Today's news -- June 13, 2017




Florida's broken state Legislature *

Florida citizens reasonably could wonder why they pay to keep 160 legislators in Tallahassee every year for 60 days — or longer — when the final decisions seem to be decreed by just three people. Perhaps lawmakers should simply give their proxies to the House Speaker and Senate President, then let them work out new laws with the governor. Although that notion isn't serious, the problem is. The secret budget negotiations between Speaker Richard Corcoran and President Joe Negron that brought the regular session to an uncertain end violated any pretense of transparency or inclusion. And the dark-of-night deal on the terms of a three-day special session should lead everyone to believe the fix is in. So look this week for Gov. Rick Scott to sign HB 7069, the year's most controversial bill. Corcoran and Negron produced it on the last Friday night of the session and scheduled it for a floor vote Monday, the session's one extra day. They gave their colleagues the weekend to digest it, which met the letter — if not the spirit — of the 72-hour "cooling off" period required of budget bills. This bill represents quite the sleight of hand. For it doesn't just detail how much money will be spent on new education priorities, it creates 55 new education policies. And it was delivered in a way that couldn't be amended — as a budget conforming bill. Corcoran and Negron threw in some sweeteners, like teacher bonuses and recess for elementary school students, to offset the giveaways for charter schools, most of which are run by for-profit companies. The three decided to give charters $140 million to open schools in depressed neighborhoods and a second stream of public money for buildings the public will never own. In return, Corcoran agreed to give the governor an $85 million pot of money for economic development, money that comes with no strings attached, except for a prohibition on benefiting a single company. And after criticizing reckless spending at Visit Florida, he agreed to fully fund its tourist marketing program. Negron, in return, got Corcoran and Scott to agree to restore $60 million in university projects vetoed by the governor. And the governor got $50 million to repair the dike around Lake Okeechobee, something he never requested in his budget and only brought up at the session's end. The heavy-handed rule of a few is not a new story in Tallahassee. Norm Ostrau, a former Broward representative, touched on it when he told a reporter in 1988: "You'd love to be a part of the secret meetings so you could hear them making up your mind for you." But it does seem to have become worse lately. Many legislators say the term limits imposed by voters in 1992 are to blame. With only a short time to make their marks, members are more susceptible to the dictates of the presiding officers who control committee assignments and the legislative calendar. And here's an alarming date for your calendar: On June 30, 27 freshman Republican members plan to decide which of them will become the speaker in 2022. It's bad public policy to make leadership decisions so far in advance. After all, because of term limits, at least 73 other legislators will be elected before that leaders is sworn in. In theory, the newcomers could revolt, the designee could lose his seat in an election, or the Democrats could take back the House, which isn't likely. More likely, the winner will become an overly influential crown prince. Members will begin courting his favor. And those who help him win on June 30 will be at the head of the line. There are reforms that could restore the independence of legislative members, and lessen the power of the presiding officers, although most are difficult.

• Repealing or extending term limits is one. It would be a daunting task to persuade the voters, but the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission, which is meeting now, should call the question.

• The 72-hour deadline for producing appropriations bills in final form should be extended to provide for consideration of amendments. The Constitution Revision Commission should push this change, too.

• Limiting the astounding influence of lobbyists and their money is another, but this would take a federal constitutional amendment or a reformed U.S. Supreme Court.

On its own, the Legislature could and should:

• Delay leadership contests to the year before the gavels change hands.

• Curb leadership powers by having elected steering committees in both parties fill committee slots.

Too much power is concentrated in too few hands in the Florida Legislature. This year, more than most, showed our system of representative government is broken. When powerbrokers create major new policies that cannot be amended, the people lose.


Takin' care of unfinished business, behind closed doors


HB 7069 in Scott's hands

The education bill that has inflamed passions across Florida has landed on Gov. Rick Scott's desk, prompting advocates on both sides of the measure to ramp up efforts to influence the governor's decision. That decision could come soon. There's been unconfirmed talk that Scott might have a signing ceremony for HB 7069 in Orlando on Thursday with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the bill's chief proponent, by his side. Scott's staff would not verify his plans, saying he's still reviewing the bill. Corcoran called the talk "rumor," though he noted he would be in Orlando on Thursday if the event were to occur. The governor does not have to take action until June 27. Activists who oppose the measure -- a large group that includes many school boards, superintendents and parent organizations -- have turned to social media to urge their supporters to contact Scott and ask for his veto.


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