By Brandon Larrabee
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE | Almost from the moment the gavel fell on the regular legislative session Monday night, there were already calls for a special session.
The regular session was grinding and filled with squabbling —- and ended three days late —- and some members wanted to do it all over again.
Only not really “all.” Most of the proposals considered by lawmakers this spring died during the final full week of the session; only the budget and related bills passed Monday. And the call for a special session was confined to medical marijuana, one of several must-pass bills during the regular session that ended up being not quite so must-pass.
As lawmakers sought consensus on whether to get together again in Tallahassee, something historic was happening halfway across North Florida: Corrine Brown, a former Democratic congresswoman who was a fixture on the Jacksonville political scene for decades, was found guilty in a federal corruption trial.
Meanwhile, some officials were trying to make sure they returned to Tallahassee in different roles, as campaign season in special elections and the 2018 regular election got underway.
YOU SAID GOODBYE, I SAID GOOD NIGHT
It wouldn’t be a real “sine die” without a little bit of drama, and Monday’s slightly delayed ending to the 2017 session was no exception.
The suspense this time surrounded a sprawling education package (HB 7069), a House priority that narrowly escaped death in the Senate. It passed on a 20-18 margin —- a 19-19 tie would have killed it. Even Senate education budget chief David Simmons, the Altamonte Springs Republican whose job it was to present the bill to the Senate, voted against it.
That was a few hours after Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, essentially apologized for letting a budget-related bill turn into a 278-page measure covering charter schools, teacher bonuses, sunscreen at school and much more.
“If there’s fault to be had for one of these bills that has gotten a little bit out of control, just understand that we won’t do this again under my watch on this committee,” Latvala said. “I promise you.”
But the approval of that bill, and a few others, cleared the way for lawmakers to approve a budget that weighs in at $82.4 billion and an overall spending package (when the other measures are included) of $83.1 billion for the year that begins July 1.
With Gov. Rick Scott openly talking about the possibility of vetoing the entire spending plan, a rarity in a state where the governor can strike individual items he doesn’t like, the budget was approved by veto-proof margins in the House and Senate.
“I think there’s a lot in the budget that the governor’s going to like,” said Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
There are also things Scott certainly won’t like —- foremost among them the elimination of economic-development incentives and the paring back of tourism-marketing dollars. But even Democrats who seemed to relish the prospect of an intraparty GOP feud set off by a Scott veto admitted that the most likely result would be a quick override.
“I don’t think that it would change the outcome,” said House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. “It would just send a message.”
But another reason for holding a special session seemed to be growing ever more likely. Lawmakers failed to pass legislation this year carrying out the medical-marijuana constitutional amendment approved by voters in November, leaving implementation to a state health agency that neither lawmakers nor those in the industry trust all that much.
By Thursday, Negron was asking members who were likely still unpacking their bags whether they had any ideas for how to break a logjam between the House and Senate on the pot legislation.
While the Senate favored a cap of up to 15 dispensaries for each operator during the session, the House —- which originally backed an infinite number of retail outlets —- ultimately settled on a limit of 100 per operator.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran predicted legislators will return to the Capitol and pass a comprehensive measure that eluded them during the two-month regular session.
“I believe there should be a special session, and there will be a special session,” said Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes. “I’m confident that we can get to a resolution.”
If Corcoran and Negron can agree to a deal, a special session would most likely take place soon, Negron indicated.
“In my general experience in the process, the longer it takes from the conclusion of a regular session to set a special session, the less likely it is that a special session will occur,” he said. “So there’s a certain window that exists to realistically be able to try to resolve these differences.”
DO NOT GO GENTLE
For years, it was almost impossible to imagine Jacksonville politics without Brown, a pugnacious congresswoman who fought off every attempt to challenge her base and defended a winding district that elected her to the U.S. House 12 times.
Her fortunes began unwinding two years ago, when state courts approved a redistricting map as part of a long-running legal battle that tore apart a district linking her twin power bases in Jacksonville and Orlando. That and a federal indictment for her role in a sham charity led to a primary defeat in 2016.
The fall continued Thursday, as a jury found Brown guilty on 18 of the 22 counts she faced after prosecutors said she and two associates used the One Door for Education-Amy Anderson Scholarship Fund at least in part to finance their own expenses while working with other people to solicit more than $800,000 for the charity.
“Former Congresswoman Corrine Brown violated the public trust, the honor of her position, and the integrity of the American system of government when she abused one of the most powerful positions in the nation for her own personal gain,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in a statement issued after the ruling.
But Brown’s attorney, James Smith, told reporters outside the Jacksonville courtroom that Brown would ask for a new trial. He declined to say on what grounds.
“She wants to let her supporters know that she is still strong and resolute,” Smith said. “She still maintains her innocence, and she thanks everyone for their prayers and their support.”
OFF TO THE RACES
The most immediate election in Florida’s future is one to replace former Sen. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican whose political career imploded after he directed a racially charged outburst at a fellow senator in a members-only club near the Capitol. But contenders are already lining up for other races as well.
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Republican who lives in unincorporated Miami-Dade, said Tuesday he intends to run for Artiles’ Senate District 40 seat, as did Democrat Annette Taddeo, who was her party’s unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2014.
Both parties could have brutal primaries. Taddeo will face state Rep. Daisy Baez, a Coral Gables health-care executive who announced her candidacy for the seat last week.
On the GOP side, former Republican Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla also has opened a campaign account for the Artiles seat.
The Miami political world is also dealing with the retirement of Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a moderate Republican who has owned her district for decades. Democratic state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, said he intends to run for that seat when it comes up next year.
Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, announced he would set his sights on a statewide office in 2018: attorney general. For now, he was sticking to time-honored Republican ideas.
“Big government leads to big problems,” said Fant, the first candidate to file paperwork to run to replace Pam Bondi, who is stepping down because of term limits.
Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam had already announced that he would run for governor in 2018 —- and there hadn’t been much doubt in the past eight years that the state’s top post was Putnam’s ultimate goal.
But the fresh-from-Florida front-runner held his official kickoff Wednesday in Bartow, standing in front of a century-old county courthouse with orange crates on the steps and a huge state flag hanging from the building.
“We have to put Florida first so that we are more than a prize for a life well-lived someplace else,” Putnam said. “We can make Florida the launch pad for the American dream.”
By far the favorite, Putnam will still face contests in the race. Corcoran and Latvala are among the Republicans musing about a bid. And the Democratic side already has former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King lining up, with more potential candidates in the offing.
Tallahassee is a popular destination nowadays. Even if you just left.