By Ana Ceballos
Recap and analysis of the week in state government and politics
TALLAHASSEE — On Valentine’s Day two years ago, tragedy struck Parkland, Florida and the nation.
A former student opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 students and faculty and injuring 17 other people.
A day before the two-year anniversary, the Senate held a moment of silence for the victims of the mass shooting.
“In the days, weeks, months and now the two years that have followed that heartbreaking tragedy, we have come to learn so much about the victims — their lives, their dreams, and the special place they held in their families and their communities,” Senate President Bill Galvano said at the start of Thursday’s floor session.
“They have left an unfillable void,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, added.
To memorialize Florida’s deadliest school shooting, senators, staff and people watching from the public gallery paused and stood in silence for a minute.
Then, business in the chamber resumed.
The Senate passed its $92.8 billion spending plan, which is about $1.4 billion more than the House spending plan that also was passed on Thursday.
The unanimous passage of the two chambers’ spending proposals officially kicked off budget negotiations. Sticking points between the two plans include funding for the environment, affordable housing and teacher pay.
The House wants to devote $20 million to Florida Forever, the state’s land conservation program, but the Senate wants to pump $125 million into the program.
Meanwhile, the Senate is looking to fully fund affordable-housing programs at $387 million, while the House wants to spend $147 million and “sweep” other affordable-housing trust fund money to balance the rest of the budget
The two chambers also disagree on how much to spend on raising teacher salaries, a priority of Gov. Ron DeSantis. The Senate wants to spend $500 million and the House is offering $650 million. Neither chamber has proposed money for bonuses requested by the governor.
The competing budgets were just part of what kept lawmakers busy in the Capitol, where there was also a flurry of investigations, proposed deals and controversial bills as activity ramps up in advance of the March 13 close of the 2020 session.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE AGENCY INVESTIGATED
DeSantis and the Florida House on Thursday intensified an inquiry into Florida’s domestic violence agency, calling for additional investigations and issuing subpoenas over the former head of the taxpayer-backed organization’s compensation.
The governor asked state Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s “exorbitant compensation payouts” and “abuse of state dollars” to determine if any criminal wrongdoing has occurred at the organization.
“Governor DeSantis will not tolerate wasteful or fraudulent spending, particularly from an organization that purports to serve the vulnerable victims of domestic violence,” Helen Aguirre Ferre, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said in a statement.
Five hours later, the Florida House subpoenaed 14 individuals who have worked at the organization to further dig into how Tiffany Carr, the agency’s former CEO, was able to receive millions of dollars in compensation for her work at the coalition. Carr is among those who were subpoenaed by the House.
The House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee staff director Don Rubottom said that, after reviewing documents the organization turned over Wednesday night, it appeared Carr received $4.2 million in paid time off between July 2013 through her resignation in October 2019.
Committee Chairman Tom Leek said the compensation outlined in the documents is significantly higher than the roughly $750,000 annual salary the organization had initially reported to the committee, which launched an investigation in the coalition last year.
“When I was first advised of the amounts that we were talking about, it was hard to put together words about what it means. It’s beyond what any of us thought was out there,” Leek, R-Ormond Beach, told reporters after the committee meeting.
The coalition, which received $46.7 million this fiscal year in state and federal funding, oversees domestic violence programs in the state as part of a contract with the Florida Department of Children and Families.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
House and Senate leaders are continuing to huddle on a sweeping gambling deal that could open the door to sports betting in the state, but the Seminole Tribe of Florida — a key player in any agreement — isn’t yet part of the discussions, Galvano said Thursday.
Galvano emphasized legislative leaders have not reached an accord.
“It’s premature to believe that there is a negotiated deal between the chambers. That has not occurred yet,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who was instrumental in the passage of a 2010 agreement between the state and the tribe, told The News Service of Florida in an interview.
For five years, lawmakers have grappled with thorny and elusive gambling issues, to no avail.
Discussions between Galvano and House Speaker José Oliva, and talks between Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, and his House counterpart, Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, remain at the “100,000-foot level,” Hutson said in an interview.
According to Hutson, the “starting point” of the negotiations is a plan solidified last spring by the tribe and Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is slated to become Senate president in November.
“There has been nothing inked in pen or put in writing that we’ve agreed to. But we do feel like we’ve moved a lot closer towards being able to say that we’re in lockstep and key, and then we will go see the governor. But at this time, we’re not there,” Hutson said.
If the House and Senate can agree on a gambling proposal, the governor would also have to sign off on the deal. And, if the state wants a revised revenue-sharing agreement with the tribe, Seminole leaders also would have to give the plan their blessing.
WE WANT TO BE ALONE
A House committee signed off on a controversial proposal that would merge universities, despite emotional testimony from students and leaders at public and private colleges who oppose the measure.
In addition to the mergers, the bill would revise the rules of three college scholarship programs, which led two Republicans on the House Education Committee to say the proposed changes felt “rushed” and inconsistent with the state’s school-choice philosophy.
“I feel that if all the provisions of this bill become law, we will be in jeopardy of maintaining our status as the number-one higher education system in the country,” Rep. Amber Mariano, R-Hudson, said.
But Rep. Randy Fine, a Palm Bay Republican who is sponsoring the bill (PCB EDC 20-03), argued it is designed to save the state “tens of millions of dollars,” savings that he later suggested could be used to expand other education programs or pay for water projects or health-care services.
The bill would merge New College of Florida into Florida State University and fold Florida Polytechnic University into the University of Florida.
Fine said officials at FSU and UF are “well-versed on the (consolidation) plans,” but admitted he did not warn leaders at New College or Florida Polytechnic that a bill would be coming.
Leaders of New College and Florida Polytechnic urged the House panel to vote against the measure, adding that they were caught off guard by the bill.
“We found out about it on the news yesterday (Tuesday). We had no idea it was coming,” Robert Stork, a member of Florida Polytechnic’s board of trustees, said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate approved their proposed state spending plans, officially kicking off budget negotiations between the two chambers.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We cannot represent and defend the indefensible. If in fact these are the true numbers, it’s not defensible and it’s egregious and it’s wrong.” — Lobbyist Brian Ballard, whose firm, Ballard Partners, on Thursday dropped the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence Coalition as a client, after nine years of representation.