TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Following a tumultuous year that witnessed the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature get mired in scandals and finger-pointing, GOP leaders kicked off a new session on Tuesday where they promised to clamp down on sexual misconduct and pass sweeping education bills.
The opening day brought assurances from legislative leaders that they can quickly find agreement on key issues, yet there were still signs of the same fissures that pushed state government to a brink a shutdown last year.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is expected to run for governor this year, gave a fiery speech where he declared that “we are the storm” and the “house of reformers” as he outlined his top priorities, including a bill that would allow bullied students to go to private schools at taxpayer expense.
“We will end this horror for all children,” said Corcoran. “No one will ever be trapped again.”
Senate President Joe Negron, in a very workmanlike fashion, went over a list of his own top priorities, including a higher education overhaul that would permanently boost spending on Florida’s lottery-funded Bright Futures scholarships, which go to the state’s top-performing high school students.
The session comes just weeks after powerful Republican state senator Jack Latvala resigned following an investigation that found credible evidence of sexual misconduct. Latvala, who has denied inappropriately touching anyone, was the third senator to abruptly resign last year.
Negron vowed “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and said the Senate would soon revamp its policies. Corcoran, who clashed repeatedly with Latvala even before the allegations surfaced, predicted that the “Senate would have a revival” now that Latvala is no longer in office.
He also promised that the Senate would address the state’s opioid crisis and pass legislation to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. One proposal would require nursing homes to have backup power generators, a response to the many deaths in sweltering heat at a South Florida home that lost power.
Last year’s session went into overtime amid a budget showdown between the House, Senate and Gov. Rick Scott. It could happen again this year with finances tight and Republicans at odds on school funding.
Corcoran vowed that the House would never use a rise in local property values to boost school funding. House Republicans say that’s tantamount to a tax increase, since higher property values usually trigger higher taxes. But Negron defended the practice, calling school funding a state-local “partnership.”