TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Setting aside a long-running feud among Florida’s top Republicans, the GOP-controlled Legislature brought a whirlwind special session to a close Friday after approving a new budget for public schools and money to repair the dike that surrounds Lake Okeechobee.
Lawmakers also agreed to shore up the state’s tourism marketing program and set up a new fund that Gov. Rick Scott can use to help lure businesses. And in a surprise move, legislators passed a bill that would put rules in place for medical marijuana, which voters approved last November.
“We call ourselves the ‘Cardiac Kids,'” House Speaker Richard Corcoran said. “We get you guys all worked up and then we come to a nice, smooth landing.”
In the end, it was a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the Republican governor who just weeks earlier was complaining that legislators had approved a new state budget that would derail the economy and kill jobs. Moments before the session ended, he even shook hands with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who had clashed repeatedly with the governor the past few months.
“This is a real win for all the families in our state,” Scott said. “I’m going to be proud to brag about all we accomplished.”
Scott ordered legislators back to town for a three-day special session — which cost as much as $70,000 a day— to revamp the money that goes to Florida’s public schools and to take care of some of the governor’s other top priorities. The governor took that step instead of vetoing the entire $82.4 billion budget, which he had warned that he was considering.
Instead, Scott last Friday vetoed the main account that pays for day-to-day school operations and asked legislators to return and pump in enough money to raise the amount that goes to each public school student by $100 more a year — or about $215 million.
But the session got bogged down after Senate President Joe Negron insisted that he and Senate Republicans had been not part of a deal hashed out in private between Corcoran and Scott.
That led to a last-minute agreement where legislators agreed to spend $60 million on 17 university projects — some of them for large schools such as University of Florida and Florida State University — that had also been vetoed last week by Scott.
Scott, however, won one final concession, which was a commitment of $50 million for repairs to the aging dike that surrounds the state’s largest freshwater lake. The governor had asked for money for dike repairs earlier this year, which legislative leaders initially rejected since the dike is maintained by federal authorities.
“The Legislature is kind of like a WWF match, sometimes,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican. “There’s a lot of intrigue among the key players, there’s some of the ropes moves every now and then, but at the end of the day we stand together, and in this session we won. The people of Florida won.”
When legislators wrapped up their regular 60-day session in early May, they had slashed money for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency, by two-thirds and scaled back the operations of the state’s main economic development agency. But during the special session, they restored Visit Florida’s funding and created a new $85 million fund that can be controlled by Scott.
Corcoran and House Republicans, who had earlier derisively called the state’s existing programs under Scott as “corporate welfare” insisted that they had not flipped their stance because the money cannot be paid to one company. Instead, the money can be used on job training and public works projects that could be used to lure a business to relocate to the state. Democrats on Friday, however, assailed the measure as a “slush fund” for Scott.
The House turnaround has led to speculation that Scott has agreed to sign a sweeping education bill that is a top priority for Corcoran. The measure would steer state and federal money to privately run charter schools and would shift some students in chronically failing schools to charter schools. School superintendents have asked Scott to veto the bill.
Scott, however, insisted he was still “reviewing” the legislation and has not yet decided what to do.
Associated Press correspondent Brendan Farrington contributed to the story.