Memorial Hospital, the only ones that were losing were the institutions back home."

For the House members in particular, Trujillo said, "The reason we've been able to rise to these ranks — where five out of the 10 members of the leadership team are from Dade County, and arguably five out of the top seven or eight positions are from Dade County — is because we've stayed united as a class. We've worked together rather than against each other."

The leadership roles for Miami-Dade's House Republicans are rewards for loyalty to Corcoran and his agenda but also a reflection of the Pasco County Republican's affinity for Miami-Dade.

"Our delegation not only supported a speaker in Richard Corcoran that we really believed in, but he's one that has a long and proven track record of working with our community, having been chief of staff to Marco Rubio," Diaz said.

"Speaker Corcoran obviously has a lot of trust in Dade County and we're very, very grateful for him being so considerate with Dade County and naming so many of us to the leadership team," Trujillo said.

In the Senate, less than a handful of the leadership roles have been announced so far. But Miami-Dade lawmakers hold at least two of those: Flores as president pro tempore — she is a close and longtime ally to Negron — and Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, who will be the Senate Democrats' leader.

Some of the county's six senators, such as Hialeah Sen. René García or even Flores, might also likely hold committee chairmanships under Negron, building on Miami-Dade's influence.

That additional power is also expected in the House, where Miami-Dade names are almost assuredly among the subcommittee chairmanships that will be announced likely after Thanksgiving.

In particular, the county could have extra influence over education matters — with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, already named to oversee education policy and with the expected appointment of Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, as a chairman of one of the two education budget committees.

Along with Manny Diaz, Republican Rep. Bryan Avila, also of Hialeah, is another name frequently mentioned as an additional Miami-Dade contender for a subcommittee chairmanship.

Possibly, Trujillo said, "we could have every single member of the House from Dade County on the Republican side chairing a committee. I can't imagine the last time that happened."

Also significant, Jose Felix Diaz said: "Not only is it a very Miami-Dade-centric leadership team, it's probably the most ethnically, culturally diverse leadership team in the history of the state also."

More than half of Corcoran's appointees so far — most of whom are the Miami-Dade representatives — are of Hispanic descent.

"It's a Republican Legislature, but there's this misconception nationally that Latinos are all Democrat," Diaz said. "Our leadership team is reflective of the growing importance of the Hispanic community and Latin community in the state and in our country."

Practically speaking, this level of influence in both chambers should translate into tangible benefits for Miami-Dade residents, namely through policies favorable to the area and more tax dollars staying in the region.

While Trujillo has the entire state to consider when he leads the House side of negotiations for the 2018 state budget next spring, he acknowledged: "Being from Miami-Dade County, you're sympathetic to your community, and the needs of our community will definitely be given extreme consideration."

Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, has long been a so-called "donor" county wherein the tax revenue generated there helps pay for projects and services in less populous counties of the state that have smaller tax bases.

"The things that we've mostly wanted is our due. We send a lot up here, and we need a lot," Braynon said. "We would hope that we, at the very least, would get what we deserve as the economic engine of the state of Florida."

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark