By DARA KAM NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Richard Corcoran liked to stir the pot when he served as speaker of the Florida House, and he’s equally bold since taking over as the state’s education czar.
Corcoran has brought his firebrand style to the Florida Department of Education after Gov. Ron DeSantis picked the Land O’ Lakes Republican — who branded public schools as “failure factories” during his tenure as House speaker — to head the agency.
Among other things, Corcoran has advanced a new funding formula for the state’s 28 colleges, which have more than 300,000 students and are a key economic driver in Florida.
Corcoran also is influencing how colleges lobby the Legislature. The commissioner isn’t averse to lobbyists in general. After all, his lobbyist brother Michael is registered to represent a slew of companies ranging from American Airlines to Ygrene Energy Fund Florida, LLC.
But the commissioner isn’t keen on government agencies paying for outside lobbyists with tax dollars, either directly or indirectly.
That has led to many college presidents firing lobbyists who represent their schools or direct-support organizations or letting lobbying contracts run out.
At the same time, presidents are reticent to criticize the commissioner, who’s a close ally of DeSantis and lawmakers who control college budgets.
Corcoran, a lawyer, credits the college system with laying the groundwork for his eventual higher-education success.
“I personally know, first-hand, how great our state college system is because without it I would not have finished my college degree. In addition to that, there’s just one anecdote after the next of how colleges transformed people’s lives like mine,” he told The News Service of Florida in a recent interview.
JUST SAY NO … TO LOBBYISTS (SORT OF)
While Corcoran’s sentiments have led to college presidents jettisoning lobbyists for their schools, that doesn’t mean they are totally done with the lobbying industry.
With little pushback Thursday, presidents, acting as the Association of Florida Colleges, voted to renew a $95,000-a-year contract with the firm The Southern Group to lobby on their behalf.
Just before taking over as House speaker in 2016, Corcoran vilified cities, counties, school boards and other local governments for hiring contract lobbyists to represent them in the Legislature, a crusade he continued throughout his tenure leading the House.
Since becoming education commissioner early this year, he has shared some of that same loathing with the heads of state colleges.
“My counsel to the colleges was that that’s a decision for them to make, but I personally do not believe that taxpayers ought to be footing the bill for contract lobbyists for any government entity,” Corcoran told the News Service. “And that is happening, whether it’s direct or indirect. Don’t tell me you’re paying it out of your foundation, because you’re funded by taxpayers. When we did an expose on foundations, when I was speaker, we found that taxpayer funds were paying for the staff at the foundations.”
Corcoran, however, doesn’t seem to be bothered that the association representing colleges is retaining one of Tallahassee’s most powerful lobbying firms.
At a business meeting of the presidents on Thursday, just one college chief raised an objection to the $95,000 contract for The Southern Group. After introduction of the agenda item, Florida Gateway College President Larry Barrett raised questions about hiring a contract lobbyist, given Corcoran’s objections.
“I don’t understand how we’re going to do this,” said Barrett, who participated in the meeting by telephone. “We’ve been partnering with the commissioner the past few months, and the commissioner, one of his thoughts is about lobbyists, and many of us have gotten rid of our personal lobbyists, per his thoughts. I think the council (of presidents) has to think about what we’re about to do today, based on his request, and I’ll be voting no, against it.”
Two other presidents joined Barrett in opposition to the contract, which was overwhelmingly approved.
NEXT IN LINE
Moments after he was formally elected Tuesday to serve as Florida’s next House speaker, Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls waded into issues such as bolstering the state’s finances and addressing climate change.
And he made clear he doesn’t think much of social media and the goings-on in Washington, D.C.
Sprowls, a 35-year-old attorney, will succeed Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, after the November 2020 elections and will hold one of the most-powerful political jobs in Florida. He has long been positioned to become the next speaker, a move that was finalized Tuesday with a voice vote by House Republicans, who hold an overwhelming majority in the chamber.
Speaking to House Republicans, state leaders, family members and supporters, Sprowls outlined priorities that include addressing what he described as a “spending problem” in state government.
“We fund our wants at the expense of our needs,” Sprowls said. “We turn policy conversations into revenue conversations. We treat the state budget like it’s our own private charitable foundation to be used for the naming rights of buildings or programs. We can do better than this. We need to increase our reserves and create a new fund for disaster recovery. There is no excuse not to be prepared for the next storm or the next recession.”
While Sprowls followed a long line of Republican leaders in calling for spending restraint, he veered away from many members of his party in addressing the issue of climate change.
“We need to stop being afraid of words like ‘climate change’ and ‘sea level rise.’ Frankly, we do this too often as conservatives,” he said.
‘THE WHOLE PLACE IS JUST A MESS’
Amid concerns about poor air quality at two residence halls, the state has moved 27 residents with developmental and intellectual disabilities into new living quarters at a state-run center in Northwest Florida.
And that just may be the start. Marguerite Morgan, superintendent of the Sunland Center in Marianna, sent a letter Sept. 11 to staff members saying that air quality will be an “ongoing priority at Sunland for some time to come.”
Patty Houghland, a disability-rights advocate for a federally funded watchdog organization, expressed worries, though, that the new residential quarters aren’t any safer than the buildings that residents vacated at the Jackson County facility.
“I just don’t know how they pick which building they are going to go to,” said Houghland, an advocate at Disability Rights Florida, which works on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “They won’t tell us how bad it really is. And the whole place is just a mess.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: House Republicans formally picked Rep. Chris Sprowls to serve as the chamber’s next speaker.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Texans swear by Buc-ee’s. They will plan their trips around Buc-ee’s. It’s really become a religion there.” — Gov. Ron DeSantis, at the groundbreaking of a Buc-ee’s convenience store in Daytona Beach this week.