Florida’s Formidable Speaker of the House

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In an institution that has long been recognized as leadership driven, The Florida House of Representative’s newest Speaker of the House is poised to take that approach to an unprecedented level. Richard Corcoran (R–Land O’ Lakes), has gone to great lengths to earn the loyalty of his followers and works hard to maintain it. With a passionate following of fellow House members, and frequent refrains about the value of sticking to one’s principles, Corcoran may be the strongest and most powerful Speaker in many years.

Amidst rumors that he has his sights on other real estate in the Capitol, Corcoran appears to want to keep his focus on his current job. “I’m going to be the best darn speaker I can be,” said Corcoran in an interview with CBS4 Miami’s Jim DeFede. For now, the outspoken, aggressive and sometimes combative Corcoran has enough on his plate to keep him from worrying about his next political race.

Corcoran is currently embroiled in a multi-fronted battle of his own creation. Fighting to cut funding to Visit Florida, and eliminate Rick Scott’s pet program, Enterprise Florida, Corcoran has also recently placed a target on the state university system’s direct support organizations, along with other quasi-governmental corporations.

In Corcoran’s view, these battles are being fought in the name of fiscal conservatism. About the proposed budget, Corcoran stated, “I can say unequivocally there is tons of things in this budget that need to be cut, should be cut and will be cut.”

Notoriously uncompromising, the House Speaker gave a preview of what to expect from the House in this year’s session, “For anyone waiting for us to slow down, to drop the big ideas, to stop shaking up the system, to cower in the face of attacks, or to cave to the demands of special interests, our message is simple: We will not.”

In today’s political climate, straight talk is king, and tough stances play well with voters, but Corcoran must not only manage the affairs of his own House. He will have to find a way to work with the Florida Senate if he is to accomplish his Constitutional obligation of passing a budget, much less succeed in any of his other fiscal priorities. Corcoran’s aggressive style wins him the loyalty of his chamber, but often causes friction with others, especially those who have their own ideas and Constitutional authority.

Senator Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) said, about Corcoran, “I’ve been up there 22 years, and he has flat picked more fights with more people than anybody I’ve ever seen before — some of them justified.”

His inability to compromise concerns those who would see him run for higher office. “You can’t fight everyone,” Said Mike Fasano, a former House representative, and colleague of Corcoran. These measured statements about a colleague allude to the deeper and broader challenges of, ultimately, being an effective leader in the governing party.

In a recent article, the Tampa Bay Times points out that the House Speaker, while combatting “waste” and “corporate welfare” in the budget, has remained silent on “far bigger examples of potential waste, fraud and abuse, such as the prison and child welfare systems, which spend $6 billion a year.”

While the Times article criticized Corcoran for picking politically easy or hot issues and ignoring more meaningful ones, there are others that see hypocrisy in these budgetary priorities from a man who – just last year – was the Appropriations Chairman that funded many of the programs now on the chopping block. And, notably, did so in less than transparent ways. Take, for example, the Visit Florida budget. Last year, the House proposed greater funding levels than the Senate.

Though he has managed to stay under the radar on broader, hot button issues thus far, Corcoran has made several votes that have angered key demographics. Most notably, he has placed himself in opposition to the LGBT community on more than one occasion. While not traditionally a key constituency of the GOP, there is a growing libertarian element in the party that believes freedom means freedom for all. After the well-publicized debacles in North Carolina and other states that caused economic damage to tourism and other industries, Florida seems poised to take a different approach to these issues.

Corcoran has a well-established record in opposition to specific rights for the LGBT community. In 2015, He voted against a bill that amended child adoption laws to allow homosexual individuals to adopt. Of the 79 Republicans that voted on the issue, Corcoran was one of only 35 that voted “no.”

In 2016, he voted “yes” on a controversial bill that allows churches to decline marriage services to homosexual couples without liability. These issues lie at a crossroads of arguments for liberty and freedom and become more complicated when freedom of religion arguments collide with those for gay rights. With specific religious freedom bills also moving through the legislature, it remains to be seen how these will meet Corcoran’s frequent statements about principles and limited government. He is frequently quoted raising the GOP anthem that “government should not pick winners and losers.” This is the basis of his opposition to Governor Scott’s Enterprise Florida program.

There are challenges for Corcoran and his principles on his position on medical marijuana as well. While Florida overwhelmingly voted to legalize medical marijuana for qualifying patients with a 71% mandate, Corcoran and the House have not yet moved to amend a law the that precisely and explicitly picks winners and losers by allowing only seven nurseries to supply medical marijuana for a state of 20 million people, in lieu of simply regulating a new industry and letting the market determine who provides this legal product.

The fact that all of these nurseries are politically well-connected – some with family members elected to the House, high-paid lobbyists and an association doing their bidding – only adds fuel to the fire of those claiming hypocrisy and cronyism in this state-created oligopoly. Corcoran, who was opposed to medical marijuana on the ballot has been fairly silent on the topic stating, “All I’d say on that is that we’re going to honor the will of the voters, we’re going to protect the Constitution, and we’re going to protect the people’s state of Florida.” He will now have his chance to align his principles with reality on this topic. Corcoran is surely not to be blamed for the current state of medical marijuana; both the Senate and Governor’s office are complicit in the status quo. Corcoran, however, seems the most philosophically opposed to the general condition of the status quo, given his determination and commitment to principle.

On environmental issues, Corcoran and his counterpart in the Senate may find difficulty in reconciling their differences. Senate President Joe Negron (R-Stuart) has proposed a large land buy for water management south of Lake Okeechobee. The land in his sights is largely owned by Big Sugar corporations U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals. Corcoran has not been completely clear on his position on the land purchase but has stated that he would not support bonding for water projects and would be opposed to increasing state debt, two conditions that would likely doom Negron’s proposal in the current budget climate. Negron argues that purchasing the land and converting it to a water reservoir is essential for preventing toxic algal blooms along Florida’s waterways.

Complicating the issue is Big Sugar’s sizable contributions to the GOP and to individual candidates and committees during recent election cycles. Corcoran, though he takes a strong public stand against lobbying and special interests, is no stranger to Big Sugar’s money and perks, and has personally enjoyed U.S. Sugar’s premier King Ranch hunting trips.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is a tough-talking, uncompromising, and powerful conservative force within Florida’s legislative ranks. He has approached this year’s session with an all-in attitude and seems to be more willing to lose than compromise. It remains to be seen whether this approach will allow Florida’s legislature to pass a budget in a bicameral body that cannot accomplish anything without compromise.