He wasn’t on the dais, but Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s policies and public comments were front-and-center when a panel of Pinellas lawmakers spoke Wednesday in Clearwater about the recently concluded legislative session.
Dubbed “the most interesting man in Tallahassee” in a recent Miami Herald profile, the 52-year-old Land O’Lakes Republican came into leadership last year with a firm and aggressive agenda, and achieved some major accomplishments in state government. And with a potential gubernatorial candidacy in the offing, opinions regarding his policies and legislative style were not in short supply from his fellow Republicans.
No one has been more critical of Corcoran’s tenure than the man who may be competing against him next year for the GOP nomination: Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala, who lashed out at Corcoran’s recent comments that state legislators are more responsive to Floridians than local governments.
“I think it’s probably one of the most ridiculous things that has come out of his mouth,” Latvala said to laughter and applause from the business-friendly crowd which gathered for French toast and sausage at Ruth Eckerd Hall. “And I’ve heard a lot of ridiculous things come out of his mouth.”
The event was sponsored by the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce and moderated by FloridaPolitics/SaintPetersBlog publisher Peter Schorsch.
Latvala went on to say that the people who run for local office generally raise money from the people that they will ultimately represent on a city council or county commission. Not true in Tallahassee, he said, where most lawmakers contributions come via lobbyists.
“A lot of our legislators – particularly our newer ones – have the attitude that somehow or another they know more than the same folks who elected them at the local level,” Latvala continued. “I’ve never had that attitude, and I never will.”
When reached for comment later in the day, Corcoran responded by saying that “our point was based on the beliefs of our founding fathers.”
“Every branch of government should stay in their constitutionally authorized lane,” Corcoran said..”When local governments try to ban our citizens from using Uber; raise taxes on its citizens every single year; force small businesses to pay an unsustainable minimum wage; strip our citizens of their 2nd Amendment rights, and lobby the legislature to try and stop them from giving homeowners a property tax cut, then they are out of their lane and, more importantly, completely out of touch with the will of the people.”
Corcoran’s determination to eliminate state funding for Enterprise Florida, Visit Florida, and a host of other economic incentive programs, including those targeting professional sports teams and the entertainment industry, created a virtual civil war amongst Florida Republicans in the first half of 2017. Ultimately, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida retained a substantial amount of funding, though EFI lost the bulk of its money for job incentives.
That proposal resulted in an intense ideological battle between Corcoran and Governor Rick Scott, who spent weeks traveling to the districts of House Republicans who supported the plan to defund the agencies.
“Unfortunately, the Speaker made a lot of people vote for that bill before he changed his mind and made his deal and then we had an about face and the end result was a decent bill,” said Latvala. “A lot of young House members were made to march the plank in their communities … just because of this ideological proposal from the House Speaker.”
Sitting right next to Latvala on the dais at the event was Seminole’s Larry Ahern, who was one of those House Republicans who supported Corcoran’s push to defundthose state agencies.
“No more does one corporation get all the benefits,” said Ahern of the final product. “Now it will be a better package for job training and creation throughout the state.”
South Pasadena Republican House member Kathleen Peters said she refused to “walk that plank,” and said she was quite vocal about not supporting it, before getting in her own dig at Corcoran.
“When I look at good leadership, I look at leaders who are not divisive, leaders who can see a problem and bring all the stakeholders together and come up with a good solution,” Peters said. “And that’s not what happened here in the beginning.”
Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls supported the controversial legislation.
“When the Quick Action Closing Fund, paid for by tax dollars, says to an out of state company like Wa-Wa we’re going to give you millions of dollars in taxpayer money to come and compete with homegrown Florida businesses, I’m offended by that,” he said. “We all should be.”
St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton said that Corcoran crashed a House Democratic meeting one Wednesday to persuade some of the members to his cause to get rid of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida.
“He said I need you to stand with me,” Newton said in recounting that meeting. “That tells you right away that he didn’t have every Republican delegation in lockstep.”
Ultimately, 20 Democrats did support Corcoran on that vote.
Another controversial bill that Scott recently signed was House bill 7069, the education bill that includes the “schools of hope” plan for charter schools that was another pet project of Corcoran’s. The bill does many things, including add measures that force school districts to share construction money with charter schools and that create financial incentives for new charters to open and compete with low-performing public schools.
The bill was also a passion project of sorts for Chris Latvala, who spoke for so long about how important the legislation was that he was ultimately cut off by Schorsch.
Newton, like every Democrat in the Legislature, vehemently disagreed with the education bill.
“If you think that you’re going to be able to spend that amount of money on a charter school because they had some success somewhere else without bringing the people that’s providing that success and a government structure to the areas where you’re trying to implement it, it’s never going to work,” Newton said.
And speaking of education, the issue of USF being stripped of “preeminent” status in an education conforming bill near the end of session still rankles alumni and friends of the university. One anonymous audience member blasted Sprowls (scheduled to become Speaker of the House in a few years) on how could he let such a thing happen, or be so out of the loop as to not know it was about to happen.
While other members criticized the process, Jack Latvala said that USF officials were being too negative about how they fared overall this year.
“USF leadership is really good at the doom and gloom and highlighting the negatives, but what they haven’t told anybody was that USF got $42 million in new, additional operating money this year, as apart of the Senate’s various program to supplement higher education,” he said.”So it was one problem, but they got a lot of new money.”
The lawmakers were all asked who they believe their respective gubernatorial nominee will be next year. With many of the Republicans being loyal to Latvala, they opted not to weigh in, since he has not declared whether or not he’ll be a candidate.
Well, not everybody played possum. Ahern extolled the virtues of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who, as of today, remains the only major Republican to have entered the race.