Like a movie sequel of questionable entertainment value that everyone feels compelled to go see regardless, the 2017 legislative session rolled into Tallahassee this week, mixing the usual pomp and circumstance with interparty acrimony.
The Legislature is always a tinderbox of clashing personalities, ideological feuds and personal ambitions. But as the session got underway this week, there was no reason to believe that the predictions of a louder session than usual would turn out wrong.
Gov. Rick Scott’s State of the State address subtly — and at times not-so-subtly — blasted House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a fellow Republican who sat just a few feet away as the governor twisted the knife. Hours later, Corcoran got a touch of revenge, when a judge ruled for the House in a legal showdown with one of the agencies Scott oversees.
By comparison, the Senate worked quietly to pass one of President Joe Negron’s top priorities. But there, too, the House was already making waves and signaling that it might be willing to fight Negron’s drive to boost the budgets and prominence of the state’s universities.
Of course, the first week of session is hardly an indicator of how the entire two-month gathering will go — or even if it will wrap up in the required 60 days. But in his opening address to the House, Corcoran himself said a special session might not be so bad. At this rate, it might be as good as it gets.
None of your business (incentives)
Whether because of his relentless focus on being known as the “jobs governor,” or because of his likely U.S. Senate run in 2018, Scott has decided to plant his flag this session on defeating a House drive to do away with business incentives.
That added a touch of drama to the governor’s State of the State, which has hardly been must-see TV during Scott’s tenure even for political insiders. In the speech, Scott lashed Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and others who refer to business incentives and tourism marketing money as “corporate welfare.”
“For our state to simply say, ‘We are not going to compete with other states, we are not going to make it easier to incentivize job creators to grow in Florida’ — that’s just a big mistake for our state and for our families,” Scott said. “Incentivizing businesses to grow and create more and better jobs is not welfare.”
Scott and his office kept up the assault for the week, blasting away at the “job killing” legislation considered by the House that would abolish business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida.
It didn’t do him much good.
By the end of the week, the House had pushed through bills that would eliminate Enterprise Florida and overhaul Visit Florida, which markets the state’s tourism industry.
In a pair of votes that scrambled the usual partisan alignments, the bill on Enterprise Florida (HB 7005) passed 87-28; the Visit Florida tweak (HB 9) was approved by an 80-35 margin.
“We also have a budgetary obligation, and I think the statement has been made today, by a wide margin, by Republicans and Democrats, that this is not where we should be spending other people’s money,” said Rep. Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican who sponsored both bills. “There are better, higher uses for that money, whether it’s public safety, whether it’s quality education, or infrastructure.”
Scott clearly didn’t agree.
“Many politicians who voted for these bills say they are for jobs and tourism,” he said in the statement following the vote. “But, I want to be very clear — a vote for these bills was a vote to kill tourism and jobs in Florida.”
By then, the new head of Enterprise Florida had already bolted in one of the more bizarre twists in the months-long battle over incentives.
On Monday, Chris Hart abruptly resigned as president and CEO of the agency, claiming differences of opinion with Scott.
“This difference of opinion is of such a critical nature that I no longer believe I can be effective in my position,” Hart wrote to Enterprise Florida Vice Chairman Stan Connally.
The incentives votes were the second time this week that Corcoran got the better of Scott. A Leon County judge also backed the speaker’s contention that a contract agreed to by the Florida Lottery violated state law. Scott immediately vowed to appeal.
Circuit Judge Karen Gievers held a hearing on the case early in the week, and the speaker clearly felt good about it when he spoke to the House on Tuesday during the opening day of the session.
“That trial was (Monday), and I can assure you, we will win,” Corcoran said.
And they did. Gievers ruled that a long-term contract between the lottery and IGT Global Solutions Corp. was illegal because it would spend more money on ticket sales than the Legislature has previously approved for that purpose.
In a statement issued by his office following the decision, Scott said the ruling could endanger funding for education.
“The Florida Lottery continues to make record contributions to our public schools and today’s ruling jeopardizes billions of dollars for Florida students,” he said. “I strongly disagree with today’s decision and we will appeal.”
Not quite unanimous for unanimity
By the end of the week, one high-profile bill was already headed to Scott for his signature: a measure that would require a unanimous jury vote to impose the death penalty in capital cases.
For lawmakers who back capital punishment, there wasn’t much room to argue with the legislation after the Florida Supreme Court ruled last year that anything short of a unanimous vote was unconstitutional.
“Your positive vote today allows cases to move forward and for victims and their families to continue to have access to justice,” House Judiciary Chairman Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican and former prosecutor, said Friday before the House voted 112-3 to approve the bill (SB 280).
The Senate had already passed the legislation unanimously, 37-0, a day earlier.
But the larger battle over crime and punishment in Florida might not be over. Critics were already citing other problems with the state’s death penalty.
Requiring unanimous jury recommendations is “only one step in a long journey,” said 10th Judicial Circuit Assistant Public Defender Pete Mills.
“Florida’s death penalty still has problems of constitutional magnitude, including but not limited to the failure to limit the scope of its application, racial disparities, geographic disparities, and execution of the mentally ill,” Mills, chairman of the Florida Public Defenders Association Death Penalty Steering Committee, told The News Service of Florida on Friday.
College bill graduates from Senate
If the House approved Corcoran’s top priority amid a loud fight with the governor, the Senate gave its presiding officer a fairly easy win.
Negron, R-Stuart, saw the Senate vote 36-1 to back a sweeping higher-education proposal (SB 2) that seeks to boost funding for Bright Futures scholarships, faculty recruitment and support for outstanding graduate programs.
The Senate president has said he wants to elevate Florida’s universities to “elite, national destination” institutions, while holding the schools to higher performance standards and offering more financial support for students.
But there were already signs from the House that giving more to universities — the focus of Negron’s efforts — might not be high on the agenda.
House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said the day before the Senate vote that university funding and spending was outpacing most portions of the state budget, with the exception of the Medicaid program.
“I think the House’s position is going to be very clear, that the amount of money we’ve put into the system, the system has almost run wild,” Trujillo, a Miami Republican, said Wednesday.
Negron, a former House and Senate budget chairman, tried to play down the issue and said he supported the House effort to probe university funding.
He also said he found no inconsistencies between the House’s attempt to make sure public funding is being spent “wisely” and the Senate’s legislation to elevate the quality of the state universities.
“It’s day three,” Negron said about the 60-day session. “I certainly don’t expect the House to adopt all of the Senate’s priorities this early in the process.”
Early in the process, though, ain’t what it used to be.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The House voted overwhelmingly to eliminate business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida, despite a high-pressure push by Gov. Rick Scott to try to save the agency.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Let’s be real. There is nobody in my district whose name is Northrop or Grumman. So, I still challenge (Scott) to talk about the real problems that are facing Floridians every day.”— Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, on Scott’s State of the State address. Northrop Grumman is a major aerospace and defense contractor.