TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The legislative session appeared to careen off course Monday, as the House prepared to pass its second budget of the year -- a plan Senate leaders have already ruled out as "ineffectual."
The showdown between the two chambers came with just eight days to go until lawmakers would be forced to call an extended or special session to resolve the budget impasse, making it seem unlikely that lawmakers would get their work done on time.
That would mark the second time in three years that the Republican-dominated Legislature was unable to finish the budget, its one constitutionally mandated task, by the scheduled end of the regular session.
In a memo to his members issued late Monday afternoon, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said the House Appropriations Committee would take up a "standard operating budget" aimed at continuing the functions of state government largely at current levels. Extra spending meant to account for increased Medicaid costs and public school enrollment would also be funded.
Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, emphasized in the memo that "we remain optimistic that we will reach budget consensus with the Senate," despite a deepening rift between the two sides that opened over the weekend.
"However, by considering this standard operating budget as a contingency, we would prevent an unnecessary government shutdown, protect the state's future, and still enable us to fund new priorities in the future," he wrote.
The mention of a government shutdown alone seemed to raise the prospect of a prolonged battle between the two sides; a shutdown would not occur until after the end of the current budget year on June 30.
The new budget scheduled to be considered by the committee weighs in at $82.1 billion, up nearly a billion dollars from the House's initial budget but still well short of the $85.1 billion plan the Senate approved.
It would also increase spending on the state's main formula for funding public education by 0.34 percent per student, up from the first House offering but also well short of where the Senate was. The House would still refuse to allow property-tax bills to increase with real estate values, an issue that has separated the chambers.
By the time the "standard operating budget" was released, though, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, had already rejected it in a memo to his own colleagues.
"I have no interest in adopting this ineffectual practice," Negron wrote. "Our constituents deserve and expect more. ... I will insist on a budget work product that reflects public testimony from our fellow citizens, input from the constituents we represent and the thousands of informed decisions -- big and small -- elected legislators have made since November 2016."
Senate leaders compared the move to Washington, D.C., where "continuing resolutions" are often used to avoid government shutdowns.
"Why do we want to model Florida after Washington, D.C.?" asked Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Latvala raised the possibility that Corcoran's move -- and comments over the weekend that painted the Senate as liberal -- were aimed at "a certain small element of the Republican primary voters." Corcoran is rumored to be considering a bid for governor in 2018, and Latvala has said he is also thinking about running.
Democrats, long consigned to minority status in the Legislature, reveled in the chaos. A sign outside the House Democratic office labeled "Live Shot from Inside Budget Negotiations" showed a well-known Internet meme with a dog sitting in a burning room saying, "This is fine."
In a statement, House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, lashed out at Republicans for the gridlock after the House approved a budget she said didn't include adequate funding for education or health care.
"To top it all off, now Republicans want to waste $72,000 a day on a special session to do the only job we're constitutionally required to complete," she said. "It's pathetic and it's below the level of competence that should be expected of an elected body."
Despite appearances, though, GOP lawmakers publicly insisted that a deal could still be reached in time to bring the session to a successful conclusion on May 5 -- with the budget needing to be done three days earlier to allow for a constitutionally required "cooling off" period.
"I think it's still a possibility, a good possibility," Latvala said, before the House appropriations meeting was scheduled. "If we get in gear today, tonight, tomorrow, we can still get it done."