Corcoran makes business pitch for judiciary changes

Zeroing in on responding to rulings on workers' compensation insurance

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes the house appropriations chair answers question from the press at the end of the special session, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon) (Associated Press)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – House Speaker Richard Corcoran called Monday for the business community to rally around his push for changes to Florida's judiciary, saying failure to do so could make the Legislature's efforts to pass pro-business legislation futile.

Zeroing in specifically on a looming debate over how to respond to Florida Supreme Court rulings on workers' compensation insurance, Corcoran told the Associated Industries of Florida's annual conference that business groups need to realize that the courts are the main obstacle to free-market reforms.

"If you don't wrap your heads around the problem that we're having with the Supreme Court, you're just going to be doing this over and over again, and at some point you're going to run out of a good run of conservative leaders in the (legislative) chambers that are willing to work with you," he warned.

The speech came as Corcoran is about to undertake his first legislative session as speaker, one in which he is expected to focus heavily on overhauling the courts. For example, Corcoran has floated 12-year term limits for judges --- a proposal that critics assailed last year as a political attack on the courts that would make attorneys reluctant to leave their private practices for the judiciary.

The seven-member Supreme Court has repeatedly frustrated the Republican-dominated Legislature. The court has five members who make up a more-liberal majority, the last left-leaning stronghold in a state government where the GOP also controls the governorship and all three Cabinet positions.

Corcoran recounted a pitch he made to business groups in Tallahassee in 2012, when three of the members of that majority --- R. Fred Lewis, Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince --- were up for merit-retention votes. Corcoran asked business groups if they would be willing to raise money to defeat the three in retention elections, where voters are simply asked whether the justices should remain in office.

Under Corcoran's plan, which he said would likely have needed $3 million to $6 million, lawmakers would have been the face of the effort.

Most groups simply told him no. Another got in touch with a major donor, Corcoran said, only to have the donor decline to fund it because of a personal friendship with Lewis.

This April, the Supreme Court struck down the state's strict limits on attorneys' fees in workers' compensation cases, playing a major role in regulators later approving a 14.5 percent increase in workers' compensation insurance rates.

"I really feel like going back to that one group, going back to that one donor, and saying, 'Hey, how's Fred Lewis working out for you, now that you're eating a (14.5) percent increase in workers' comp? How's that working out for you?' " Corcoran said.

Corcoran also laid out his wish list for the Constitution Revision Commission, which is set to begin working in April to propose changes to the state Constitution for voters to consider in the 2018 elections. As speaker, Corcoran gets to name nine of the 37 members.

In addition to the judicial term-limits proposal, Corcoran said he would like the commission to consider trying to overrule a Supreme Court decision that struck down private school vouchers funded directly by public money and rolling back the courts' involvement in redistricting under anti-gerrymandering amendments approved by voters in 2010. Corcoran suggested a redistricting commission --- an idea favored by Democrats --- could be one way to go.

After his remarks, Corcoran said he would have a strict test for his appointees to the revision commission.

"Absolutely, there's a litmus test: I will not choose one selection that's not a conservative," he said.

Corcoran also said he would prefer appointees with elected experience and would not name anyone affiliated with "traditional special interests" to one of his spots.

Other state leaders also made their case to the Associated Industries meeting. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a potential candidate for governor in 2018, gave a wide-ranging policy speech that touched on education and tourism in addition to issues traditionally in his wheelhouse.

But he suggested that the most important issue would be a water policy diverse enough to handle different problems in various regions of the state.

"If we don't get water policy right, the rest of this stuff really doesn't matter," Putnam said. "It is our golden goose."

Gov. Rick Scott signaled that more tax and fee cuts could be coming in his budget proposal, which will be rolled out in piecemeal fashion between now and the beginning of the spring legislative session. Scott has already proposed pay raises for state law-enforcement officers.

Scott said what look like small-dollar cuts could disproportionately help low-income Floridians.

"If we don't need the money, we're going to give it back to all the individuals in our state," Scott said. "And who does it help the most? It helps the most disadvantaged person the most."