Divisions among Florida lawmakers threaten special session before it starts

click to enlarge Divisions among Florida lawmakers threaten special session before it starts
Photo via Florida House of Representatives
This week's special legislative session on education and economic-development funding seemed Tuesday to be on the verge of collapse before it even began, with Senate and House leaders trading barbs and facing a tight deadline.

With the special session set to run from Wednesday to Friday, lawmakers have left themselves almost no time for gamesmanship. But by the end of Tuesday, the House and Senate were taking different approaches on education and hospital funding, economic-development programs and whether to override some of Gov. Rick Scott's budget vetoes.

It was a striking show of division after Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron —- all Republicans —- indicated last week that they had agreed to terms for the session, allowing the session to be brief.

The split, if not resolved, threatens to require lawmakers to extend the time for the special session, or to call another. Because Scott vetoed the state's main public-education funding formula to clear the way for the special session, most school functions would otherwise be left unfunded as of July 1.

Failing to reach agreement by Friday would represent another black eye for Republicans, who have failed to pass a budget on time in two of the last three years.

The first public signs of trouble for the session emerged Tuesday, when Negron, R-Stuart, issued a memo to fellow senators saying he hadn't made any firm agreements with Scott or Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, about the session's outcome.

Negron also said the Senate wouldn't be limited to considering only issues included in Scott's proclamation calling for the special session. Taking up any legislation that isn't in line with Scott's call would require a two-thirds majority.

"As always, any senator may file legislation within, or outside of, the current proclamation for consideration by the Senate," Negron wrote.

He also suggested the Senate would look to override some of Scott's vetoes of higher-education projects. Negron has made a priority of higher education.

But proposals outlined Tuesday by Negron, which also included more funding for hospitals, a different approach on the economic-development agencies and a potential increase in some tax bills, drew a quick rebuke from Corcoran.

"Needless to say, the House is not raising taxes, not softening accountability rules, and not borrowing against reserves to pay for corporate giveaways," Corcoran said in a statement issued by his office. "And without question the House will not allow funding for our schoolchildren to be held hostage to pork barrel spending and special interest demands."

One of the starkest differences came on education funding. Under the Senate's proposal for the school formula (SB 2500-A), almost $143.1 million of a proposed $215.1 million increase would come from allowing local education property-tax bills to rise with property values.

Senators said the increase would only affect new construction, though it wasn't immediately clear how the legislation would achieve that.

The House has consistently ruled out any approach that would use those property tax dollars, saying that to do so would constitute a tax increase.

House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, hammered Republicans over the showdown and alluded to the costs of holding a special session.

"It is now clear that Republican leadership in Florida is willing to play chicken over the futures of our children in order to serve their own personal priorities," she said in a statement issued by her office. "To top it off, they're going to spend over $100,000 in taxpayer dollars to let this charade play out."

The Senate appeared to be trying to ratchet up the pressure on the House by saying the education funding bill would be subject to a constitutional requirement that the budget be available for review for 72 hours before lawmakers vote.

Any amendment to the Senate bill would reset the clock on the "cooling-off" period, Senate leaders say, pushing the end of the session into the weekend or beyond.

The House countered that the cooling-off period applies only to the full budget, which was approved by legislators last month —- not the education fix.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, released a letter dated Monday in which he told Negron the Legislature should also reconsider a controversial education bill (HB 7069). The measure, which narrowly passed the Senate last month, has come under fire for providing new sources of funding to public charter schools.

Garcia said there were some positive aspects to the legislation, which has not yet been sent to Scott for his signature or veto.

"However, absent giving the Legislature the opportunity to fix the aforementioned issues, I am not comfortable supporting any compromise that does not create a fair system for our publicly operated K-12 education institutions within the state," Garcia wrote.

The House and Senate are also offering slightly different approaches to tourism-marketing and business-incentive changes announced last week as part of the deal setting up the session.

Both the Senate's 51-page measure (SB 2-A) introduced Tuesday and the 58-page House proposal (HB 1A) filed Friday would allocate $76 million to Visit Florida, up from $25 million approved earlier, and $85 million for the "Florida Job Growth Grant Fund" within the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The bills also state that the "Florida Job Growth Grant Fund" money can't be given for the "exclusive benefit of any single company, corporation, or business entity."

Since the deal was announced, the House has remained emphatic that the incentive money not go to the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida, which is in line to received $16 million, mostly for operational expenses.

Still, the two chambers have taken different approaches.

In allowing the governor to approve money for projects that promote economic development through public infrastructure improvements and workforce training programs, the Senate is willing to let Enterprise Florida, in consultation with the Department of Transportation, jointly review and recommend projects with the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The House, which approved in the regular session a bill (HB 7005) that would have eliminated Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs, wants in its special session legislation to limit the project recommendations the governor gets to proposals coming strictly from the Department of Economic Opportunity.

The Senate also wants to the Department of Economic Opportunity to move into the State Economic Enhancement and Development Trust Fund about $107 million set aside for incentive deals in escrow accounts outside the state treasury. Money from the trust fund would be used to help pay for tourism marketing, Enterprise Florida operations and the Florida Jobs and Growth Grant Fund.

Negron noted the escrow shift "has been a bipartisan priority of the Senate for many years."

Both measures would cap salaries and seek to impose travel restrictions on Visit Florida, which has faced intense scrutiny over its $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull, and ongoing sponsorship deals with London-based Fulham Football Club and an IMSA racing team.

Also, the proposals would require Visit Florida contracts valued at $500,000 to be posted online by the agencies. Contracts over $750,000 would go before the Legislative Budget Commission and could be voided within 14 days by the House speaker or Senate president.


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