Friday, June 09, 2017

Another backroom deal stokes distrust in Florida’s Legislature (Miami Herald)

Are our legislators violating our Florida Constitution with these secret three-men-in-a-room deals?

JUNE 03, 2017 5:56 PM
Another backroom deal stokes distrust in Florida’s Legislature
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
Another backroom deal, this time involving the governor who has blasted the Legislature for secrecy, is leaving a trail of frustration and distrust in the state capital as elected lawmakers are being called back for a special session this week to rubber stamp a budget they were excluded from negotiating.

After stoking rumors that he might veto the Legislature’s budget and an accompanying controversial public school reform bill because they were negotiated behind closed doors, Gov. Rick Scott emerged this week with House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron in Miami with an announcement. He would sign the budget, veto $409 million in local projects, and order lawmakers back June 7-9 to add $215 million to the public education budget.

The announcement caught most legislators off guard, even ranking Republicans who were left out of the deal-making.

“Other than a seeing a press release, I haven’t talked to anyone about any of it,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who chairs the Senate budget panel on tourism and economic development.

“Is this how the process is supposed to work?” he asked. “There has to be a better way.”

READ MORE: Is the Florida Legislature broken?

The secret deal, negotiated between Scott and Corcoran and then presented to Negron, who agreed to it, did not violate the state’s Sunshine Law, the leaders said, because none of them were together in the same room when it was worked out.

That drew the criticism of education and open government advocates.

“Major decisions regarding the expenditure of vast sums of our tax dollars have been made in secret,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “Florida’s Supreme Court has said anything done to avoid the Sunshine Law can itself be a violation of that law.”

She noted that just because legislative leaders might be able to make deals behind closed doors doesn’t mean they should.

“If this isn’t a violation of the constitutional right of access to legislative meetings under Article III, s. 4(e), it should be,” Petersen said. “And it most certainly is a violation of the spirit and intent of our constitutional right to oversee our government.”

Corcoran said that no two of the three or all three met in private. He spoke twice by phone with the governor in the past two weeks.

For many, it’s a re-run of the bitter way the regular session ended May 8, with Corcoran and Negron dictating the terms of an $83 billion budget package that included 15 policy bills, including controversial public school reform.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, left, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, work out budget differences during a late afternoon budget conference Friday, May 5, 2017 at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Mark Wallheiser AP

House and Senate leaders forced through the proposals on an up or down vote with little debate and no amendments, leaving lawmakers angry, public school advocates seething, and democratic traditions in tatters.

Senate Democrat Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens recalled how Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala stood on the floor of the Senate and promised that the chamber would never again be forced to sign onto a deal negotiated in private by the Senate president without their input.

“We were told this wasn’t going to happen to us again,” he said. “To me this is happening again.”

Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Herald/Times that unlike the budget deal Negron made with the House, this one is different because this time Negron “did not agree to any language, and he’s not speaking for the Senate.”

“We are going to lay it out there and people can vote the way they want,” Latvala said. “It’s absolutely a jump ball.”

He said Negron attended the press conference with the governor and Corcoran “just to participate in the announcement” but he said he never promised the Senate “was going to pass anything.”

Then, Latvala added: “I think the majority of the Senate will vote to increase spending for schools, tourism and jobs, but I haven’t asked anybody to support this.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, the chair of Senate budget committee on K-12 education, was among the three Republicans who voted against Corcoran’s priority, HB 7069, a bill designed to expand the charter school movement and allow for an infusion of funds to help about 12 percent of the state’s failing schools.

The House proposal contained “multiple defects” that include “draconian” provisions that will punish children in failing schools today in an effort to improve things for other children in the future, he said.


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