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Politics

Weekly Roundup: A Pause to Give Thanks

November 24, 2016 - 11:00pm
Joe Negron and Richard Corcoran
Joe Negron and Richard Corcoran

As they gathered a couple of days before Thanksgiving to get organized for next year's legislative session, many of the lawmakers at the Capitol had more to be grateful for than some extra time off, a pending feast of turkey and trimmings, and some midweek football

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, could be thankful that they had finally finished their long paths to the leadership of their respective chambers. Whether they could offer gratitude for being lined up opposite each other was yet to be determined.

Democrats remained outnumbered, but they could give thanks for new redistricting maps that allowed them to chip away at Republican majorities during Florida elections that were otherwise strong for the GOP; House Democrats even got their coveted 41st seat, which limits just how much the 79-member Republican caucus can roll over them.

The state as a whole also had some things to celebrate, including numbers indicating that Florida tourism has survived an almost pharaoh-esque level of plagues in recent months, from a pair of hurricanes to the spread of Zika. There were even some signs that the Zika threat might be letting up just a bit.

All of the reasons for optimism could be short-lived. Clashes between the House and Senate are inevitable, and could take some of the luster off Corcoran's and Negron's big moments. Democrats could find themselves just as besieged as before. And other threats could still hurt the state's top industry. But as the work week drew to an early conclusion, there were plenty of things to be thankful for. Even the Buccaneers and the Dolphins seemed to be getting better.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN

The organizing session of the Legislature can often seem a lot like the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics: colorful outfits, questionable entertainment value and largely a build-up to the competition that's about to get underway. This year, though, the jockeying for position was already in progress.

Corcoran spent much of the day firing warning shots --- to senators looking for local projects in the budget, to lobbyists who might have doubted his resolve on overhauling the legislative process, and to the Florida Education Association as the union continues its legal challenge to the state's voucher-like tax scholarship program.

The lawsuit argues that the program drains money that otherwise would go to public schools and is unconstitutional for the same reasons that the Florida Supreme Court struck down a previous voucher scheme. But Corcoran painted the suit as more than just legal wrangling.

"The teachers union is fixated on halting innovation and competition in education," he told the House. "They are literally trying to destroy the lives of 100,000 children. Most of them are minorities, and all of them are poor. ... It is downright evil."

FEA President Joanne McCall didn't engage Corcoran directly, instead asking for him to meet with the union.

"The Florida Education Association firmly believes that people of opposing views should always engage in civil debate on issues," McCall said in a statement issued by the union. "We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with Speaker Corcoran the reasons FEA has engaged the court in the voucher program. We are here when and if the speaker would like to hear from us."

As far as compromising with the Senate to pass a budget and get other legislation passed, Corcoran left the door open but also indicated there are some things he wouldn't be willing to bargain away.

"Gridlock in essence doesn't help anybody," he said when asked whether his crackdown on local projects might complicate budget negotiations. "Unless it's gridlock over something that is a diametrical opposition to the principles that you know would make society, Floridians or the nation great. That's not gridlock, that's statesmanship."

Democrats, who gained seats in the elections this year but saw presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Senate candidate Patrick Murphy come up short, also talked about holding true to their values.

"No matter what happened on Nov. 8, we as the Democratic caucus will still fight for our core principles, making sure that the middle class and working-class people have a voice in Florida," Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, said in a speech to his caucus Monday.

But even Democrats seemed to think that the Negron-Corcoran dynamic would be the main attraction in the session that kicks off March 7.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said Negron has talked about helping individual senators succeed with their agendas, while Corcoran "wants it to be all about his success and implementing his personal vision."

"I think that's the difference between the two chambers," Clemens said. "It's going to be entertaining to see."

ALL ABOUT THE U's

One of the places that the two men were already beginning to tangle was over Negron's plan to boost funding for the state university system. Negron, who toured all 12 universities in the spring, has talked about increasing spending on higher education by as much as $1 billion over his two years as president.

But it seemed more and more likely that any additional dollars for higher education will come from other state programs.

"I am confident that we can move 3 percent of an $82 billion budget around," said Negron, who previously served as a budget chairman in the House and Senate. "If not, we're not worthy of being called appropriators. We're simply rubber-stamping the work of previous legislatures."

That was at least in part because Corcoran was already dismissing state analysts' projection of a $7.5 million surplus --- a tiny sliver of the state budget overall. The speaker suggested that new information indicated the Legislature will face a shortfall of $500 million or more as it crafts a budget plan for the spending year that begins July 1.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, had a similar assessment.

"The House position is we don't have any surplus and we're not going to raise taxes," he said. "So wherever that money comes from, it will come from cutting existing programs."

Although Negron said he wants Florida to lift state schools to the level of "national, elite, destination" universities like the University of North Carolina or the University of Michigan, he also tried to be realistic about his agenda.

"I have a vision that won't happen in the two years that I have the opportunity to serve here but we can make a very good start," Negron told the Senate.

Negron wasn't alone in focusing on higher education. Gov. Rick Scott met Monday with the chairmen of the universities' boards of trustees. He called on them to improve performance on issues like graduation rates and job placement.

"Here's my attitude, I don't understand why we're not No. 1," Scott told the trustees during the meeting at the governor's mansion. "I was never in a business where I said I'm fine with being No. 10, No. 15. Why wouldn't we be No 1?"

But at the same time, the governor called for holding down the price tag for higher education.

"I really believe the cost is ridiculous," Scott said. "The money these schools have been getting is skyrocketing. It's not a little bit. It's a lot of money."

SUN STILL SHINES ON TOURISM

Just about anything that could happen to dampen tourism in Florida over the last several months has --- two hurricanes, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. But, at least for the period between July 1 and Sept. 30, the industry seemed to be more than holding its own.

Scott's office Monday announced that a record 26.9 million people traveled to Florida between July 1 and Sept. 30, a 5.1 percent increase from the same period in 2015.

The state faced a series of challenges during the first nine months of the year, including the June shooting deaths of 49 people at Pulse nightclub, Hurricane Hermine hitting North Florida in early September and a steadily increasing number of Zika cases in South Florida. Hurricane Matthew added to the challenges in early October by lashing the eastern side of the state, causing significant damage in some areas.

"Visit Florida does an incredible job of marketing our state and keeping all of our tourism partners, which include both large and small businesses, updated on how to keep our visitors informed when our state faces challenges like the Zika virus, hurricanes and the terrorist attack at Pulse nightclub," Scott said in a prepared statement.

The only one of those issues still ongoing --- the specter of Zika --- might even be letting up a bit.

A part of Miami Beach has been lifted from the state's Zika zone, Scott announced Tuesday. The Florida Department of Health cleared the northern portion of an area in Miami Beach where local transmission of the disease had occurred. The agency cleared the three-mile area after no new local transmissions had been detected in the area in more than 45 days.

But Zika transmissions are considered to remain active in about 1.5 square miles of Miami Beach, between 8th and 28th streets. Another area, about 1-square-mile in the Little River area of Miami, also remains a Zika zone.

The Department of Health has announced there are more than 1,200 reported cases of Zika, though some of those are related to travel to other parts of the world where the virus is also active.

STORY OF THE WEEK: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, formally took office as lawmakers were sworn in for the 2017 legislative session.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "No longer will we have to tolerate last-minute appropriations being stuck into our budget with little or no public scrutiny, in the waning hours of session, literally written on the back of a napkin that they got from the bar the night before." ---House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, on House rules requiring local budget projects to be proposed by the first day of session. 

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