Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: ‘Cardiac Kids’ Go Home From Tallahassee

June 11, 2017

Legislative sessions often follow a similar script.

They start with high hopes, get sidetracked in disagreements and posturing and then, like a miracle, come together in grand bargains.

That was pretty much the story of the special session that ended by cocktail hour Friday.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgThe story started a week earlier when Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron appeared at a news conference in Miami to announce plans for the special session. After months of bickering, Scott and Corcoran had agreed on a deal to boost funding for public schools and economic development. Negron? Well, his involvement in the news conference became a matter of debate.

But as the session started Wednesday, the drama had started to build. Senators were unhappy. Democrats tried to ramp up the storyline of dysfunctional Republican leadership. News stories raised the specter of the session collapsing.

Then came Friday, the final day of the special session. And out of the backrooms came a compromise that Scott, Corcoran and Negron supported. At 4:42 p.m., the session ended.

“We call ourselves the cardiac kids,” Corcoran said. “We get you guys all worked up, and then we come to a nice smooth landing and we accomplish a tremendous amount of policy.”

GOING BACK TO SCHOOL

Most lawmakers like to tell the folks back home about how the Legislature has increased funding for public schools. But when lawmakers returned to their districts after the regular session ended last month, they faced a blowback for not putting enough money into schools.

The state budget approved at the end of the regular session included only a $24.49 per-student increase in the main funding formula for public schools.

Scott took the highly unusual step of vetoing the portion of the budget that includes the formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP, and making increased education funding a centerpiece of the special session. Scott and legislative leaders agreed to an additional $215 million for the FEFP — which translates into an increase of $100 per student.

“These dollars are greatly needed, severely needed. If we had not done this, if we had not had the work of (Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack) Latvala and others to get these extra dollars, three weeks from now school districts would be laying off people and cutting programs, quite frankly,” said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who is CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “And that’s not the sky’s falling, that’s the reality of it.”

The increased funding drew bipartisan support during the special session, with the House and Senate overwhelmingly passing an FEFP bill (HB 3A). But arguments about education funding and policy continued to linger, largely because of a massive bill, commonly known as HB 7069, that passed at the end of the regular session.

Corcoran, the main architect of the bill, has called HB 7069 the “greatest educational K-12 policy that we’ve passed in the history of the state.”

But critics are pressuring Scott to veto the bill, which they contend would hurt traditional public schools because of changes involving such issues as charter schools and Title I funding that goes to schools in low-income areas.

Not exactly on the same page as Corcoran, Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, called HB 7069 “the most horrific public- education bill to ever pass the Florida Legislature. It will hasten the privatization of our public schools.”

JOBS, JOBS, JOBS (AND A DIKE)

Scott and Corcoran feuded for months about the future of economic-development efforts, with the House wanting to do away with the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and slash funding for tourism-marketer Visit Florida.

To Scott, the programs were crucial to carrying out his “jobs, jobs, jobs” mission. To Corcoran, they were dens of “corporate welfare” and questionable spending.

But going into the special session, it looked like Scott and Corcoran had a plan to bridge their differences. The Legislature, in part, would provide $76 million to Visit Florida — up from $25 million approved during the regular session — and put more restrictions on the agency’s operations and contracting.

Also, lawmakers would create an $85 million “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund,” which would provide money for infrastructure projects and job-training programs to help in economic development. The House could say it didn’t give in on its opposition to providing money for direct business incentives, while Scott could say he got economic-development tools he needed.

Big picture, that’s what ended up in a bill (HB 1A) that passed Friday. But the bill also picked up a couple of other issues — money for repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee and money for higher-education projects — that became necessary to, in Corcoran’s words, bring the session in for a landing.

The bill came together Friday, a day after Negron, in somewhat-uncharacteristic fashion, said the Senate wouldn’t agree to a deal reached between Scott and Corcoran without concessions. Negron also pushed back against what he described as a “fake narrative” that he was involved in negotiations leading up to Scott’s decision to call the session, saying the House and the governor hammered out the agreement.

“We’re glad that they’re coming together and that they’re reaching common ground, but we’re not just going to rubber-stamp an agreement that two parties made without our priorities being taken into account,” Negron said.

The final details emerged early Friday afternoon after behind-the-scenes negotiations.

The Senate got at least part of what it wanted — $60 million for higher-education projects across the state. Scott had vetoed $75 million of such projects from the budget that lawmakers passed during the regular session, angering Senate leaders. The special-session deal will restore funding for projects, though at somewhat lower amounts.

Meanwhile, Scott also got something he wanted — $50 million to help speed up repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of the project, but Scott in recent months has pushed for shortening the schedule of the work.

In the end, Scott appeared to get what he wanted during the three-day special session, with lawmakers approving the money for schools, economic development and dike repairs.

“I’m excited to travel the state and brag about what got accomplished in the special session,” Scott said at a news conference after the session ended.

MAYBE SOME RELIEF

Like with public-school funding, lawmakers went home after the regular session and faced criticism for not reaching agreement on a plan to carry out a November constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

A major part of the backstory is that marijuana businesses see Florida as a potentially lucrative market and have been lobbying and maneuvering to be better-positioned than their competitors. A key sticking point between the House and Senate during the regular session was about how many retail stores the marijuana operators should be able to run.

But the special session provided another chance for lawmakers to negotiate the regulatory framework for the industry. And Friday afternoon, they received overwhelming approval of a bill (SB 8-A) that includes increasing the number of businesses that can receive medical-marijuana licenses and allowing each of those businesses to initially have up to 25 retail stores.

House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, who shepherded the measure through his chamber, said lawmakers “have a responsibility and a duty” to implement the amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters, or else the regulatory framework would be decided by the courts.

The constitutional amendment made medical marijuana legal for what is expected to be hundreds of thousands of patients with debilitating conditions. That is a dramatic increase from the limited types of patients who have access to cannabis under laws passed in 2014 and 2016.

“The House did not get everything the House wanted and the Senate did not get everything the Senate wanted,” but the compromise bill is one “that both of us can live with and is actually very good policy,” Rodrigues, R-Estero, said before the bill was approved.

But medical marijuana still could end up the courts because of part of the bill that bans smoking cannabis, effectively requiring patients to find other ways to receive the treatment.

Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, who largely bankrolled the constitutional amendment, pledged to fight the smoking ban.

“I do care about smoke, and I will sue them because of that,” Morgan told The News Service of Florida in a telephone interview Friday afternoon. “It clearly was called for in the amendment, and so what they’ve done for me is allowed me to step back up on my soapbox and go get what the people of Florida wanted when they passed this bill with 71 percent.”

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida lawmakers finished a special session Friday with a deal that included increased funding for schools and economic development and a plan to carry out a medical-marijuana constitutional amendment.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t look right. You and I know that.” — Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, arguing against part of a bill that would require health officials to give preference for up to two medical-marijuana licenses to businesses currently or previously involved in “the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses.”

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

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