Can Florida Lawmakers leave Tallahassee on time? The mood in the state capital has gone from one of pessimism, to cautious optimism that leaders can strike key deals in time.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran raised the specter of a special session before lawmakers officially got down to work.
“I’ve said it a thousand times. The House will not raise taxes. And if that means a lengthy year, we’re prepared for that. But we will not raise taxes. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever," he said in January.
And that’s provided the fuel for months-long speculation on whether the legislature will leave Tallahassee on time. Lawmakers have one job: Pass a budget. But the talk of special session has ratcheted up in recent weeks as a $4 billion gap between the House and Senate spending plans has emerged. The differences are fueled by big disagreements over water, federal healthcare funding, gambling and local taxes that support education. Now Senate President Joe Negron is saying he’s not leaving town until there’s a deal on his top priority: securing additional water storage around Central Florida’s Lake Okeechobee.
“So, I’m committed 100 percent to not concluding session until we have additional southern storage not only planned for, but arrangements made to secure it, and have it paid for."
House leaders have said they don’t support plans for financing the project, a move called bonding. Senate Budget Chief Jack Latvala also raised the possibility of special session while joking during a recent speech to the Capital City Tiger Bay Club.
“Only 14 more weeks to go. Fully believe that we’ll be here right up to the fourth of July," he told the crowd. "You know the way the Constitution is set up, the Governor takes over the budget July 1st, and decides what’s going to continue to be funded. And I know the House of Representatives is no way going to allow that to happen, so I know we’ll be done by July 1st.
July 1 is the start of the new fiscal year. And to Latvala’s point—if the Governor gets to take over the budget, he’s likely to keep the state’s tourism and economic development agencies fully funded, something the House adamantly opposes. But now Latvala has changed his tune, saying there’s still hope for an on time ending:
"We need to start in conference by the first of the week in order to get done on time. But I have every confidence that we will do that at this point, which is different from my opinion at the first part of this week.”
The key to it all is getting basic budget allocations out early next week. Corcoran says he expects that to happen at the latest, Monday. “I think optimally it would nice to have allocations Monday. That would give a full week for committees to meet and bumps to occur," he told reporters.
Corcoran says a week is enough time for lawmakers to iron out differences within the budget and make time for the mandatory three-day cooling off period.
The Orlando Sentinel estimated in 2015 that each week of a special session costs Florida taxpayers about $200,000 in reimbursement for travel, hotel and meals for 160 lawmakers. And while it may not sound like a lot, each dollar is money the state could have spent elsewhere in the budget.