Florida Gov’t Weekly Roundup: Strange Ed-Fellows

June 18, 2017

If there was one thing that Gov. Rick Scott could count on during this spring’s regular legislative session, it was the Florida Senate.

It was the Senate that took Scott’s side in a fight with the House over economic-development incentives and tourism marketing. It was the Senate that, like Scott, wanted to spend more money on the main formula for funding public education than did the House.

http://www.northescambia.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/floridaweeklly.jpgMeanwhile, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, was filing lawsuits against agencies overseen by Scott and bashing the governor’s beloved incentives as “corporate welfare.”

A lot has changed in a few short weeks.

Now, Scott and Corcoran are lavishing each other with praise and touring the state together to tout the outcome of a special session this month. And in a turn of events that would have been almost unthinkable in late April or early May, Scott signed an education bill that was one of Corcoran’s top priorities while vetoing a higher-education measure pushed by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Whether the newfound alliance between Scott and Corcoran can last will be closely followed over the next several months. It might be difficult for two men who resist compromise to continue striking deals. But then again, the fact that they’re simpatico now defies the odds.

A POLITICAL EDUCATION

There was a long line of groups opposed to the massive and controversial education bill (HB 7069) that Corcoran wanted. The measure had drawn nearly unanimous opposition from the state’s major public-education organizations. Open-government, voting-rights and grassroots organizations opposed it because of the policies in the proposal, the closed-door negotiations that produced it or a combination of the two.

In the end, Scott bucked them all Thursday, signing into law a 278-page, $419 million measure that promotes charter schools, requires recess for elementary students, scales back state testing and makes large and small changes to education law that are hard to summarize in the space constraints of the modern news article.

Scott and Corcoran touted the benefits of the bill and a $100 increase in per-student school funding — approved separately in the special session — at a signing ceremony in Orlando.

“The historic funding we’ve secured, along with more choices for students, will give every family in Florida the ability to receive a quality education, no matter what ZIP code they live in,” Scott said during the event at the Morning Star Catholic School.

Opponents were not as impressed. The Florida Democratic Party said Scott and Republicans had “declared war on our public schools.”

Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, said the legislation “will do harm to our schools and to our most vulnerable students.”

“Blindly jumping into this so-called ‘fundamental transformation’ of how we educate our children is based almost entirely on ideology,” she said. “At best this is malpractice. This is no way to build a high-quality public education system.”

Scott’s signature for Corcoran’s bill came a day after he delivered a major veto to Negron.

The higher-education proposal that Scott’s veto wiped out (SB 374) was not just any initiative. It was a key focus of Negron’s presidency, an expansive, 291-page bill meant to reshape colleges and universities in the state.

Scott explained his veto by objecting to a proposed enrollment cap on baccalaureate degrees for the 28 state colleges and citing the Legislature’s decision to cut the state college system’s budget by $25 million, while substantially increasing spending on state universities.

“This legislation impedes the state college system’s mission by capping the enrollment level of baccalaureate degrees and unnecessarily increasing red tape,” Scott said in his veto message, noting he is a product of a community college that helped him eventually gain a law degree after he left the U.S. Navy.

A few of the ideas in the Senate bill can be salvaged, at least for now. The spending is embedded in the new $82 billion state budget, which takes effect July 1.

Among those spending items is a plan to increase the Bright Futures merit-scholarship program to cover full tuition and fees for top-performing students, known as academic scholars. But the budget is only good for a year.

Negron said the veto of the bill, known as the “Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2017,” will cast uncertainty on expansion of the Bright Futures program for the future.

“Students and families deserve certainty when making these important decisions, and today’s veto makes advance planning much more difficult,” he said.

It wasn’t a total loss for all senators. The governor signed a bill (SB 7022) that included a pay raise for state workers promoted by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who fought hard for Scott’s business incentives.

THE LONG GOODBYE

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater said five months ago that he would soon leave his post to take an administrative job at Florida Atlantic University, near Atwater’s old stomping grounds as a state lawmaker. This week, he made it official.

Atwater announced that his last day on the job will be June 30 — which also happens to be the last day of the state’s budget year.

