February 21, 2018

Florida House and Senate clash over budget negotiations — before they even start

Scott Keeler Caption: SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R- Land O Lakes and Senate President Joe Negron, R- Stuart, talk during a budget conference committee meeting in Tallahassee, Friday, 5/5/17.

It was a tense day at the Florida Capitol on Wednesday, largely because of the Parkland shooting survivors and gun control activists who descended on the statehouse in the thousands. But there was internal turmoil as well.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, told reporters after the floor session ended that the Senate has been unwilling to start budgetary negotiations.

"We don't know what to say more to the Senate in terms of, 'Let's start negotiations,'" he said. "They've completely stonewalled us. They're acting like  kindergarteners."

He explained that while many Senators have been cooperative with the House this session, there are "certain individuals" that are the problem. He confirmed those people are at  "the top."

"It's just silliness — grow up," Corcoran said. "The Senate needs to grow up."

These negotiations typically take place after both chambers have passed their budgets to reconcile the differences in their specific dollar amounts, line by line. Both chambers passed their budgets on Feb. 8 and that process still hasn't begun.

There's speculation that Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is holding out until the House passes its equivalent of SB4, which is the university funding package that he has championed this session, along with Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, declined to discuss the reasons behind the Senate's lag time.

"I'm not going to negotiate the budget through the media," he said. "I'm surprised. That's an odd and unbecoming statement (from Corcoran)."

In general, the stakes and the rhetoric in the Capitol have been ramped up since the Parkland shooting on Valentine's Day, causing the Legislature to completely shift gears and refocus its session on an issue it has long ignored: restricting access to guns.

Because of this, the House Appropriations Chair, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said it's not inconceivable the Legislature will have to meet beyond its scheduled end date of March 9, regardless of other infighting.

They cannot pass a final budget until they pass their promised proposals to beef up mental health programs in schools, school security and add new gun restrictions. Those plans are expected to be released Thursday.

"What's an extra two weeks or three weeks?" Trujillo asked. "If we could pass good, comprehensive policy that makes our children safer, our community safer, is it worth the extra two weeks? The answer is a resounding 'yes.'"

February 15, 2018

A rattled Florida Legislature concedes it should do more to address mental health after Parkland school shooting

SCOTT KEELER | Times Senate President Joe Negron and Senator Rob Bradley talk to reporters during the last week of the 2017 Florida Legislative session.

@mahoneysthename @elizabethrkoh

In the aftermath of the Parkland school shooting, Florida lawmakers vowed to push harder on an issue they acknowledged they had failed: mental health in schools.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on PreK-12 Education, filed a mental health pilot program in schools early this year, which sets aside $40 million to connect students to community programs for mental health treatment and trains teachers to identify students who are "at risk of having mental illness."

Yet when asked about her own bill in its current form, she was blunt: "It's not enough."

Money is scarce for the students who need it most, she said, like those who deal with abuse or drug addiction in their homes. "They all bring it to school … which is the only place that they have that's safe. Well, not anymore."

Passidomo said she had originally asked for $180 million for mental health resources in schools, but settled on $40 million as a starting point.

Although Republican lawmakers hesitated to discuss restricting certain weapons or high-capacity magazines, many were more eager to advocate for beefing up mental health services.

High-ranking Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, suggested doubling Passidomo's $40 million mental health allowance, plus adding $60 million to up school security and add more armed officers.

"We need to pay more attention to mental health screening, training and treatment,'' Galvano told the Times/Herald as he boarded a charter flight to Parkland with other lawmakers.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that he's spoken to other senators who are ready to put more money behind Passidomo's proposals.
He, along with other prominent Republicans including Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, and Gov. Rick Scott, also said there needs to be a way to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

State law currently calls for background checks to review if a buyer has been deemed "mentally defective" or committed to a mental institution. The Parkland shooter — 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz — received treatment from a mental health clinic for about a year until last fall but purchased his weapon legally, authorities said.

The state has struggled for years with funding mental health initiatives, said Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island. She sponsored a successful bill in 2016 which erected more centers for mental health and substance abuse treatment and restructured how patients can access them, though state funding was slashed last year by more than 40 percent.

"We're not even close on what we should do with mental health," Peters said.

Supporters of increased funding have said Florida ranks last among the 50 states in funding mental health, though the ranking does not account for Medicaid funds which the state administers differently from others.

But Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, countered that the state funds mental health services to those on Medicaid and invests additional millions in various community mental health programs.

"But that requires that an individual would seek help themselves or someone else identifies that they need help and calls someone," added Brodeur, who chairs the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.

Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, has focused on programs to address mental illnesses and substance abuse, but said Wednesday's shooting showed that the problem is bigger than mental health. He is writing a letter to Negron asking for a "task force" including advocates from several related fields to come up with solutions.

"It's just more than one issue," he said. "We have to take a holistic approach and we all have to give. It can't just be the NRA, just be anti-gun folks, it can't be the school-hardening folks where they want to put more (school security), we have to all have this conversation. However uncomfortable and hard it may be, we can't allow this to happen anymore."

January 09, 2018

Negron: “The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment”

Senate President Joe Negron opened the 2018 Legislative Session by vowing to crack down on sexual harassment, saying the Senate has "zero tolerance for sexual harassment."

"I would like to begin today by addressing a very important issue that addresses not only the Florida senate, but also our counterparts in Congress, the entertainment industry, employers large and small across the country, and our culture in general," Negron said.

"Let me be clear: The Florida Senate has zero tolerance for sexual harassment or misconduct of any time against any employee or visitor," he said.

Allegations of sexual harassment have promised to overshadow the Legislature since last fall, when reports of sexual harassment against Negron's then-budget chair, Sen. Jack Latvala, surfaced.

In November, the Stuart Republican ordered an investigation into the allegations, which eventually led to Latvala's resignation.

He added that the Senate, led by Senate Rules Chair Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, is working to revise its administrative policies regarding harassment.

"I am committed to ensuring we all have a safe workplace environment to do the people's business," Negron said Tuesday.

Negron, is in his last session as Senate president, also emphasized expanding Bright Futures scholarships for college students and addressing the state's opioid crisis.

He also said he supported Scott's push for raises for state law enforcement, and that he supported House Speaker Richard Corcoran's efforts toward "school choice."

"I don’t love my children enough to homeschool them," he quipped. "But I respect the decision of parents to homeschool theirs."



November 06, 2017

Code of silence is breaking on Tallahassee’s sex secrets

AIF Keeler 2015

@maryellenklas @stevebousquet @patriciamazzei

For decades, sex has been a tool and a toy for the politically powerful in the male-dominated world of politics in Florida’s capital. Now it’s a weapon.

Allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and infidelity among the state’s legislators flew like shrapnel from a bomb blast in recent weeks, destroying much of the trust left in the Republican-controlled Legislature and replacing it with suspicion and finger pointing.

The latest target, Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala, was accused by six unnamed women Friday of inappropriate touching and verbal harassment. Shortly after Politico Florida first reported the allegations, Senate President Joe Negron called them “atrocious and horrendous” and ordered an investigation. Latvala, a Clearwater Republican and candidate for governor, denied the allegations, said he welcomed the probe, and vowed a fight to “clear my name.”

The claims followed the abrupt resignation of one of Latvala’s allies, incoming Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Clemens of Atlantis on Oct. 26 — after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist — and the revelation that a state senator had discovered a surveillance camera placed by a private investigator in a condominium where several legislators stay during the annual session.

“It’s almost like a dark state going on in Tallahassee,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican and critic of the “culture of Tallahassee that compromises the process” because “priorities are shaped not on policy, but on relationships.”

For decades, that culture used attractive people as tools to cajole the powerful, and rumors of affairs were used to extort favors. Now, in the era of Harvey Weinstein and social media, women have been empowered to speak out about sexual harassment. But in Tallahassee, where questions are raised about the political motive of every leaked allegation, the claims of unidentified accusers can get tangled in the bitter political forces of Florida’s 2018 election year.

Complicating the quest for justice, said Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami lawyer and recently retired state legislator, are those questions about political motives. “All these stories, and all these allegations, are they being instigated by other legislators with a singular purpose? Is it being strategic, or is it being done for the purpose of truly bringing justice to the system?”

Read more here. 

August 30, 2017

Florida Democrats urge state lawmakers to remove Confederate statue in U.S. Capitol

Confederate Statue Florida



The entire Florida Democratic congressional delegation wants Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers to remove a statue of Confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith from the U.S. Capitol.

On Wednesday, 11 House Democrats from Florida sent a letter to Scott, State House speaker Richard Corcoran and State Senate president Joe Negron urging the trio to call a one-day special session to replace the statue in September.

“No family visiting our nation's Capitol should have to explain to their child that the statue representing our state honors someone who fought for a philosophy built on hatred, inequality and oppression,” the letter said.

Last year, the state legislature agreed to remove Smith's statue but it remains in National Statuary Hall in Washington, where daily tours are conducted in the Capitol, because lawmakers couldn't agree on a replacement.

