TALLAHASSEE | Lubricated by cocktails at an annual pre-session Associated Industries of Florida fete Monday, the first week of the 2018 legislative session bore many of the usual hallmarks of the 60-day pageant.
Flowers festooned lawmakers’ desks Tuesday as the session began, and rhetoric-laden speeches were met with partisan appreciation or rebukes.
But with two empty seats in the Senate because of scandals about sexual misconduct, the opening-day atmosphere on the Capitol’s fourth floor wasn’t quite the same as it has been in sessions past.
Fist bumps replaced hugs, even between longtime colleagues. Men nervously joked about whether compliments about female acquaintances’ appearances would be misconstrued. Legislative aides sat in on tete-a-tetes where parties of two — a male lawmaker and a woman lobbyist — once sufficed.
The changes came after Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat, quit the Senate after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist and Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, resigned amid investigations that he allegedly groped a Senate aide and engaged in pattern of verbal misconduct.
The weight of the sex scandals grew even heavier Tuesday, when Senate President Pro Tempore Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, acknowledged they had an extramarital affair. They apologized after the launch of an anonymous website with photos and videos that showed Flores entering Braynon’s condo late at night and leaving the next morning.
Lobbyists and lawmakers had mixed views of the exposure of sexual hijinks and sexual harassment, which fall on two ends of the spectrum of inappropriate behavior.
“People are not infallible. There’s always been misconduct between humans. I don’t believe it is going to have an impact as far as the policy and the way the policy is shaped. I believe it will have an impact on the decorum. I’ve been doing this over 30 years. We need it to have an impact on the decorum because we lost decorum,” lobbyist Victoria Zepp said.
In his last State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday asked lawmakers to help make it harder to pass future tax increases by requiring “supermajority” votes by the Legislature.
“This is my last session to cut taxes,” Scott told House and Senate members on opening day. “And we must acknowledge that, unfortunately, at some point, there will be politicians sitting in this chamber who are not as fiscally responsible as we are today.”
Scott wants lawmakers to back a constitutional amendment, which if approved by voters in the fall, would require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to pass tax increases. The Republican-led Legislature can now pass a tax increase by majority votes, with the last increase being a $1 hike in 2009 on the tax on packs of cigarettes.
Scott discounted arguments that adopting a higher voting requirement on tax increases would hamper future state leaders in dealing with financial challenges.
Since moving into the governor’s office in January 2011, Scott has made lower taxes one of his calling cards. His final legislative agenda includes a modest package of tax breaks in addition to the constitutional proposal.
“There were the naysayers who told us there was no way that a businessman with no experience in politics or government could possibly be successful at helping turn Florida’s economy around,” Scott said. “Fortunately for all of us, the naysayers were wrong.”
During Tuesday’s speech, Scott also made a pitch for other 2018 priorities, which include spending $53 million to help abate a growing opioid crisis.
And with sexual harassment scandals rocking the nation and Tallahassee, Scott outlined steps his office has taken to help victims.
He called on lawmakers to pass legislation to protect state employees who may have witnessed harassment, encouraging them to participate in investigations.
“Things have got to change, and it starts right here in this building,” Scott said. “We all must join together and send a very strong message: Florida stands with victims.”
Senate President Joe Negron also touched on the issue in his opening-day speech, reiterating his chamber will have “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment or misconduct against employees and visitors.
“State government should lead by example in instituting policies that ensure employees feel safe when they come to work and comfortable to confidentially report inappropriate behavior by any person,” Negron, R-Stuart, said.
As part of the opening-day events, the Senate president and House speaker typically outline their priorities for the session. Negron, for example, spoke of the need to address impacts from Hurricane Irma and to further build up the state university system.
And Negron said the Senate will work with Scott on a request for additional pay raises for law-enforcement officers and with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, on expanding school choice.
“One thing I know is, it doesn’t matter at all to the Floridians we represent where these ideas originate,” Negron said. “They’re worried about taking care of their families. Taking their students to ballet practice, to Little League practice. … Families are busy trying to survive and prosper and they don’t care about this home-and-away football game mentality that some people have.”
Dubbing the Florida House as the “House of reformers,” Corcoran outlined priorities that are almost certain to stir debate —- and controversy, such as a controversial “anti-sanctuary cities” proposal (HB 9) that would require state and local agencies to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement and carry hefty penalties for local officials who fail to comply.
“Now we have politicians who say they want to make the entire state of Florida a sanctuary state, just like California. That’s unacceptable,” Corcoran said Tuesday. “You cannot have politicians who go out there and decide that the rule of law is a multiple-choice test and you simply get to go out there and say, ‘None of the above.’”
HIGHER-ED, IMMIGRATION TOP PRIORITIES
Two days after the start of the session, the Senate unanimously signed off on one of Negron’s top priorities — a sweeping higher-education measure that would permanently expand Bright Futures merit scholarships for some 94,000 university and college students.
The legislation (SB 4) revives a higher-education initiative, known as the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act,” that was vetoed by Scott last year, when he objected to its impact on the state college system.
Despite Scott’s veto, most of the changes occurred this academic year because they were included in the state budget. But the new bill would make those changes permanent and expand them.
“The bill we passed today really transforms our commitment to higher education,” Negron said.
The House, meanwhile, spent hours debating Corcoran’s effort to prevent “sanctuary” cities. But it remains unclear whether the measure will make it through the Senate, which has refused to take up similar bills in the past.
Under the proposal — dubbed the “Rule of Law Adherence Act” — state or local governmental entities or law enforcement agencies would be fined up to $5,000 for each day they are deemed to be out of compliance. The bill would require complying with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention requests and repealing current sanctuary policies.
The House took up the issue Thursday, a day after federal immigration officials raided 7-Eleven convenience stores in 17 states, including Florida, resulting in 21 arrests. The debate started on the same day President Donald Trump sparked outrage after reportedly questioning why the U.S. should accept immigrants from “s—-hole countries” such as Haiti and African countries.
Critics of the measure brand it an election-year political ploy by GOP House leaders, including Corcoran, who could run for governor.
“Undocumented immigrants are just as American as the rest of us. They just don’t have the paperwork. This bill creates two criminal justice systems, one for undocumented immigrants and one for everyone else,” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, said.
OIL DRILLING WHIPLASH
Florida waters were removed Tuesday from a new White House proposal to open previously protected parts of the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling.
Scott hailed the move, but critics questioned whether the move and manner of announcement by the Trump administration were done to further Scott’s political career.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, making a brief appearance Tuesday night at Tallahassee International Airport, credited the governor, who was by his side, for the decision to remove Florida from the drilling proposal, which had been announced just days earlier.
“The great state of Florida has expressed and the governor has expressed his desire not to drill and not to have production platforms off the coast,” Zinke said when asked why Florida waters were removed from the pending review while waters off neighboring states remain eligible. “We think we have the assets in this country onshore and offshore and the rest of the Gulf to meet the president’s desire for energy dominance.”
The initial proposal was widely condemned by Florida politicians from both parties, including Scott. After the Trump administration reversed course Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — a Democrat expected to be challenged for his seat later this year by Scott — was quick to call Zinke’s action a “political stunt.”
“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts,” Nelson said in a statement. “But now, suddenly, Secretary Zinke announces plans to drill off Florida’s coast and four days later agrees to ‘take Florida off the table?’ I don’t believe it. This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott, who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career. We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of Florida.”