Lawmakers sweeten session finish with Lake O, college building money

After two days of escalating standoffs, Florida lawmakers reached agreement Friday on the issues at the heart of this week’s special legislative session: more money for public schools, an economic-incentives package coveted by the governor and rules to implement the state’s new medical marijuana program.

Hours of closed-door bargaining sessions also produced two new sweeteners: extra money for the Herbert Hoover Dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee and more construction money for colleges and universities.

» RELATED: The Post’s coverage of the Florida Legislature

The Legislature wrapped up the final votes before 5 p.m., an early finish and abrupt turnaround from the previous day, when sniping between the two chambers had raised speculation that the entire session would collapse with nothing to show.

Instead, lawmakers declared victory with new programs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new government spending, though leaders took pains to say that even with the extra spending the state’s cash reserves will still be larger than a year ago.

In remarks after the final votes, Gov. Rick Scott thanked legislators for returning to Tallahassee. Scott summoned them to the special session last week after vetoing the state’s K-12 budget.

“We’ve accomplished a lot and I think we’ve made Florida better for our families and for businesses,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, lambasted the way the breakthrough agreement was negotiated in secret, calling it “dirty backroom politics.”

“What we’re seeing here are three men and a handful of unelected staffers making major policy decisions behind closed doors without any opportunity for open discussion or public input,” Johanna Cervone, a spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party, said in a statement. “Why do we even bother electing the full legislature if a handful of power-brokers will make all of the decisions in secret?”

The big-ticket item was a $215 million increase in spending for Florida’s public schools, raising the per-student spending levels by $100 over current levels, a 1.4 percent increase.

Educators had been enraged by the smaller 0.3 percent increase approved during the regular legislative session last month, and Scott last week vetoed the K-12 portion of the state budget and called lawmakers back to Tallahassee to reconsider.

The new deal brings per-student spending in Florida’s main funding formula for public schools to $7,296.

Several Democrats objected that the increase was not high enough to properly fund public schools, but the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, called it the “highest per student funding in the history of Florida.”

While the proposal would raise spending to its highest per-student level, when adjusted for inflation the proposal is lower than per-student spending a decade ago before the Great Recession, according to PolitiFact Florida.

Friday’s agreement also sets up the use of medical marijuana throughout the state, resolving a key piece of unfinished business from this year’s regular legislative session. The issue wasn’t included in Scott’s original call for a special session and was added only Wednesday after chamber leaders indicated they had a deal.

The bill, which Scott said he will sign, implements a state constitutional amendment passed in November that legalized marijuana’s medical use.

The bill calls for the state to grant licenses to 10 medical marijuana treatment centers, along with the seven that already hold licenses to cultivate low-THC marijuana for the state’s current, more limited cannabis program.

Under the bill, dispensaries would be allowed to advertise their products, but state officials would have to approve all advertisements, and no cartoon characters or marketing techniques aimed at children are permitted.

Counties and cities would be allowed to ban dispensaries, and none could be located within 500 feet of a school.

Doctors who certify patients to receive medical marijuana without “reasonable belief” that they suffer from a medical condition eligible for treatment would be guilty of first-degree misdemeanor.

The bill would not allow medical marijuana to be consumed by smoking it, a point that angered many Democrats, who complained that banning smoking violated the amendment’s intent.

Lawmakers also came to agreement on a pro-business measure sought by Scott, which increased funding from $25 million to $76 million for Visit Florida, a state agency that promotes tourism; and kept funding at $16 million for Enterprise Florida, one that uses taxpayer money to provide incentives to businesses that want to expand or relocate. The compromise bill also added a $85 million job growth grant fund under Scott’s control.

And it was amended on Friday to include some additional sweeteners — money for the Herbert Hoover Dike and for a series of higher education projects — that appeared aimed at appeasing the governor and Senate President Joe Negron.

The extra $50 million could be committed to help shore up the dike that protects the Glades towns of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay. Scott had called this year for $200 million for repairs. Repairing the dike is a federally funded project that has been ongoing for years.

Scott said in a statement that his move to expand the special session was intended “to help the communities surrounding Lake Okeechobee.” But concerns about the dike’s structural integrity also affect residents in the Republican stronghold of Martin County, where Negron lives and where runoff from the lake causes algae blooms.

“For six years, I asked the Obama Administration to fund these important repairs with no results,” he wrote. “During this legislative session, I called on the Florida Legislature to provide funding to kick start these repairs. I have also received a commitment from President Trump that the federal government will fix the dike.”

The move to reconsider the money for higher education was a particular priority of Negron, who was angered when Scott last week vetoed money for construction projects at several of the state’s colleges and universities.

The agreement restores $60 million of $114 million that had been cut from college and university projects. Among the partially restored projects: $889,000 for Max Planck fellowships at Florida Atlantic University, The News Service of Florida reported.

The quick resolution Friday afternoon came after two days of increasing standoffs between the two chambers. First, the House and Senate criticized each others’ proposals for paying for the increase in education spending.

Then, Negron raised the stakes Thursday evening with complaints that the governor and the House speaker had struck their own bargain without taking into account the Senate’s priorities. He also complained that House leaders and Scott had conspired to create a “false narrative” that the Senate was in agreement with a set of pre-determined compromises.

Amid the elevated tensions, Scott and negotiators from the two chambers worked to agreement, with help from the money for the dike and college and university projects.

Negron said Friday afternoon that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, both attorneys, thrived under the pressure.

“We’re accustomed to deadlines and we’re accustomed to getting things accomplished,” he said.

Said Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes: “We get you guys all worked up and then we come to a nice smooth landing.”

Also Friday, Scott signed into law 16 bills, including two bills that expand the state’s gun freedom laws and another (SB 436) that Republicans say protects religious protection in public schools. One of the gun bills (SB 128) puts the burden of proof in stand-your-ground cases on the state, rather than the defendant. The other (SB 1052) expands the Castle Doctrine so that justifiable use of force includes any residence a person has a right to be in rather than just one’s own residence.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.

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