Old Florida Capitol building (Richard Tribou)
TALLAHASSEE – Florida faces no shortage of complex issues – an opioid abuse epidemic, funding for schools, affordable housing and more – but more than halfway through their time at the Capitol, lawmakers have sent Gov. Rick Scott just four substantive bills.
It’s not unprecedented. Lawmakers meet for 60 days each year during regular session, and the bulk of the action typically happens in the final two weeks, as House and Senate negotiators hold back priorities of the other chamber to force through deals.
“We’re halfway done, but nowhere near half the work’s been done yet,” said Democratic consultant Steve Schale. “That’s how these things work.”
Yet in recent years, brinkmanship has bubbled over into animosity between the GOP-led chambers, resulting in special or extended sessions in 2015 and 2017 as Scott and legislative leaders squabbled over health care spending, education funding, tourism marketing and economic development.
This year, the chambers remain divided over similar issues as they enter the second half.
The biggest difference is in the approach to education. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has tied the main education funding formula to HB 7055, an omnibus education bill full of controversial provisions, including a new voucher program for bullied students and new certification rules for teachers’ unions.
The move could grind the session to a halt if the Senate refuses to go along, something Democrats are pleading for them to do.
“I hope the whole thing blows up,” Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, said Wednesday. “I hope it all blows up, and then we come back and do it the right way. I hope the Senate rejects the budget.”
Corcoran, though, backed off his position somewhat Thursday, saying his education bill could be brought up on a standalone vote. But he’s still dedicated to passing the bill, which also shifts more money to charter schools, no matter how long it takes.
“If it takes six months, if it takes two days, the goal is to pass the greatest transformational policy that absolutely impacts positively the people of the state of Florida,” Corcoran said. “Time is not an issue.”
Democrats have criticized Republicans for looking to cut social programs and have focused most of their rhetoric at Corcoran, who is considering a run for governor. they contend he is putting his political ambitions ahead of the needs of the state.
“Again, for those who need it the most, we gave less,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami.
Corcoran has pushed for bills that ban sanctuary cities, make it more difficult for future lawmakers to raise taxes and fees and impose stricter lobbying and ethics rules. Those bills are either all but dead, contain significant differences or have yet to receive a hearing in the Senate.
Conversely, the priorities of Senate President Joe Negron, such as a funding boost for universities and Bright Futures Scholarships and criminal justice reforms, have yet to pass through the House.
The chambers are split on how to mete out $266 million in Medicaid funds for hospitals, how much to fund affordable housing programs and what to spend on tourism promotion.
Despite the differences, Schale expects a smooth ending to the session, as campaign season looms.
“Everybody wants to get out of here. Election years are like that,” Schale said. “But at the same time people want their legacy things to pass,” Schale said.
Scott is seeking to bolster his economic credentials by securing tax cuts and funding for tourism marketing and economic development as he considers entering the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Bill Nelson.
Scott has called for $100 million for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion group, and $185 million in tax cuts. The House has $76 million in its initial budget for Visit Florida, and the Senate has $50 million, which has drawn vocal rebukes from Scott.
But the chambers received some good news Friday in the form of revised economic forecasts that predicted an extra $500 million in revenues next year. The money, partly the result of higher sales tax revenues from rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Irma, will give lawmakers more room to work out a budget deal in the final four weeks of session.
Negron, though, issued a note of caution about the new numbers.
“While today’s news is positive, past experience shows us that revenue estimates can fluctuate and circumstances change,” said Negron, R-Stuart. “It is always best to remain cautious and prudent.”
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