Behind closed doors, Florida legislators reach budget deal

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s top two Republican legislative leaders, negotiating in secret over the past few days, have reached a sweeping deal on a new state budget and other high-priority items ranging from public employee benefits to building a reservoir to deal with toxic algae discharges.

The move announced Thursday appears to ensure that the Florida Legislature will end its session on time next week.

But by reaching the deal, top lawmakers jettisoned many of the highest priorities of Gov. Rick Scott, raising the possibility that he may veto the entire budget and force legislators to return to the capital later this year.

Scott sharply criticized legislators for ignoring some of his top requests, including using $200 million in state money to speed up repairs to the dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee. He also said the decision to slash money that now goes to the state’s tourism marketing agency would lead to fewer jobs.

“I can tell you what: I ran on jobs,” Scott said. “I’m going to keep fighting for jobs. I feel like this Legislature is turning their backs on their constituents.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron forged an agreement that will result in a nearly $83 billion state budget for the coming year.

The budget will include across-the-board pay raises for state workers as well as money to begin paying for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that was a top priority for Negron. The reservoir will be used to store water and reduce the need for discharges along Florida’s coasts, which have blamed for guacamole-thick algal blooms.

The deal also calls for the Legislature to go along with Corcoran’s $200 million push for “Schools of Hope,” an ambitious plan to shift students from chronically failing schools to charter schools run by private organizations.

The budget will cut funding available to the tourism marketing agency Visit Florida from nearly $80 million to $25 million. Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development agency, will remain intact for another year but it will not receive any money for incentives to lure businesses. Scott wanted $100 million for Visit Florida and $85 million for incentives. Initially, the Senate sided with Scott but agreed to cutbacks pushed by the House. House Republicans had labeled the programs “corporate welfare.”

“The difference between Tallahassee and Washington is we understand you have to do certain things to bring resolution,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate budget chairman. “Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose.”

Another part of the deal: An overhaul to the state’s health insurance programs and some changes to the way the state’s retirement benefits system works. In the past, Senate Republicans had been opposed to these proposals. The two sides have also agreed that they would not use a rise in local property taxes to help boost money for public schools.

Corcoran said the deal proved that Republicans could reach an agreement despite initially having wide differences. Earlier in the week Corcoran compared Senate Republicans to Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders and said there “were no limits to their liberalism.”

“I think it’s going to be a spectacular session. There will be no crashes, despite your reporting,” Corcoran told a group of reporters.

The decision to reach such a wide-ranging deal in private negotiations tied to the budget is unusual, said Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who is a former Senate president. But Lee said that over the past few years, House and Senate leaders had refused to move the bills being pushed by the other chamber, leading to a “backlog” and pent-up demand.

Democrats, however, were sharply critical of the closed-door negotiations.

“I don’t know how anything wound up because I haven’t seen anything,” said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat and leader of the Senate Democrats.

Braynon warned that Republican leaders should not assume Democrats will vote with them on some of the contentious proposals being pushed by legislative leaders. Although Democrats are in the minority, they could block any effort to override a budget veto by Scott.

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