by Jason Garcia
Updated 4 yearss ago
NOTE: State Sen. Jack Latvala resigned from the Florida Senate on Dec. 20, 2017.
Last spring, Adam Putnam, the state’s agriculture commissioner and the leading candidate for governor this year, lobbied the Florida Legislature to pass a bill that would have reformed an obscure entity known as the “rural economic development initiative.”
The changes were relatively modest. The bill required certain agency heads to serve on the agency’s board of directors, rather than leaving the job to lower-level staffers. It wouldn’t have cost a dime to enact. But it was important to Putnam, a Polk County native who has made economic development of rural areas a focus of his tenure as ag commissioner — and a talking point of his campaign for governor.
Putnam’s bill was breezing along through the Florida Senate — it cleared three committees, all by unanimous votes — when it suddenly hit a roadblock in the House. An appropriations committee refused to give it a hearing, effectively killing the bill.
“It just didn’t go anywhere,” says Rep. Chuck Clemons (R-Gainesville), who sponsored the bill in the House on Putnam’s behalf. “Frankly, I didn’t get any sort of explanation as to why it wasn’t moving forward.”
But whispers around the Capitol attribute the roadblock to one person: House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes), who is expected to run against Putnam this year in the Republican primary for governor — and who has little incentive to let Putnam score any kind of legislative wins.
“There are a lot of agendas in the Legislature,” Putnam says.
For his part, Corcoran says the bill never even bubbled up to his level — but if it had, he adds, he would have opposed it because “it’s just growing government and in essence a pathway for corporate welfare.”
It was, all things considered, a minor issue. But it offers a glimpse into the way competing electoral agendas influence the legislative session. That influence will be even more pronounced this session, an election year in which more than half a dozen legislators are running against each other for the governor’s job and two open Cabinet seats.
Corcoran remains the most powerful person in the Legislature. Beyond him, state Rep. Matt Caldwell (R-Lehigh Acres) and state Sen. Denise Grimsley (R-Sebring) are running for agriculture commissioner. Reps. Jay Fant (R-Jacksonville), Frank White (R-Pensacola) and Ross Spano (R-Dover) are running for attorney general. Sen. Tom Lee (R-Brandon), a former Senate president, has already hired a pollster and campaign manager for a likely campaign for Chief Financial Officer against Jimmy Patronis, who was appointed to the position earlier this year by Gov. Rick Scott. And then there’s Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), who launched a campaign for governor late last year but now finds that bid on life-support following a series of sexual harassment allegations.
The impact of the elections will be everywhere. Corcoran, for instance, will likely use the session as a way to burnish his anti-illegal immigration reputation against Putnam, who once supported a pathway to citizenship while a member of Congress. One of the first bills the House votes on this year will be a measure to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials. Even before the session began, Corcoran was hammering the Senate to pass the bill, too. “While we push a bold conservative agenda through the House, the Senate all too often stymies our progress and reneges on their promises to voters,” he wrote in a November editorial in the Tampa Bay Times.
Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott will try to avoid getting bogged down in ideological battles in the Legislature this spring since he is expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Focused entirely on the general election, Scott will pursue a modest agenda: A $180-million package of consumer-oriented tax cuts, an increase in K-12 spending, a constitutional amendment to make it harder for future Legislatures to raise taxes and a law requiring nursing homes to have emergency generators and adequate fuel to run air-conditioning following a hurricane.
Adding another wrinkle to this year’s session: The Constitution Revision Commission, the once-every-two-decades entity that is currently weighing potential constitutional amendments for the 2018 ballot. The Legislature has always been an arena for horse-trading, and the CRC adds another place for negotiation. Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron might agree to pass Scott’s nursing home bill, for instance, in exchange for Scott instructing his CRC appointees to support amendments they want to get through the CRC.
The assortment of sexual harassment and infidelity scandals in Tallahassee has provided a backdrop for an already-ingrained culture of suspicion and mistrust. For instance, many senators privately note that one of the first people to call for Latvala’s resignation was Rep. Matt Caldwell — the Lehigh Acres Republican running for agriculture commissioner. Latvala was a powerful supporter of Sen. Denise Grimsley, the Sebring Republican who is one of Caldwell’s opponents. As Senate appropriations chair, Latvala was in a position to legislatively punish other lawmakers who sided with Caldwell by blocking funding for their own priorities. (Sure enough, the same day Latvala was removed as Senate budget chair, more than half a dozen prominent House members — including three top Corcoran deputies — immediately endorsed Caldwell.)
“Legislators, lobbyists and citizens have all told me since I got in (the ag commissioner race) that they can’t be involved until after the session because Sen. Latvala will punish them,” Caldwell says.
Latvala calls Caldwell’s claim “ridiculous. I think Denise Grimsley is an exceptional public servant. But I haven’t really been involved in that race.”
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.
One of the most devastating impacts of Hurricane Irma was the death of more than a dozen residents of a south Florida nursing home that lost power — and, as a result, air-conditioning — and did not have a backup generator. The story ensnared Scott, after it turned out that staff from the nursing home called his cell phone four times to seek help. Scott, who says all of the messages were forwarded to the appropriate authorities, is now calling on the Legislature to pass a law requiring all nursing homes and senior-living facilities to have generators and fuel to cool their buildings for 96 hours. It’s likely the single top priority this spring for the governor, who is anxious to shore up his defense against political attacks on the issue this fall. But the industry is battling Scott — and Corcoran and Negron both know how badly Scott wants the bill. They’ll make sure to get something extra from him in exchange for it. Other ideas in play include a new north-south road to help alleviate evacuation traffic, statewide fuel reserves and incentives for utilities to bury more power lines.
One area Florida’s elected leaders are likely to rally around this session is the battle to combat opioid addiction and abuse. Scott, for instance, has proposed spending more than $50 million on things like substance-abuse treatment and counseling and legislation in order to more sharply limit opioid prescriptions. Some sort of package seems destined to pass, particularly in an election year where everybody is motivated to demonstrate accomplishments.
One Florida business betting big on Putnam’s gubernatorial campaign is Disney, which gave his political committee more than $225,000 in 2017. Perhaps not surprisingly, Corcoran is going hard after the tourism industry again this year. One of the first bills filed in the House this spring would impose a host of new financial and transparency restrictions on local tourism promotion and economic development agencies, such as Visit Orlando. Even more ominously for the industry, Corcoran has also expressed support for legislation to allow counties to begin spending their hotel-tax collections on local needs — such as transportation and water quality.
Momentum appears to be building to abandon Florida’s no-fault, personal injury protection system of auto insurance in favor of a market where every driver is required to buy bodily injury coverage. But there’s lots of money at stake and competing interests involved. Lawmakers will also spend more time debating assignment-of-benefits insurance reform. But that, too, is a fight among lawyers, insurers and home-repair vendors. But some lobbyists involved in the issues think there could be momentum toward deals this year, in part because trial lawyers — who have friendly ears in both Corcoran and Negron — may not enjoy such a strong position any time soon. Workers’ comp will once again be debated, though insiders say auto insurance changes and assignment of benefits reform are far more likely to happen.
With elections looming, look for legislators to boost spending on land acquisition in hope of blunting criticism that they have inadequately funded Amendment One, the environmental preservation amendment that Florida voters overwhelmingly approved in 2014. The big push will come out of the Senate, which is already moving forward on bills mandating $100 million a year for the Florida Forever land-buying program, boosting springs restoration spending from $50 million to $75 million, and earmarking $50 million for restoring the St. Johns River and its tributaries.
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