Tallahassee is a long 400 miles away from Palm Beach County, and its battles and decisions can seem farther still. So as a public service, I went up there last week to get a sense of the players and the issues that will dominate the coming session of the Florida Legislature. You know, so you don’t have to.
The occasion was the Associated Press’ annual legislative planning session. On Tuesday, the governor and the heads of the Senate and House of Representatives spoke, one at a time, to a gathering of reporters to explain their aims when the Legislature formally convenes in early March.
The governor’s office and both legislative chambers are uniformly run by Republicans, so you’d think it would be all peace and harmony up there at the seat of power. But that’s not the way it is at all.
Scott’s pet projects
Gov. Rick Scott — the multimillionaire former health care CEO whose political monotone is “jobs, jobs, jobs” — led things off by introducing his budget proposal. This document is the traditional starting point for the lawmakers to wrangle out a spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. By law, they can’t end the session without passing a budget, and the budget must be balanced.
No surprise, Scott’s top priority is to give out $618 million in tax cuts, mostly to businesses by eliminating a tax on commercial leases, something he has unsuccessfully tried before.
Also as expected, Scott pitched hard for a couple of agencies dear to his heart. He wants $85 million for Enterprise Florida, which tries to lure businesses to the state through incentives. And $76 million for Visit Florida, which promotes the tourism industry, but embarrassed itself by signing a secretive $1 million contract in 2015 with the rapper Pitbull, who used the dough to make a brainless video called “Sexy Beaches.”
“I believe that those who oppose investing in growing businesses,” Scott said, “simply don’t understand how business works.” That was a none-too-veiled snipe at his chief antagonist, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, who enjoys criticizing this kind of spending as “corporate welfare.”
Scott’s nearly $84 billion budget is $1 billion bigger than the current budget. Among its highlights, it would boost per-student funding for public education to $7,421, an increase of 3 percent. Scott swears he won’t raise taxes to do it, merely rely on rising property values to bring in more local property-tax revenue, keeping tax rates the same.
But hold on, Corcoran said later in the day, that’s same as a tax increase. “I’ve said it a thousand times, the House”— he stretched out his words for emphasis – “will not raise taxes.” He added: “If that means a lengthy year, we’re prepared for that.”
Florida’s per-pupil spending ranks 42nd in the nation, according to 2014 data, the most recent available, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national average is $11,009. So it appears that to raise Florida’s ranking even a little won’t be easy.
Everglades, public hospitals
Moving on to the environment, Scott’s budget allots no money for a reservoir south of the Florida Everglades, which Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, badly wants to build as a key to solving Lake Okeechobee overflows into the St. Lucie River, the freshwater discharges that befoul his home county’s estuaries with noxious green algae.
Negron, when he took the podium, seemed to take the governor’s omission in stride. “I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made in the Senate,” he said. Environmental experts who’ve spoken in recent Senate hearings generally agreed that more storage south of the lake is needed, he claimed. “Now we’re talking about where and how it should be done.”
But with Scott and Corcoran opposed to borrowing, it’s hard to see where the state’s half-portion of the $4.2 billion reservoir cost will come from.
Scott also wants to spend a lot less on Florida’s hospitals. He’d reduce payments to public hospitals by $298 million. He’d save $581 million by allowing Medicaid managed-care plans to reimburse hospitals at “more efficient rates” than traditional Medicaid. Scott’s expertise in this field, comes with a certain cloud, you’ll remember; his old company, Columbia/HCA, had to pay $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare and Medicaid fraud.
The House minority leader, Janet Cruz, vowed to fight this “attempt to privatize” health care services. “We as Democrats will stick up for our safety-net hospitals, period,” the Tampa Democrat said.
Scott’s tougher adversary, though, is Corcoran, a committed conservative with an impatient zeal to clean up what he sees as state government’s ethical lapses and profligate ways. Admirably, he has pushed for new rules to limit lobbyists’ influence and make House members’ individual requests for taxpayer money — called “turkeys” in Tallahassee budget parlance — more transparent. Every House member voted for the rules, which Corcoran called “the most transformative, aggressive rules in the history of the 50 states.”
Corcoran colorfully described his crusade against Enterprise Florida as turning on a light in a dark kitchen at 3 a.m. “There’s cockroaches everywhere,” Corcoran said. “Bonuses, severance packages, furniture, trips.”
And Corcoran basically said that much of Scott’s budget will be dead on arrival in the House. Scott, though, insisted on Friday that he was confident Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida will survive.
But where, in any of this, is the priority for expanded health care? Serious public education funding? Developing higher-paying jobs? Acknowledging climate change’s effect on rising seas?
It’s not in sight. Not this year.
Republicans own the governor’s office, House and Senate. But it’s not all peace and harmony.