But with the recent violent protests in Charlottesville and elsewhere over the legacy of Confederate statues, and debates about streets named after Confederate generals in Florida, Democrats around the country are pushing to remove statues in public places.

Two weeks ago, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, asked state lawmakers to make the change.

“It's time to stop playing games,” Wasserman Schultz said.

Now, Wasserman Schultz is joined by her Democratic colleagues in Washington, including Miami Gardens Rep. Frederica Wilson.

Scott and Corcoran ruled out the possibility of a special session two weeks ago.

“Like most politicians in Washington, the Congresswoman is out of touch,” Corcoran said on Twitter. “We've already made this decision and are now having a conversation about which great Floridian we should honor. The Congresswoman should stop grandstanding and focus on balancing the Federal budget.”

Read more here. 

June 28, 2017

Joe Negron returns to West Palm Beach law firm

Florida Legislature (30)


Senate President Joe Negron is back at work in the private sector as of Wednesday, when he returned to a West Palm Beach law firm he previously worked for seven years ago.

Akerman LLP announced Negron’s return through a statement that touted Negron’s “30 years of experience in high stakes litigation, business law and complex commercial litigation.”

“Joe is widely-known by both the bench and the bar as a compelling advocate who skillfully represents businesses and directors in complex commercial disputes. He brings important investigative and trial experience to our clients,” Lawrence Rochefort, the head of Akerman’s Litigation Practice Group, said in the announcement. “His strong reputation and track record make him a powerful addition to our trial team.”

Negron, R-Stuart, previously worked for Akerman from 2005 to 2010. He had left the firm to join another West Palm Beach-based practice, Gunster.

It was from Gunster that Negron resigned in January out of an “abundance of caution to avoid even the possible appearance of” a conflict of interest with his legislative duties.

When asked Wednesday how that concern of a conflict of interest had been resolved, he told the Herald/Times his resignation in January “was a unique set of circumstances related to one particular issue, Senate Bill 10.”

SB 10 — one of Negron’s main priorities during the 2017, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law last month — calls for building a 78 billion gallon reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee in an effort to improve Everglades restoration. One of Gunster’s major clients, U.S. Sugar Corp., opposed the land buy required for the additional water storage.

Like Gunster, Akerman represents high-profile clients with business before the Florida Legislature, and the firm also advertises “Florida legislative and executive lobbying“ as among its services.

Negron emphasized that Florida’s part-time Legislature is a “citizen legislature where people from all walks of life, business and industry serve the people.” 

“Like all elected officials, legislators continue to work in the communities they serve,” he said. “There are very clear guidelines and ethical rules that relate to all members of the Legislature, and I will certainly adhere to those.”

Negron said he’ll practice business law and commercial litigation at Akerman, a firm that he noted has a “national platform.” He said Wednesday was his first day of work and he’ll be based out of the West Palm Beach office.

At least one other influential lawmaker works for Akerman: Miami Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, who is running in a special election this year to fill the District 40 Florida Senate left vacant when Republican Frank Artiles resigned this spring.

Photo credit: AP

June 06, 2017

Miami-Dade Republican: I'm 'not comfortable' with more K-12 funding without changing HB 7069

Condos three lnew cmg


Hialeah Republican Sen. René García told Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, in a letter today that he's "not comfortable supporting any compromise" on increasing K-12 funding for 2017-18 that does not also address a controversial education policy bill that awaits Gov. Rick Scott's approval.

García was one of three Senate Republicans to vote against HB 7069 when it narrowly passed the Senate on the final day of the 2017 regular session.

Lawmakers are returning to Tallahassee for a three-day special session starting Wednesday, one of the topics of which includes increasing money for K-12 public schools after Scott vetoed the Legislature's approved spending level as insufficient.

But HB 7069 -- although tied to the budget -- will not formally be up for discussion during the special session, which has drawn some unrest among senators who had expected Scott to veto it and now fear he won't. Scott has not committed to an opinion on the bill, but many lawmakers expect he'll sign it in trade for the Legislature approving his ask for additional economic development money.

García said in his letter he was grateful for the special session to "revisit several critical issues."

"While my career has reflected a passionate commitment to school choice and local autonomy, I find it difficult to support adjusting the Florida Education Finance Program while failing to address the erosion of Florida's commitment to public education that is contained in HB 7069," García said.

"Dramatic policy shifts such as broadening the scope of eligibility of Title I funds, as well as allowing charter schools to use local tax revenue for capital outlay projects should be discussed in conjunction with any proposed increases in per student funding," he added. "The public policy held within the FEFP and the set of policies passed within HB 7069 are inherently intertwined."

