Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Guessing Games At The Capitol

April 29, 2017

“Deal or No Deal” is not generally a guessing game, but that’s what it meant for much of the week in Tallahassee.

On Monday, the budget process was in shambles. But by Tuesday, there was a deal on “allocations” — a broad outline of state spending needed to move into formal negotiations. Then, by Wednesday, there were questions about whether the House and the Senate had any kind of agreement at all. Even lawmakers seemed to disagree about whether a deal was struck, or when it was done.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgBy Thursday, though, the two sides had officially come to an agreement, though there were still questions about what precisely the agreement entailed. The upshot, ultimately, was that it suddenly looked like the legislative session might end on time.

But there were signs that the Senate could have trouble delivering on one of the House’s demands. And Gov. Rick Scott was unhappy with the product emerging from the Capitol, which could also be problematic, given that he holds a veto pen.

On Friday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was asked whether he thought it was possible — particularly given Scott’s concerns — that the Legislature might have to return to Tallahassee to do the budget process all over again. ” Absolutely. I do,” Latvala responded.

Deal or no deal? For now, the first. But things can change quickly in Tallahassee.


For months now, reporters, lobbyists and more than a few lawmakers have been looking for signs that the Legislature wouldn’t be able to finish a budget on time, and that a special session would be needed.

That seemed to come Monday, when the House readied a vote on its second budget of the year, an act of brinksmanship that threatened to derail the entire process.

The House’s “standard operating budget” — or “S.O.B.,” as it soon became known at the Capitol — would have essentially held much of state spending at current levels, extending many of the same provisions into the coming budget year, which begins July 1. Extra spending meant to account for increased Medicaid costs and public school enrollment would also be funded.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, emphasized in a memo to House members that he was still optimistic about finding common ground with the Senate — but wanted to approve the S.O.B. just in case.

“However, by considering this standard operating budget as a contingency, we would prevent an unnecessary government shutdown, protect the state’s future, and still enable us to fund new priorities in the future,” he wrote.

The Senate was unimpressed, comparing the measure to the continuing resolutions passed by Congress when that body can’t agree on spending.

“Why do we want to model Florida after Washington, D.C.?” asked Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the S.O.B. on Tuesday morning. And then, Tuesday night, came word that the House and Senate had a deal. Or not. Or had a deal but still had some details to work through.

“When we closed business (Tuesday), the major issues had been agreed on, at this point there is some tweaking going on what I call second- and third-tier issues,” Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican set to become Senate president late next year, said Wednesday morning.

The next morning, the deal was formally, officially announced. Many were frustrated by the secrecy surrounding the allocations process, but most of the big items had either leaked out or were confirmed by legislative leaders.

The Senate would get the higher education changes and increased investment in universities that are dear to Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Negron would also get a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, another priority.

In exchange, the House would get its way on public schools. That included around $200 million for teacher bonuses and $200 million to encourage charter schools to open up near academically struggling traditional public schools. The exact language was either still being worked out or still a closely guarded secret.

The Senate would get a pay raise for state workers; the House would likely get changes to the retirement and health-care plans for those same employees. But there was something else that Corcoran wanted that could still threaten the pact.


One part of the understanding between House and Senate leaders appears to be approving a new homestead exemption on local property taxes that Corcoran has pushed for. The question is whether Senate GOP leaders, down two members, can deliver.

The constitutional amendment (HJR 7105) would need 24 votes to go before voters in the 2018 elections. And Republicans won 25 seats in last year’s election, which would normally mean the fate of an amendment crucial to the budget process would be all but decided.

However. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, has missed the session as she recovers from cancer treatment. And former Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, was forced to resign last week after a racially charged rant in front of colleagues at a Tallahassee nightspot.

That gives Democrats a veto on something like the homestead exemption proposal — if they can hold together.

“We’re pretty united on that issue,” Clemens said Thursday. “It’s an issue that hurts the poor. It hurts renters and it hurts small businesses.”

At the same time, two Democrats voted for the amendment in a committee meeting Friday, before the legislation moved to the Senate floor. Corcoran might still get his way in the end.

Someone else had reason to be unhappy with the deal as it was: Scott. The agreement would give him $25 million for tourism marketing — he wanted as much as $100 million — and none of the business incentives that he asked for.

But upon returning from a trade mission to Argentina, Scott shied away from using the most powerful weapon in his arsenal: the veto threat.

Addressing reporters outside his Capitol office Thursday between individual meetings with more than a dozen lawmakers, Scott said there is a lot of “frustration” over the way the session is going. But the governor repeated that he intends to review the budget after it reaches his desk.

“I’m going to look at all my opportunities,” Scott said, when asked about a potential budget veto. “I’ll go through the budget. I’m going to do whatever is the best for the citizens of this state.”


Even as the budget was up in the air, lawmakers were looking to hammer out an agreement on another contentious issue: Gambling. The joint House-Senate conference committee working on that issue began meeting Monday.

“There are some low-hanging fruits in here, and there are some more complicated issues that we need to work through, but it is the intent of the House to negotiate in good faith and hopefully get us across the finish line,” the House’s chief negotiator, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said. “Obviously, time is running out, but we are still early enough in session where I think we can be productive and do a good deal for the state of Florida.”

By the end of the week, the Senate had made a concessions to the Seminole Tribe, whose rights to offer certain games at its casinos is central to the negotiations.

Under the latest offer, the Seminoles would not be required to guarantee $3 billion in payments to the state in exchange for adding craps and roulette to the tribe’s casino operations.

But the upper chamber didn’t back away from other high-profile positions. Those positions include allowing slot machines at pari-mutuels in eight counties where voters have approved them, as well as limited blackjack at South Florida “racinos,” and two new casinos — with slots and cardrooms — in Broward and/or Miami-Dade counties.

The elimination of the proposed $3 billion requirement for the Seminoles, which would have been paid over seven years, is a concession to the tribe, which has maintained that federal officials won’t sign off on such a deal, something that would be required.

“I’m excited about the direction this is going,” Diaz said Thursday morning.

The issue of slots in the eight counties — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington — remains one of the main sticking points in the negotiations, after Diaz made an offer Wednesday that included major concessions to the Senate.

In that offer, the House partially agreed to the Senate’s plan to allow nearly all dog and horse tracks to do away with live racing but keep more lucrative cardrooms or slots, a process known as “decoupling.” The House, however, would require voters to approve decoupling in county referendums.

The Senate’s counteroffer Thursday rejected the requirement of decoupling referendums and maintained a Senate position that would also allow jai alai frontons to quit holding matches while keeping more lucrative gambling activities.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Lawmakers reached an agreement on the broad outlines of an $83 billion budget and began negotiations aimed at bridging the remaining gaps.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The reports of the demise of session have been greatly exaggerated.”—House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, in a statement announcing the deal.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


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