“I assure you that I and the entire Department of Financial Services staff (are) prepared to assist our new CFO during this time of transition in order to facilitate the seamless passing of responsibilities and duties to my successor,” Atwater wrote in his letter of resignation.

The CFO still had a few ideas, though, on what steps the state should take in some of the areas under his purview. Atwater told reporters Wednesday that lawmakers need to address an insurance practice that critics argue is driving up homeowners’ rates.

Lawmakers this spring could not agree on changes to the practice known as “assignment of benefits.” Insurers contend the practice has become riddled with fraud and abuse — particularly in claims for water damage to homes — and is increasing property-insurance costs.

“The Legislature needs to deal with it,” Atwater, who has been heavily involved in insurance issues, said after a Cabinet meeting.

The issue involves homeowners who need property repairs signing over benefits to contractors, who then pursue payments from insurance companies. Insurers argue the process has been abused by some contractors and law firms, spurring litigation and higher costs. But contractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys contend the process helps force insurers to properly pay claims.

A SUPREME DEBATE

Gov. Rick Scott will appoint a replacement for Atwater — that much is certain. But his authority to appoint replacements for three other state officials who are nearing the end of their service is in doubt.

A pair of voting-rights groups went to the Florida Supreme Court this week to ask justices whether Scott will have the power to reshape the court on his way out the door.

A petition filed by the League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause called on the court to clear up a simmering dispute about who has the right to name the successors to three justices whose terms will end the same day that Scott leaves the governor’s mansion.

Scott, who is term-limited, has already indicated that he has the right to appoint the justices’ replacements, because he will still essentially be governor for part of Jan. 8, 2019, the day when their terms end. But many legal observers have questioned that assertion, saying previous Supreme Court decisions and the wording of the Constitution suggest otherwise.

“The importance of deciding this issue before Governor Scott attempts to make the subject appointments cannot be overstated,” the groups’ petition argues.

NEVER TOO EARLY

Other Floridians are gearing up for the more traditional route to public office: running for it. And one who is running particularly hard right now is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, preparing for a shot at Scott’s office when the governor is termed out in 2018.

Putnam raised nearly $1.2 million in May for his campaign account, according to a report filed with the state Division of Elections. His political committee, Florida Grown, raised another $1 million during the month.

On the Democratic side, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham of Tallahassee piled up about $1.6 million after she joined the governor’s race in May. She raised more than $435,000 for her campaign account and another $1.16 million for her political committee, Our Florida.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, raised $97,000 for his gubernatorial campaign fund in May, bringing the total to $499,000. He had raised a total of $662,000 for his political committee, Forward Florida.

Chris King, a Winter Park businessman, raised some $221,000 for his Democratic gubernatorial campaign in May, records show. His political committee, Rise and Lead, raised $121,000 in May.

The race to replace Putnam was also heating up. Former state Rep. Baxter Troutman, R-Winter Haven, added his name to a crowded primary race for agriculture commissioner. Troutman said he would use $2.5 million of his own money to get started.

“For two decades, I’ve been building a business and continuing my work in Florida agriculture,” Troutman, of Winter Haven, said in a statement. “Real experience and success in the private sector is what we need more than ever.”

Troutman, 50, a four-term House member, said he would emphasize keeping “taxes low” and growing the state’s economy.

The Republican primary battle for agriculture commissioner also includes state Sen. Denise Grimsley of Sebring, state Rep. Matt Caldwell of North Fort Myers and Paul Paulson, an Orlando businessman. Michael Christine, a University of Miami law student, is running on the Democratic side.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott signed a wide-ranging and controversial education bill (HB 7069) after weeks of pressure from supporters and opponents.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “You know, I think it’s fair. I have such a deep love (for) the American history, Florida history, the Constitution that I realize I can get carried away. I’ll take that lump and see if I can’t get better at it. … I don’t know where I may have developed the opinion that my words should be extended and they’re of great value, but I do have a love affair and love to read about our history and often may share more than people are interested in.”—Outgoing Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, on the ribbing he sometimes takes over his verbose speaking style.

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

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