On Tuesday, Florida’s outgoing Republican governor detailed a wish list costing millions while the House speaker laid down the gauntlet against tax increases.
Meanwhile, the Senate president put forth a hard stance against sexual harassment just as a fresh sex-related scandal involving two members of his chamber was unfolding.
The 2018 Florida Legislature officially is in session.
Opening day featured much of the pomp that’s expected when the Legislature convenes: greetings, prayers, presentation of colors.
Overshadowing it this year was the taint of sexual scandal, not only in Senate President Joe Negron’s opening vow that “the Florida Senate has zero tolerance for any sexual harassment” but in the release not much earlier of a joint apology by two Miami-Dade County senators — Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens – in response to an anonymous website claim that they were “actively engaged in inappropriate extramarital activities with each other.”
Negron, R-Stuart, opened the 2018 session with a pledge to update the Senate’s policies for addressing sexual harassment claims after Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater resigned last month after an investigation found credible evidence of sexual misconduct and after former Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens of Atlantis resigned in October after admitting to an extramarital affair with a lobbyist.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran also opened his chamber’s session with a fiery charge, but his vow was against any proposed legislation that hinted at a tax increase.
The Republican lawmaker from Land O’ Lakes made no bones about his disdain for any raise in rates for citizens or businesses, saying the House would focus its energy over the next 59 days on pushing back on all attempts.
That includes any rebuttal from across the hall at the Capitol, he said.
“If this is a debate the Senate wants to have, we will welcome it,” Corcoran said. “We will debate the issue around the state because any person in any community, in any city, in any county, their answer – the truth — will be the same.”
Corcoran’s anti-tax hike stance centered on a school property-tax issue that could set up a budget clash with the Senate. The issue involves a roughly $450 million increase in revenues in 2018-2019 that would stem from higher property values — if school districts maintained the same tax rates as this year.
Corcoran argues that the Legislature should reduce, or “roll back,” the schools property tax rate to prevent higher tax bills for property owners. But the Senate and Gov. Rick Scott have argued for keeping the current tax rates and using the extra tax dollars generated by higher property values.
Cutting the schools property tax rate would force lawmakers to shift other state money into schools to boost funding, just as they did in 2017.
Corcoran described the House stance as taking the “moral high ground.”
A major supporter of school-choice programs such as charter schools and educational vouchers, Corcoran also indicated he will continue pushing for changes in the education system.
Despite Corcoran’s strong words, Palm Beach County leaders expressed some optimism at the upcoming session.
“We’re not asking for the Legislature to raise taxes,” said Todd Bonlarron, assistant county administrator. “We understand there are pots of money for specific things and we say, ‘Don’t touch those.’”
For his last State of the State speech, Scott touted his accomplishments over the last seven years while outlining others he wants to add to the list before his term ends next January.
Scott, who bills himself as a jobs-creation governor, said he wants $53 million to fight the state’s opioid crisis, $30 million to boost pay for law enforcement and $12 million for English Language Learners Academies to teach English to Puerto Rican emigres displaced by Hurricane Irma.
He also touted a tax cut package that would include cuts in driver license fees — from $48 to $20 for license renewals and $48 to $27 for new licenses. Scott also proposes reducing the fee on new commercial driver licenses by more than 10 percent.
Scott also reiterated his call for a constitutional amendment that would make it harder for lawmakers to raise taxes. The proposal would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the legislature for a tax increase to become law.
“It is during times of economic downturn where this proposal is needed the most,” he said. “It will force leaders to contemplate living within their means rather than taking the easy way out and just sticking it to the public by raising taxes on families and job creators.”
Moves like the tax cuts help keep more money in Floridians’ pockets, said Rep. Rick Roth, R-West Palm
“The secret to solving all the problems is a strong economy,” he said. “If people have more money, they can spend more.”
Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell, of West Palm Beach, said he’s anxious to learn more about Scott’s proposal to put more money into fighting the opioid epidemic.
“I want to make sure we’re fully funding it … to reduce the deaths,” he said.
Scott, who is expected to challenge Democrat Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate this year, also weighed in against sexual harassment, saying, “Things have got to change, and it starts right here in this building.”
After the governor’s six-minute speech, Democratic leaders and the advocacy group “Awake the State,” held a news conference outside the Capitol as well as media events across the state.
One of the key speakers in Tallahassee was Braynon, the Miami Gardens senator who earlier had offered, through Sachs Communications, a public apology for his personal behavior.
In response to Scott’s jobs claims, Braynon said creating high-paying jobs starts with the basics: “a well-trained workforce, good transportation, quality public education, thriving neighborhoods and safe communities; all the things that Governor Scott largely ignored especially in our rural counties.”
The Senate minority leader also criticized the governor for not addressing what he called “over-testing” of public-school students, while the state has increased the amount of money available to for-profit charter schools.
And he accused Scott of “flip-flopping” on expanding Medicaid coverage to an additional 800,000 people. The governor opposed Obamacare, and the Medicaid expansion included in it, while first running for office, but reversed his position on the Medicaid expansion in February 2013, declaring that he could not in “good conscience” oppose extending Medicaid to uninsured adults so long as the federal government paid 100 percent of the costs. While stumping for re-election, Scott maintained that he supported Medicaid expansion, but he then reversed his position after getting re-elected in 2014.
“2018 finally offers Floridians not only a new year, but a new way, a unique chance to build a new Florida,” Braynon said.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.