Florida Senate promises no deals as special session opens

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Bureau Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 07, 2017, 9:15 PM EDT

A divided Florida Legislature on Wednesday opened a special session that many lawmakers expect will exceed its three-day timetable -- perhaps by weeks.

An impasse over the closed-door deal that formed the basis for the session led the Senate to override Gov. Rick Scott's veto of the state's K-12 education budget. Under an agreement forged with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Scott nixed the spending plan on Friday with the expectation that the legislature would pass a new education budget highlighted by an increase in per-pupil funding.

But the money to pay for the increase would have come at the expense of state universities. The governor also vetoed $108 million in higher education funding, planning to divert it to public schools. The cash had been part of Senate President Joe Negron's signature plan to boost financial support for the state university system.

Negron says he never agreed to the arrangement between the governor and the speaker, raising the prospect that the special session could melt down in dysfunction. Wednesday's override vote was billed as a preemptive measure to ensure that public schools could continue to operate if talks drag on past July 1, when the 2017-18 budget takes effect.

"We're in contentious times here," Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), the Senate budget chief, told his chamber. "We're faced with a very aggressive House of Representatives in advocating their position on issues. We're faced with words like 'take it without amendment', things like that, and so, you never know what that's going to produce."

Senate leaders suggested paying for an increase in public school funding in a way that wouldn't raid the higher education money -- code for hiking taxes, in the eyes of House Republicans.

"By them saying we're going to override on the existing, underlying legislation says either take the underlying legislation or take our massive tax increase," Corcoran said in an interview. "That's not a good sign and it's not a good -- when you're a conservative Republican Senate -- that's something I'd expect out of Harry Reid, not a Republican Senate."

The debate over the education funding also throws into question another part of the Scott-Corcoran deal: a widely-rumored quid pro quo that involves Corcoran signing off on much of Scott's prized economic development agenda in exchange for Scott promising not to veto the speaker's 'Schools of Hope' program to spend $200 million on building charter schools in areas served by failing public schools. Such a trade would take buy-in from the Senate, where Schools of Hope narrowly passed during the regular session.

As for Corcoran's sudden support for Scott -- whose economic development initiatives he spent months bemoaning as "corporate welfare" -- the speaker said in the interview that the two men had overcome their differences without sacrificing their principles.

"What's great about Gov. Scott, what's great about the House, is you passionately go out there and you fight courageously for those things that you believe in," Corcoran said. "The governor's done that, the House has done that, and you get to a point where you end up with policy -- I think when you do that based in principle -- that's beneficial to the whole state."