On a nice night in northeast Tallahassee, Florida's two legislative leaders appeared before a modest-sized crowd at Holy Comforter Episcopal School to give their thoughts on the upcoming 2017 session.
There inside the student center/gym and flanked by two Tallahassee legislators (who are both Democrats) the men responsible for guiding the House and Senate over the next 60 days were cordial and collegial to one another as they answered questions given to them.
It was hard to forget that hours before House Speaker Richard Corcoran walked in the door he had tweeted out a link to a video entitled "Session is Coming" that appeared to mimic a HBO promo for the next Game of Thrones episode.
While he cracked jokes about his escalating feud with Gov. Rick Scott over the fate of Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, Corcoran and Negron did not contradict each other or dismiss each other's ideas. Corcoran stressed that education - not the demise of economic development programs such as Enterprise Florida - was the "number one priority" for the House this year.
Corcoran, while noting that the "details" may prove challenging, also agreed with Negron that something should be done to reduce the discharges from Lake Okeechobee that led to toxic algae blooms along Florida's coast. This is noteworthy since the agricultural community and sugar growers are exerting considerable pressure to defeat Negron's bill to acquire land south of the lake in order to store water. In the past Corcoran had questioned the plan because of its cost and its reliance on borrowing by issuing bonds for the land purchase.
Corcoran's answer wasn't lost on Negron, who told a small group of reporters after the event that "hope springs eternal two weeks before session."
Well, yes, just like spring training, it often does for many legislators pushing a wide-range of issues ahead of the frantic, deal-making and deal-busting that consumes the Capitol for a period of nine weeks.
Yet talk to insiders, lobbyists, politicians and they can all sense there's something different this year. Many times the flare-ups occur in the heat of session - or a surprise, like then-President Andy Gardiner's bid for Medicaid expansion two years ago, is thrown into the mix at the very start and turns everything sideways.
This year, however, the common joke is "don't make any plans for summer."
And that may be confusing to those who don't follow Tallahassee day-in and day-out. Many people just want to know - did the Legislature give me a pay raise? Did they raise my taxes? Did they change the state's gun laws?
But the answers to those and many other questions are up in the air because of the festering ill-will now building up.
The reason for these are many - and if you talk to legislators and lobbyists confidentially - they will point at the governor, at Corcoran, at senators such as Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate budget chairman known for "Latvala magic," an interesting euphemism for dressing down people. In a dismissive tone, some Republicans have even complained that Tallahassee is becoming more and more like Washington D.C. with gridlock looming at every turn.
More succinctly, the answer is this: There's a schism in the Republican Party in Florida, there's a divide among leaders as to priorities, there's a disagreement on the scope of Florida's budget challenges and the best approach to fix it. For someone who has been here for two decades it's not an everyday occasion to have the governor sniping at fellow Republicans (both on Twitter and in front of their television cameras.) (Yes it has happened before but that's when the Democrats were in charge.)
The House and Senate are oceans apart on how to approach a new state budget. It's not just the dollars and cents and how to spend it, but there's also a disagreement over procedure and what is the proper way to build a budget.
There's a whole other post to come on what's going on here, but if the two chambers can't reach a consensus on how to draw up a nearly $83 billion budget than the normal protocol is everything just grinds to a halt. The budget fight looms everything from Negron's Lake O plan, his higher education overhaul, to the House's position on school property taxes and the fate of the economic development programs. Oh yeah, and throw in tax cuts and gambling legislation as well....
There's already been a Washingtonian idea tossed out that in the end legislators might just past a continuation budget ahead of the July 1 deadline that gets them to next session - which comes earlier next year.
It could all be inside-the-bubble speculation, but on Tuesday night, Corcoran made a point to tell those gathered that there were times when someone needed to stand up and do something even if it meant going against the crowd and possibly ending their political career.
"In those moments in the political arena where you know in your heart what the right thing to do is, but you also know that you are in a minority, and you are going to get ridiculed and get attacked,'' Corcoran said.
Corcoran added that he has "failed" in the past to do what he thought was right, but he said leaders must find the "courage" and press onward because it would be rewarding.
Negron for his part said he remains an "optimist" that he and other Republicans can set aside their differences in the weeks ahead. He said there were a lot of "large issues" to sort out and that he thought the instant back-and-forth played out on social media was a disruptive force.
But he also noted that the three most powerful men in Florida - Scott, Corcoran and Negron - are all lawyers.
"We all realize there’s a time and place for debate, there’s a time and place for trying to make your point in a colorful persuasive way, and then there’s a time to get the job done, a time to do what the people sent us here to do,'' Negron said.
The clock will soon be ticking.