Late Friday afternoon Florida lawmakers wrapped up a three-day special session after hours of tense discussion, debate and brokering between leaders to resolve issues relating to the state budget, education, health care and medical marijuana, among other matters. The special session, called at the beginning of the month, followed a tumultuous regular session where contentious budget discussions and differing priorities among legislative and executive leaders resulted in a stalemate on a number of issues and led to the passage of controversial funding measures in the final hours of session.
On May 31st, legislators formally submitted their $82.4 billion spending plan to the Governor’s office. Many predicted the Governor could potentially veto the entire plan, as the Governor and House Speaker Richard Corcoran remained at odds over the Speaker’s cuts to funding for the Governor’s economic development priorities. Many also predicted that the Governor was likely to veto the Speaker’s omnibus education budget conforming bill in retaliation for the cuts to economic development agencies Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida. The education bill, also known as “Schools of Hope,” eases restrictions and provides funding for more charter schools to open throughout the state.
Although the regular session wrapped up on May 8th with tensions between the Speaker and Governor stronger than ever, politics and deal-making between legislative and executive officials led to a surprising agreement regarding special session earlier this month. However, this unofficial agreement ultimately resulted in an all-out battle between the House and Senate during the three-day special session, with Senate President Joe Negron expressing great frustration about deals made between the Governor’s office and the House, and eventually leading his chamber to even override some of the post-session actions taken by the Governor. Provided below is an overview of the special session and the issues considered.
On June 2nd, just two days after Governor Scott received the budget, he called a press conference together with Speaker Corcoran and President Negron. At that time, a three-day special session was officially called for the following week. While many predicted the session would primarily address the medical marijuana issue, it was instead announced at that time that the focus would be a budget deal reached between the Governor and legislative leaders. Under the agreement, funding for Visit Florida would be restored and an additional $85 million would be allocated for other economic development programs. In return, the Governor would sign the comprehensive education funding bill for the state’s public schools – Speaker Corcoran’s “Schools of Hope” legislation. In addition, lawmakers agreed increase K-12 education funding by $215 million. That same day, Governor Scott signed the state budget into law. However, in order to fund both the education and economic development increases and programs, the Governor freed up around $410 million in the budget by vetoing nearly 400 projects. This move dealt a heavy blow to numerous organizations and institutions around the state, as well as the lawmakers who worked hard throughout the session to ensure funding for these now-vetoed projects.
While the initial call for the special session was a fairly simple one – Florida Education Finance Program funding and economic development funding – in the days following the announcement, the agenda was expanded to include medical marijuana legislation, a review of higher education funding, and consideration of funding for Lake Okeechobee dike repairs. In addition, Senate members considered a measure to restore some of the funding cut from state hospitals during the regular session.
The overall budget discussions were tense throughout the three-day special session. As negotiations broke down, President Negron expressed just before the final day that the original agreement reached between the Governor’s office and lawmakers was, in fact, just between the Governor and Speaker and had received no input from the Senate. At that time, it looked as though the special session would end without resolution on any of the items presented. However, members ultimately compromised and jointly supported an $11.7 billion House spending bill which provides funding for economic development and infrastructure, boosts K-12 education funding by $215 million, restores $60 million in funding for higher education projects recently vetoed by the Governor, and provides state dollars in effort to speed up federal repairs of the Lake Okeechobee dike.
While economic development and job creation have been the top priorities of Governor Scott during his time leading the state, those issues were under heavy scrutiny by the legislature this year. Leading the charge was House Speaker Corcoran, who labeled the programs and incentives “corporate welfare,” and ultimately, together with the Senate, cut funding to Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida in the 2017-18 budget passed by lawmakers and sent to the Governor. This issue was one of the most heavily discussed and debated during the regular session and caused a political rift between Corcoran and Scott, leading many to speculate that the entire budget could be at stake as a result.
However, in his late budget deal reached with the Governor, Speaker Corcoran agreed to restore funds for Visit Florida at the current amount – $76 million. In addition, House members proposed legislation to create the “Florida Job Growth Grant Fund,” which would provide $85 million in funds for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (“DEO”) and Florida Department of Transportation (“FDOT”) for public infrastructure projects and workforce training grants.
On the Senate side, members took issue with some of the provisions in the House measure, including public-private match requirements for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, as well as the details of the additional $85 million in infrastructure funding, which the Senate criticized for a lack of oversight. Senate members were also particularly concerned with the fact that the proposal basically resulted from negotiations between the Governor and the House, with little input from the upper chamber. Ultimately, amendments offered to the economic development legislation on the Senate side were voted down. However, the House did agree to language supported by Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala relating to local tourist development funds. The final result of the special session includes the full current funding for Visit Florida and the $85 million in new funding for infrastructure projects.
K-12 Education Funding
One of the key issues addressed by lawmakers this year was the “Schools of Hope” bill – a priority of Speaker Corcoran. The measure, which allocates funding and puts provisions in place to make it easier for charter schools to open in areas where traditional public schools are failing or struggling, was ultimately included in language passed in the final hours of the regular session. This legislation, originally thought to be doomed once it reached the Governor’s desk, was eventually included in the budget deal reached between the Governor’s office and Speaker Corcoran. While the Governor did not verbally commit to sign the bill, which was submitted last night, it is understood that he will support the measure in exchange for his economic development priorities.
In addition to the unofficial deal reached, Governor Scott expressed during the pre-special session press conference that he intended to veto the legislature’s funding for public schools and instead provide an additional $215 million in spending for a $100 per-student increase. This issue became one of the most debated of the special session, with President Negron expressing early last week that he planned to fund most of the additional $215 million using local dollars instead of the vetoed funds freed up by Governor Scott. While President Negron announced plans to pull the funds from taxes on new construction rather than property taxes, this led to a showdown between the House and Senate, with the House labeling an increase of the “required local effort” a tax increase, and expressing refusal to concur with the plan.
