Legislature 2018: Agenda fest
With the governor's job up for grabs and two open Cabinet positions, a horde of legislators will be looking for angles to play.
The budget will be the dominant issue during this month’s session. State economists say expenses from Hurricane Irma have likely wiped out what was expected to be a tiny surplus of general revenue. That means lawmakers will have very little wiggle room to boost spending or cut taxes as they build an $85 billion-plus budget — the one bill they must pass. And House Speaker Richard Corcoran has said he will block any budget that calls for collecting more local property taxes for schools, which will force the Legislature to devote a big chunk of general revenue — in the neighborhood of $450 million — to paying for any school funding increases. Corcoran also says the House will refuse to consider local spending projects unless they are directly tied to hurricane recovery, a battle he may have already won after the removal of earmark-champion Sen. Jack Latvala as Senate budget chair.
There’s no way the Legislature won’t cut taxes, especially in an election year. But legislators have to be selective since the state’s finances are so tight. Scott has proposed a relatively modest $180-million package of cuts, roughly half of which would come from sales-tax holidays on school supplies and hurricane supplies. Scott also wants to reduce drivers license fees and fines for speeding tickets and certain other traffic citations. More ambitiously, Scott wants the Legislature to pass a constitutional amendment requiring a supermajority vote before future Legislatures can raise any tax or fee. That will be a big bargaining chip. Scott will almost certainly have to trade something for it — perhaps instructions to his Constitution Revision Commission appointees to support other proposed amendments important to Corcoran or Negron.
Last year’s legislative session nearly ground to a halt until Corcoran and Negron agreed to a trade: Corcoran’s K-12 education policies (most notably the “schools of hope” initiative making it easier for privately managed charter schools to expand and obtain state funding) for Negron’s college and university policies (expanding Bright Futures and imposing restrictions on state colleges). This year’s session could be heading toward a similar deal, as one of Corcoran’s top priorities this spring is HB 1 — which would create a “hope scholarship program” providing school vouchers for children who are bullied in public schools. “Richard Corcoran is going to make this bullying bill the next trade bait for anything the Senate wants,” one lobbyist predicts. “Nothing will get done in the legislative session unless that bill is passed by the House and the Senate.”
Unfortunately for Negron, last year’s education trade didn’t work out so well. While Scott signed Corcoran’s K-12 package, he vetoed Negron’s higher education bill because, Scott said, it would harm the state college system. So Negron’s top priority this spring is getting it all across the finish line again. Negron’s university changes — led by a major expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program — are a good bet to pass, though they carry a hefty price tag. Changing the state college system, including limiting the number of baccalaureate degrees they can award and renaming it the community college system, will be a much tougher sell.
Corcoran knows an opening when he sees one, so expect a lot of immigration sound and fury this session, as Corcoran positions himself as an anti-illegal immigration hardliner against Putnam in the governor’s race. The House is likely to very quickly pass a bill penalizing so-called “sanctuary cities” that refuse to enforce federal immigration laws — allowing Corcoran to spend the rest of the session inveighing against the Senate for refusing to go along with it. Ultimately, an anti-immigration bill is unlikely to pass the Senate — because politicians who aren’t locked in competitive Republican primaries want nothing to do with it, especially Scott, whose focus is on a general election matchup with U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Corcoran could also push to resurrect E-Verify, whether through the Legislature or the Constitution Revision Commission.