With the holidays behind us, the focus in Tallahassee this week — other than the possibility of snow and/or ice in the Capital City on Wednesday — is on getting ready for the 2018 legislative session, which starts Jan. 9.
The 60-day session begins Tuesday after the Legislature agreed in 2016 to move it up two months, which the state constitution allows lawmakers to do in even-numbered years. It just so happens that elections, which many senators and representatives will take part in, also take place in even-numbered years.
One major issue that promised to overshadow the start of this year’s session was removed from the legislative table a couple of weeks ago. That’s when state Sen. Jack Latvala announced just before Christmas he was resigning rather than face sexual harassment charges before the Senate Rule Committee.
His decision followed the release of a report conducted by a special master hired by the Senate to investigate the charges. The report concluded that there was not only probable cause that Latvala committed sexual harassment against women, but also might be guilty of public corruption for allegedly offering to trade sex for his support of legislative initiatives.
His decision to resign Jan. 5 removes a highly volatile and embarrassing issue from the Senate’s agenda. In the meantime, the special master’s report has been passed onto the Florida Department of Law Enforcement which is conducting a preliminary report of the allegations to determine whether criminal charges should be brought against Clearwater Republican.
“Senator Latvala made the right decision,” Senate President Joe Negron said after Latvala announced he would step down.
A key legislative leader who immediately called for Latvala’s resignation after the sexual harassment charges were made public in November, will likely continue to play a dominant role in the legislative process.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who many believe will run for governor following the session, enters his second year as leader of the House. Corcoran was chosen one of the winners in Florida politics in 2017 by the Tampa Bay Times.
The House speaker has led with a style some critics call dictatorial, but there has never been any doubt about who’s in control. He knows how to use power and to exploit weaknesses and distractions in the Senate, and forged a mutually beneficial alliance with Scott in 2017 after months of intense combat. A lawyer from Land O’Lakes, Corcoran enters his last session while weighing a bid for governor as soon as March, which will subject his every move to speculation that it’s motivated by political ambition.
Another key player will be Gov. Rick Scott, who had some political battles with Corcoran in 2017 before the two men appeared to mend the fences, enters his final year as governor after being term limited after serving two terms.
They might do battle again this year when it comes to the budget.
After Scott released his $87.4 billion budget plan for the upcoming 2018-2019 fiscal year, Corcoran responded with a cordial statement that seemed to lack enthusiasm for Scott’s proposal, saying “we appreciate the governor’s recommendations.”
Scott’s proposed budget is $4 billion more than this year’s spending plan and $21 billion more than his first budget in 2011.
“This is my final budget,” said Scott when he released his plan back in November. “My goal is that next year is an historic year.”
It also happens to be a year that Scott is expected to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by three-term Democrat Bill Nelson.
But state economists are warning Florida’s financial future isn’t as bright as some believe it is. Amy Baker, Florida’s coordinator of the Office of Economic & Demographic Research, told the Sun-Sentinel last month that the state’s economy is “humming” with general revenue averaging between 3.5 percent and 4 percent increases over the next three years.
Unfortunately, Baker said, Florida has a “structural imbalance.” Growth in projected spending will outpace gains in tax revenue. Medicaid is the key driver. New programs will start. Tax cuts – Baker calls them “adjustments” – are setting in. Whatever the problem for next year, the two years after that will be worse.
If Florida merely had to cut back slightly in a few areas, this news might not be gloomy. The news comes, however, as Florida faces so many needs.
The budget is the only bill that lawmakers are required to pass during their two months in Tallahassee. But you can be sure there are and will be numerous other bills proposed for the Legislature to consider.
The House wants to pass a bill that would make texting and driving a primary traffic offense, which means law enforcement could stop and ticket you if they see your texting while driving down the road.
Speaker Corcoran is also pushing a bill that would allow public school children who are being bullied to receive scholarships to attend a charter school in an effort to stop bullying.
In the Senate, President Negron is expected to continue his fight to boost the amount of Bright Future scholarships given to university students.
Following last year’s active hurricane season that saw Hurricane Irma causing devastation across much of Florida and leaving millions of residents without power for days, there will surely be proposals to toughen the state’s infrastructure to ensure it’s better prepared for next hurricane season. That includes requiring backup generators at nursing homes and bigger stockpiles of storm supplies like water, food and fuel to better handle the needs of Floridians during and after a hurricane.
And their will likely be discussion regarding the impacts of another hurricane — Hurricane Maria that caused massive destruction in Puerto Rico. Since that storm hit, about a quarter million people have left their island nation and have come to Florida. The exodus has raised questions about the impact the influx of evacuees will have on public schools and social services in Florida.