FL House Leaders Look To Build Unity, Still Face Skepticism

Dec 9, 2016

House members meeting for a Legislator University seminar.
Credit Nick Evans

Florida’s House members spent a few days in the Capitol going over the rudiments of passing bills.  The so-called Legislator University is aimed at building unity ahead of a likely contentious legislative session.

When budget negotiations between the Florida House and Senate reached an impasse last year, leadership in the lower chamber blew the session up and headed home early. 

The early adjournment came as a shock, and one of the lawmakers behind the move is now House speaker.

“Gridlock in essence doesn’t help anybody,” incoming Speaker Richard Corcoran says, “unless it’s gridlock over something that is a diametrical opposition to the principles that you know would make society, Floridians, or the nation great.”

“That’s not gridlock that’s statesmanship.”

With the Land O’ Lakes Republican’s dogged resistance to compromise, the House could again find itself on a collision course with the Senate.  But add a tight financial outlook and ambitious rule changes in the House budgeting process, and some kind of showdown may be inevitable.

In part to meet that challenge, House leaders called the members to Tallahassee for a two-day series of meetings called Legislator University.  Part training and part team-building retreat, the sessions included people like motivational speaker and former Reagan staffer Shelby Scarborough—talking about civility.

“This is a practice,” Scarborough says, “This is a practice of civility.  It’s a practice of engagement.” 

“To me civility is service,” she goes on. “It’s about a servant heart, and that’s why you’re all here to serve your communities.”

At a working lunch, three longtime lawmakers held a panel discussion: Things I Wish Someone Told Me Six Years Ago.  Rep. Clay Ingram (R-Pensacola) emphasized the importance of working across the aisle.

“I can’t tell you how many bills I’ve had that weren’t like core value or things that you have run on in your election, but things that come up on a case-by-case or issue-by-issue basis that my Democratic colleagues have helped get me over the hump,” he says.

Forging some kind of unity based on the relationships within the House could be important, because of those changes leadership is making to the budgeting process.  Appropriations committee staff director JoAnne Leznoff explains one shift has to do with recurring funds. 

“If there is an idea to increase that level of appropriation, a project bill would need to be filed,” she explains, “and here’s the kicker—if increased appropriations are authorized that project, by House rule, the entirety of the funding becomes non-recurring.”

To parse that: projects could get nominal increases in funding in the coming year but then disappear entirely in the following year’s budget.  It’s an attractive proposition for a small-government minded Republican like Speaker Corcoran, but Rep. Barbara Watson (D-Miami Gardens) is nervous about the fallout.

“Simply if you put in an application to increase the budget amount—the reoccurring amount—that’s already been established, by no set number, you can actually lose your reoccurring status,” Watson says.  “So we can actually torpedo the entire budget itself.”

If that skepticism takes hold, Corcoran’s crusade could prove even more difficult.