Gov. Rick Scott is in his final year in office and looking to burnish his legacy for a possible U.S. Senate bid. Senate President Joe Negron also has big, unfinished goals.
But Corcoran has been the most aggressive, unpredictable and confrontational lawmaker in Tallahassee in recent years, and he has largely driven the agenda in the Legislature. Now, much of Florida’s political world is watching to see how far Corcoran goes in trying to imprint his ideas about state government on the Legislature during his final year as speaker, and with a possible bid for governor in his future.
“My hope is in these 59 days we do more transformational policy, far more than we did last year, to the point that nobody could even believe it was possible,” Corcoran said in his opening-day speech on the House floor.
With the Senate hamstrung by sexual scandals and Scott proving long ago that he is not particularly adept at imposing his will on the Legislature, Corcoran again is expected to be the driving force in Tallahassee during the session that wraps up March 9.
In a speech that began by celebrating his accomplishments from last year, when Corcoran surprised many in Tallahassee by pushing through a controversial education bill and prevailing in a fight over economic incentives, the speaker laid out another set of ambitious goals for 2018.
Among his priorities: A new de facto voucher program that would allow students who are bullied to attend private schools, a six-year ban on former lawmakers lobbying the Legislature and tough new penalties for so-called “sanctuary” communities that do not fully comply with federal immigration law.
Corcoran also wields enormous influence because of his ability to block proposals he doesn’t like. He has proven willing to push the legislative process to the brink to get what he wants. Last year he forced the session into overtime to achieve his priorities.
The brinksmanship resulted in Corcoran largely getting his way. He forced the governor to accept a budget that did not fund the state’s traditional economic incentive programs, which the speaker calls corporate welfare. He also muscled through an education bill that carved out significantly more money for charter schools, narrowly getting it through the Senate on the session’s final day in exchange for passing Negron’s top education priority, a bill that would have permanently increased funding for college scholarships.
But Scott vetoed Negron’s higher education bill, leading many observers to conclude that Corcoran had gotten the best of Negron and the Senate.
Corcoran proved willing to engage in hardball tactics during budget negotiations last year, calling Negron and the former Senate Appropriations chair liberals.
“I call people I’m dealing with Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders,” Corcoran said. “There’s not a conservative bone in their bodies.”
Set up for conflict
This year, Corcoran again is pledging to push a conservative budget, setting up another potential conflict with the Senate and the governor, who has proposed a $2.4 billion budget increase that boosts funding for everything from public schools to environmental conservation and addiction treatment.
On Tuesday, Corcoran said he would not allow local property taxes to increase to help fund K-12 education, something Scott and Negron support.
“The Florida House will never support raising taxes on any individual or any business ever,” Corcoran said in his opening-day speech, adding that the school property tax issue “is a debate that the Senate seems to want to have, and if they want to have it we’ll have it.”
Corcoran’s aggressiveness has drawn criticism from both sides of the aisle. Some former GOP lawmakers have cited Corcoran as one reason they left the House. They have accused him of acting like a dictator and imposing a top-down policy approach that punishes dissenters.
Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, said he admires Corcoran but added that his aggressiveness can cause unnecessary strife.
“Richard’s done a lot of good things, but if you don’t agree with him sometimes it can get a little rough,” Gainer said, adding that toward the end of last year’s session “we all had the feeling we didn’t have as much control as we would of liked” in the Senate as Corcoran pushed Negron to accept the House’s position on various issues.
Negron disputed the idea that the House got the better of the Senate, noting he passed priority legislation aimed at limiting pollution-laded discharges from Lake Okeechobee. He also significantly boosted funding for higher education, even if the bill that would have made much of that funding permanent was vetoed by Scott.
“I think we’ll work harder this session, maybe, to tell the Senate’s story,” Negron said.
Even those who oppose Corcoran’s policies admire his mastery of the Tallahassee political process.
“Legislatively speaking Richard is undeniably a master tactician,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, a Broward County Democrat, who has served with Corcoran for years. “He’s studied it for the majority of his adult life. He’s had a lot of hopes and dreams in terms of policies he wants to see the state adopt.”
Jenne predicted that Corcoran will come out on top again in 2018 when it comes to jockeying over legislative priorities. Sen. Gary Farmer isn’t so sure.
“He is a very shrewd and smart political figure,” Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said of Corcoran. “Some have called him Machiavellian in his approach.”
But Farmer noted that 2018 is an election year. Scott is considering a bid for the U.S. Senate and many state senators have to run for re-election, a number of them in moderate districts.
If Corcoran runs for governor he would face a tough GOP primary and would benefit from pushing conservative proposals. But other lawmakers have different political calculations to make.
“Extreme conservative concepts have shown to not play well with the vast majority of Florida voters,” Farmer said.
Regardless, Corcoran’s allies in the House are hopeful this could be a year more conservative proposals advance.
Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, has sponsored the sanctuary city bill for three years in a row. It twice passed the House and is certain to clear the chamber again this year. But Republicans senator from heavily Hispanic South Florida have blocked it from advancing in that chamber. Metz is optimistic the bill has a better chance of passing this year.
“I would never underestimate Speaker Richard Corcoran and anyone who does so does so at their own peril,” he said.