With the 2018 legislative session now less than two months away, the Florida Capitol has an odd vibe.
House and Senate committees met this week and will be back for more starting Monday. But at times, it almost feels like people are going through the motions.
Leaders are teeing up priorities for quick votes after the session starts in January. Committees are studying issues such as the opioid epidemic and the state's response to Hurricane Irma. And lawmakers and lobbyists are eyeing what is expected to be a tight budget.
But much of the chatter in the Capitol isn't about policy. It's about the sexual harassment probe in the Senate that this week led to the removal of Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala from his perch as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The most-immediate question focuses on how the Latvala investigation will play out. But speculation also continues about whether other lawmakers will face similar allegations.
`VERY CHALLENGING TIME'
Latvala has long been considered one of the Capitol's cagiest, if sometimes difficult, figures. He served in the Senate from 1994 to 2002, left because of term limits, and then returned in 2010. Faced with term limits again next year, he has launched a campaign for governor.
But Latvala's political hopes, not to mention his reputation, were put in jeopardy last Friday when Politico Florida published a story that said six unidentified women accused Latvala of groping them or making unwelcome comments about their bodies.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, launched an investigation that will be handled by Lewis Jackson, a national employment law firm. It remains unclear how long that probe will take --- and what it will find. But at least in the short term, the allegations spurred Negron to remove Latvala as appropriations chairman and replace him with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.
In announcing the hiring of the Lewis Jackson firm, Negron said the “Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment, sexual assault, or misconduct of any kind.”
Since the allegations emerged, some lawmakers and other critics have called for Latvala to leave the Senate.
But in a lengthy interview Thursday with The News Service of Florida, Latvala maintained that he's never groped the unidentified women --- or others --- and accused political enemies of masterminding the allegations. He also has hired Steve Andrews, a Tallahassee attorney who's no stranger to scorched-earth politics.
Latvala did not dispute some of the allegations in the Politico story, which included accusations that he had made remarks to women about their bodies.
“Do I let my mouth overload my good sense every now and then and maybe say, `You're looking good today? You've lost weight? You're looking hot today?' Yeah. But I haven't touched anybody against their will,” he said.
The normally gruff senator paused when asked during the interview about the impact of the allegations and the ensuing scrutiny.
“I don't want to use the word I want to use because you can't print it. But it's a very challenging time. Very challenging time. You really find out who your friends are at times like this,” he said.
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES
House and Senate committees are slowly taking up bills in advance of the 2018 session, which starts Jan. 9.
But it's not hard to spot the priorities of Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. In part, that's because those issues look a lot like priorities from the 2017 session.
House committees this week, for example, moved forward with ethics legislation and a bill targeting so-called “sanctuary cities” --- both priorities of Corcoran during the 2017 session. The sanctuary cities bill (HB 9) passed its only committee and is poised for a House floor vote in January.
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, would require state and local agencies to cooperate with federal immigration enforcement and would bar sanctuary policies. It drew quick praise from Corcoran after getting approval from the House Judiciary Committee.
"Sanctuary cities are a direct assault on the rule of law,” Corcoran said in a prepared statement. “Any elected official that puts his or her hand on the Bible and swears to uphold the law and still supports sanctuary cities should be removed from office.”
But the proposal has drawn fierce opposition from immigrant-advocacy groups --- and didn't get through the Senate during the 2017 session. Critics argue, in part, that the bill would lead to racial profiling by authorities.
“Are we going to create a hostile environment with racial profiling against the black and brown people?” asked Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee.
Negron, meanwhile, has made clear that one of his top priorities for the session is a bill that would make a series of changes in the university system, including expanding Bright Futures scholarships. Similar changes were part of a broad higher-education bill that Gov. Rick Scott vetoed after the 2017 session.
The Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee this week approved the new version (SB 4) after little discussion.
“Florida has some of the brightest students in the nation,” Negron said after the panel's vote. “Senate Bill 4 sends a strong message that if students work hard to earn the privilege to attend one of our great state colleges or universities, financial insecurities will not stand in the way of their dream of pursuing a higher education.”
SEEMS LIKE OLD TIMES, PART TWO
Like legislative leaders, Scott is going back to a familiar playbook for the 2018 session.
For Scott this week, that meant proposing nearly $180 million in tax and fee cuts.
Scott has made a priority throughout his two terms of cutting taxes. He also is widely expected to run for U.S. Senate in 2018 and almost certainly would like to campaign on a fresh round of tax cuts.
The proposed package includes a 10-day back-to-school sales tax “holiday” on clothes and school supplies and three week-long disaster preparedness tax “holidays” in May, June and July. It also includes rolling back fees on driver's licenses.
In announcing the proposal, Scott pointed to improvements in the state's economy since he was first elected in 2010.
“Cutting taxes works, and the rest of the nation needs to follow Florida's lead,” he said.
If the past is an indicator, lawmakers will approve an election-year tax package, though it might differ from Scott's proposal. Lawmakers are grappling with a tight budget that became more stretched after Hurricane Irma hit the state in September.
Bradley, the new Senate appropriations chairman, said lawmakers will look carefully at Scott's proposal.
“We also need to make sure that what we consider to be the basic needs, fundamental needs of the state government are financed appropriately,” Bradley said. He added, “We've always been supportive of tax cuts. Whether the number ends up at $180 (million) or something less, that remains to be seen.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: The Senate moved forward with an investigation of sexual harassment allegations against Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who was removed from his post as appropriations chairman.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It's very difficult when you see a baby in the NICU, screaming and crying because they didn't have a choice to be born addicted. It's just very difficult to hear that high-pitched scream and to know that we're doing everything we can and to also know that this is not the end. …There are years of trauma that come behind this.” --- Faye Johnson, CEO of the Northeast Florida Healthy Start Coalition, testifying at the House Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee about babies whose mothers are addicted to opioids.