Florida Senate budget chief Latvala raps House on litany of issues

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala said Monday he was glad to have made it “a third of the way” through the annual legislative session.

“Only 14 more weeks to go,” Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Capital Tiger Bay Club during a lunchtime appearance a few blocks from the Capitol.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

Presumably he was joking, as lawmakers are more than two-thirds of the way through the 60-day session, with the scheduled end on May 5. But uncertainty surrounds a timely ending — and the possibility of a special session — because the House and Senate remain far apart on their budget bills.

Latvala said lawmakers could push final budget negotiations right up until July 1, when the new budget year begins. If it goes beyond that, Latvala said, continued spending would be in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott, who has clashed with House leaders over deep cuts in economic-development and tourism programs.

“I know there is no way the House of Representatives will ever allow that to happen,” Latvala said. “So I know we will be done by July 1.”

Latvala’s prediction on the budget negotiations was part of his unvarnished commentary on the state of Tallahassee as seen through the eyes of a powerful, veteran lawmaker.

Latvala, who was edged out for the Senate presidency by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, after more than three years of maneuvering, said he came into the 2017 session with “high hopes” but is clearly disappointed with House leaders.

He ticked off a litany of issues including higher-education reforms, Everglades restoration, economic development, health care coverage and water policy as issues he says the state should be addressing.

“Instead unfortunately, we got involved in all-out assault on Florida’s economic-development apparatus,” Latvala said, referring to the House’s plan to abolish the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida and to sharply cut funding for tourism-marketer Visit Florida.

Latvala also criticized House efforts to limit “home rule” by city and governments, including legislation to pre-empt the ability of the local governments to regulate vacation homes.

“We’ve got an unprecedented assault on home rule, absolutely unprecedented,” Latvala said. “They (House members) think they know more than anybody else elected by the same people on the same ballot.”

Latvala decried the House mantra of wanting to eliminate a system that picks “winners and losers.”

He cited legislation that could help utilities, such as Florida Power & Light, invest in natural-gas reserves and recoup the money from consumers. And he said eliminating Florida’s “no fault” auto accident system would likely favor trial lawyers at the expense of insurance companies and consumers.

“We’re picking a winner and a loser every single day up there even though we say we’re not doing it,” Latvala said. “It’s somewhat discouraging.”

Latvala has been involved in some of the major bills in the session, saying Negron asked him to help pass a major Everglades restoration bill (SB 10) off the Senate floor.

It apparently involved what Tallahassee insiders refer to as “Latvala magic.”

“Latvala magic might involve a red face, might involve something getting thrown down on the desk or a hand down on the desk, something like that,” he said. “But it is almost unfailingly successful.”

Facing term limits next year, Latvala said he does not believe his political career is “finished,” with many speculating that he could run for governor or another political office.

“I think if this session shows me anything, it shows me that we still need the kind of approach that I bring up here to problem solving and kind of the big picture approach, the experience I have in all facets of government,” he said. “I’m not ready to hang it up. But I’m not really ready to say what I’m doing either.”

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