Negron's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Read García's full letter here.

Altamonte Republican Sen. David Simmons, the chairman of the K-12 education appropriations committee who also opposed HB 7069, has said he wants to "fix" the bill as early as this special session -- particularly to address challenges in implementing it that he says are too constraining on traditional public schools. However, HB 7069 is not formally part of the call for a special session and it would take a two-thirds vote of both chambers to add it to the agenda, which is incredibly unlikely.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero / el Nuevo Herald

June 02, 2017

Budget deal includes $200M more for schools, $165M for economic development


@stevebousquet @maryellenklas @michaelauslen @ByKristenMClark

Gov. Rick Scott has agreed to sign the budget and a controversial House public education plan and come back in special session next week to inject more than $165 million into the governor’s top economic development priorities, as well as put about $200 million in additional funding for public schools.

The agreement, which will be announced at a 10 a.m. news conference at Miami International Airport, was finalized late Thursday night after several days of backstage negotiations mostly involving House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Scott and their top staff members.

Lawmakers have agreed to boost public school spending by $210 million, bringing the total increase in this year’s state budget to $100 per student, Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, told the Herald/Times. That’s still less than half as much as Scott and the Senate originally sought earlier this year to boost school funding but it’s a significant increase from the extra $24.49 per student that the Legislature had in its approved budget — which critics had described as “starvation-level.”

They also will fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing program that was gutted in the Legislature’s original budget, at its current level of $76 million. And they will put $85 million into a new job-creation fund at the Department of Economic Opportunity, which would be used for infrastructure and other economic development costs, rather than to pay companies for bringing workers to Florida, which Corcoran has decried as “corporate welfare.”

All of that would be funded by more than $300 million in vetoes of member projects tucked into the state budget passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate in early May.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

May 02, 2017

After failing to meet deadline, Legislature headed for OT


@ByKristenMClark @stevebousquet @MichaelAuslen

Florida’s legislative session will head into overtime after two top Republicans — negotiating in private billions of dollars worth of spending and substantive policy — failed to meet a deadline to get an $83 billion budget done Tuesday night, so that the session could have ended on time on Friday.

As time expired Tuesday, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, both said the 60-day session would have to be prolonged, but they didn’t yet know for how long.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement. We will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday,” Negron told reporters Tuesday evening — a few hours after House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, downplayed the increasingly expected delay by saying an on-time budget was still “90 percent likely.”

But earlier in the day, Trujillo was already guaranteeing lawmakers would remain in Tallahassee for longer than they’d planned.

More here.

Photo credit: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, with Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 27, 2017

Senate's vetting of 'schools of hope' has been vastly limited compared to House



Nine minutes.

That’s how long senators on the Appropriations Committee spent this week to hurriedly describe, amend and approve their version of one of the most high-profile, substantial and costly education policy changes the Legislature will enact this year affecting K-12 public schools.

Senators did not even debate their pair of bills Tuesday that counter a House Republican-approved $200 million “schools of hope” incentive for specialized charter schools. The one person from the public who wanted to weigh in was cut off after 56 seconds.

That’s not the picture of open, thorough and public debate Republican Senate leaders painted a couple of weeks ago when they agreed to send the House bill directly into budget negotiations and vowed transparency in those talks with the House.

Senate leaders had pledged they would have enough time — and would take the time — to properly vet the House “schools of hope” legislation and develop their own ideas on how to improve educational opportunities and services for students, mostly poor and minorities, who attend perpetually failing neighborhood schools.

“These issues have been discussed around here, and we’re just putting them in the conference posture,” Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told reporters Tuesday, referencing the pending budget negotiations process and dismissing the lack of time spent on the Senate’s “schools of hope” bills.

The Senate had general, conceptual conversations earlier in session on how to help kids in failing schools, as did the House. But substantive consideration of an actual policy proposal by the Senate has been extremely limited, compared to the airing the House gave its priority bill.

Senators, so far, have spent barely 90 minutes vetting their legislative proposals (SB 1552 and SB 796) across three committee hearings since senators unveiled their specific policy language early last week.

In contrast, House members spent nine hours considering their bill (HB 5105) during two committee hearings and across two days of discussion, debate and voting on the House floor — about six times as long as the Senate has to date, a Herald/Times analysis found. (Through its two committee hearings alone, the House spent three-and-a-half hours on “schools of hope.”)

Full story here.

Photo credit: Stuart Republican and Senate President Joe Negron, left, and Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, talk with reporters during a press conference in early April. Phil Sears / AP