In addition, a third possible funding scenario was offered – this time from Senator David Simmons, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education. Senator Simmons proposed removing funds allocated for the “Schools of Hope” legislation and utilizing it for general operating in the state’s traditional public schools. This only served to increase the tension between the two chambers.
In a surprise move, the Senate voted to override the Governor’s veto of the public school funding in the budget passed by members during the regular session, citing the move as an “insurance policy” for public schools in case special session ended with no resolution on the matter. However, the House remained adamantly opposed to this and any other veto overrides.
Ultimately, both chambers agreed to include the funding in one comprehensive piece of budget legislation offered by the House. This includes the additional $215 million in funds for Florida’s K-12 schools. The final language passed makes no change to the current required local effort for school funding.
Higher Education Funding
While not included in the original “call” (or agenda) of special session, higher education funding became a contentious and debated issue over the three-day work period, with politics heavily at play. Despite Senator Negron’s presence at the press conference with the Governor and Speaker calling special session, it became clear over time that the unofficial deal regarding K-12 and economic development funding included little input from the Senate. Adding to the already-contentious situation was the decision by the Governor to fund the education and economic development priorities using veto dollars, primarily from projects supported by Senate members. In fact, of the nearly $410 million in vetoed projects, approximately $300 million was stripped from projects sponsored by Senators.
As a result, a frustrated President Negron included higher education funding issues in his memo released last Tuesday and, as the special session kicked off, Senate members convened to override around $75 million of the funds for higher education projects vetoed by Governor Scott. The overrides were again completely opposed by the House and led to an even wider rift between the two chambers.
Ultimately, the issue of higher education funding became one of many items of compromise between the House and Senate in the final hours of special session. The House eventually agreed to restore $60 million of the higher education projects vetoed by the Governor, and included the funds in its comprehensive $11.7 billion funding bill that was ultimately passed.
During the regular session, lawmakers worked to determine the best method for implementing Amendment 2, which was supported by more than 70% of Florida voters last November. While members worked for several months and into the final hours of session on the issue, the two chambers were ultimately unable to come to terms on final language and no legislation was passed to implement the amendment. The key sticking point between the House and Senate surrounded the number of dispensaries each medical marijuana company could operate and how that number should be capped or limited in the state. After session ended with no bill, the Department of Health began working to implement the amendment at the executive level, but ultimately lawmakers picked the issue back up during the special session in order to get policy passed as dictated by Florida voters and establish a framework for growers, prescribers and patients.
The final result was another product of compromise between the two chambers, with members agreeing on a measure to license 10 additional medical marijuana companies by October, with companies limited to 25 retail dispensaries. In addition, language was included to sunset the provision setting the caps in April 2020, as well as language creating a sales tax exemption on medical marijuana. Members also agreed to ban the smoking of medical marijuana, instead allowing patients to use other forms of the medicine.
Funding For Hospitals
Just days before the start of the special session, the Senate announced a proposal to restore a portion of the significant funding cuts to Florida hospitals, which passed as part of the budget approved by lawmakers during the regular session. This issue was heavily argued at that time and caused delays in the budget conference process as leaders in the two chambers worked to negotiate their differences, leading to a three-day extension of the regular session. The cuts made by lawmakers were steep and drastic, totaling just over $520 million. These cuts will fall largely on facilities that serve low-income patients through the Medicaid program – primarily, the state’s safety net hospitals.
The day before the start of the special session, President Negron released a memo announcing that the Senate planned to restore $100 million of the cuts to state hospitals. This proposal was strongly opposed by the House and Governor’s office and ultimately died due to concerns about long term impacts to recurring annual funds for hospitals, as well as a lack of support from the House.
Lake Okeechobee / Herbert Hoover Dike
Key among the policy measures passed by lawmakers during the regular session was a Senate proposal to address water quality and discharge issues in Lake Okeechobee and its surrounding water bodies. The bill passed by lawmakers and approved by Governor Scott provides for 30,000 acres of land already owned by the state to be used for reservoirs for Lake Okeechobee discharges.
In addition, during the regular session, Governor Scott called for lawmakers to provide $200 million for Lake Okeechobee dike repairs, which would allow the Lake to hold more water and reduce the need for discharges. At the time, members in both chambers rejected the call, arguing that the dike is the responsibility of the federal government. However, in a surprise move late in the special session last week, members agreed to provide $50 million in funding for repairs to the dike, which members are hoping will help speed up the federal repair project.
While lawmakers have officially concluded their work for 2017, there are still several big items up for final approval by the Governor’s office. These include the 278-page “Schools of Hope” measure (HB 7069) as well as a higher education bill (SB 374) passed by lawmakers during the regular session. SB 374 includes provisions scaling back the Florida Community College System – many of which have been longtime priorities of President Negron. With the Governor seeing success on his top issues last week, he will likely sign both bills into law without delay.
Looking back on the three-day special session, it’s difficult to outline winners versus losers, as the Governor and presiding officers all achieved key funding and policy priorities. However, both the regular session and special session this year highlighted vast differences between the two chambers with regard to ideology and methods, and battle lines were drawn over a number of critical issues. With both President Negron and Speaker Corcoran up for another year in their leadership posts, the 2018 session will likely be another one for the books. The fact that it will be an election year will only add to the dynamic.
Once all actions are taken with regard to the 2017 budget and legislation, lawmakers will have a limited amount of time off before reconvening in Tallahassee to prepare for the 2018 session. Since session will take place two months earlier next year, a practice lawmakers are now implementing in election years, members are likely to be back in Tallahassee for committee meetings around September, and will convene to kick off the 2018 session in January.