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Last Minute Dealmaking Casts Cloud Over Legislative Session

May 15, 2017
Originally published on May 12, 2017 4:20 pm

The Florida Legislature has passed its budget and gone home.  But the manner in which lawmakers closed out this year’s session raises a number of questions about process, special session, and the veto pen.

On the final day of the 2017 legislative session, state lawmakers took up 18 last minute proposals—the budget and its conforming bill, a tax cut package and 15 conforming bills.  Some of those measures—like one establishing an advisory group to make recommendations on maintenance at the Capitol—aren’t controversial. 

But others, like a massive education overhaul and a measure tying together state worker raises and benefit reform, raised hackles—especially in the Senate.

“The agreement with the House was we would take their bill and they would take our bill,” Senate budget chief Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) explained.

The deal traded the House prek-12 proposal for the Senate’s higher ed bill. 

“They got a little carried away with their bill,” Latvala went on.  “And perhaps it went a little further than a bill should’ve gone in the conforming bill process based on the rules of the Senate, based on our policies and based certainly on my preference.  For that I will take the responsibility.”

Lawmakers can’t amend conforming bills, which makes them an ideal vehicle for leaders in one chamber or another to slip policy that wouldn’t otherwise pass onto the other chamber’s floor.  

“Now some of you were here with me in 2011,” Latvala told lawmakers, “when on the last night of session we had a regular full scale throw down on conforming bills.”

“I would probably agree with the results of most of this report but I don’t agree with the process of how we got there,” Sen. Dennis Jones (R-Seminole) said at the time.

And his complaints mirror the concerns many lawmakers were voicing at the close of 2017’s session.

“I think we need to send a lesson back to the House: turn this bill down and in the future if you’re going to have a deregulation do it the right way,” Jones said.  “Put a House bill in, put a Senate bill in, get the public input, get it referred it to two or three committees, vote it up or vote it down.” 

“But don’t come around the back door and have it only done in one house and then expect us to swallow it.”

And the justifications for the move in 2011 are eerily familiar, too.

“As to the substance, the specific items that Senator Bogdanoff mentioned were all discussed in conference and included in our deliberations in conference,” Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) said of another of the 43 conforming measures lawmakers took up in 2011. 

Now, in 2017 House Speaker Richard Corcoran argues, “No, I think most of everything, most everything in that bill has been vetted,” of his chamber’s PreK-12 measure.  “And if it hasn’t been vetted, it’s been discussed at multiple levels of the committee process.”

It’s the same bill Latvala apologized for on the Senate floor—saying the House got “carried away.” But just like the conforming bill Gaetz defended in 2011, significant portions of the House bill never passed Senate committees.  Instead, leaders placed their priorities in conforming bills—forcing an up or down vote, and dealing one measure for another.  

When reporters asked Governor Rick Scott about potentially vetoing the entire budget, he criticized the backroom dealing.

“What I have the opportunity to do is veto the entire budget, or I can go line-by-line through the budget,” Scott said.  “There’s 4000 lines in the budget.”

“Now this is again, this is a budget that was done in secret,” Scott went on, “we’re just learning about what’s in the budget.  But I will be going through every line and I’ll make the best decision for all the citizens of the state no different than what I’ve done the last six years.”

And somewhere in all the wheeling and dealing, important issues got left by the wayside—none more glaring than medical marijuana.  Fleming Island Republican Senator Rob Bradley says he wants to address the issue sooner rather than later.

“At the latest next session,” he said shortly after lawmakers called it quits.  “And if we addressed it before then, that wouldn’t hurt my feelings either.”

“[It’s] the one big regret I have of session,” he went on, “because listen, sometimes bills don’t pass—that’s part of it—but that’s one that is a real regret of session.”

Now amid growing public pressure—71 percent of voters did approve a medical marijuana amendment, after all—House Speaker Richard Corcoran is voicing support for a special session.  Senate President Joe Negron is a bit more ambivalent—soliciting recommendations from his members before making any public pronouncements. 

Governor Scott can call a special session if he wants.  But if Negron and Corcoran can agree on a joint proclamation, they can call lawmakers back to Tallahassee, too.

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