New House Speaker Richard Corcoran began his two years as the leader of the chamber Tuesday with a round of rhetorical bombardments, lacerating Florida's main teachers union for an "evil" lawsuit while laying down an unyielding stance on budget negotiations.
In a speech during the House's organization session and remarks later to reporters, Corcoran displayed the pugnacious manner and determination that have become his hallmarks and are already raising the odds of a noisy and potentially chaotic legislative session next year.
He attacked the teachers union, the Florida Education Association, for legally challenging a voucher-like program that offers tax credits to businesses that pay for children to attend private schools. He also ruled out considering small-bore budget projects, which often play a key role in easing compromises on other legislative issues, unless the proposals are filed by the first day of the spring session. And he threatened to call out local governments that spend heavily on lobbyists in Tallahassee.
The remarks added a charge to the usually placid organization session, marked by the pageantry of new lawmakers being sworn in and new leaders taking their positions.
Perhaps the most unexpected move by Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, was to call on the Florida Education Association to drop its suit against the voucher-like program. The lawsuit argues that the program drains money that otherwise would go to public schools and is unconstitutional for the same reasons that the Florida Supreme Court struck down a previous voucher scheme.
Corcoran asked Democrats to join Republicans in condemning the legal challenge and asking the FEA, a staunch ally of the Democratic Party, to stop the case.
"The teachers union is fixated on halting innovation and competition in education," Corcoran said. "They are literally trying to destroy the lives of 100,000 children. Most of them are minorities, and all of them are poor. ... It is downright evil."
Later, speaking to reporters, Corcoran said the FEA's idea of what constituted fair treatment of educational options is "some subjective, crazy-ass notion that they have that is completely false."
The challenge to buck the FEA surprised some House Democrats, including Minority Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa.
"It was aggressive," Cruz said. "I didn't expect to hear any of that today, and I didn't expect for teachers to be villainized. ... I certainly don't think that teachers are evil. I think that teachers are amazing, and I was disappointed to hear that."
Democratic leaders issued a statement Tuesday afternoon reiterating their support for the lawsuit.
In a post on Facebook, FEA President Joanne McCall asked supporters to call Corcoran's office and ask the speaker to meet McCall. She said the teachers union was "going high as he goes low."
"The Florida Education Association firmly believes that people of opposing views should always engage in civil debate on issues," McCall said in a statement issued by the union. "We would welcome the opportunity to discuss with Speaker Corcoran the reasons FEA has engaged the court in the voucher program. We are here when and if the speaker would like to hear from us."
Corcoran also repeated his pledge not to accept any spending projects that are not filed asÂ House bills by the first day of session. He said the rule, also adopted Tuesday by the House, would help combat an "epidemic level" of budget earmarks.
"No longer will we have to tolerate last-minute appropriations being stuck into our budget with little or no public scrutiny, in the waning hours of session, literally written on the back of a napkin that they got from the bar the night before," Corcoran told the House.
Those earmarks, though, can make it easier for lawmakers to close up work on the annual spending plan and resolve controversies that are often tied to it in the final days of the session. Corcoran suggested to reporters that he was willing to compromise, but only to a point.
"Gridlock in essence doesn't help anybody," he said. "Unless it's gridlock over something that is a diametrical opposition to the principles that you know would make society, Floridians or the nation great. That's not gridlock, that's statesmanship."
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Tuesday that he would advise senators to find House members to support their projects. But Negron said that was customary even before Corcoran's latest proposals.
And while Negron said he didn't think the difference would be insurmountable, he made it clear the Senate would not necessarily strictly follow the House's lead.
"On the Senate side, we're not going to shut down the appropriations process on the (first) day of session," he said. "We have tens of thousands of our constituents who come to Tallahassee during session to bring us all kinds of ideas, some which relate to the budget. And I think it's perfectly appropriate for the Senate during the legislative session to make decisions on items that will be included in the budget and, by the way, things that will be stricken from the budget."
Corcoran also suggested to reporters that he has sweeping plans for a new requirement that lobbyists turn over to the House any contracts related to their work for local governments. Corcoran, whose brother is a lobbyist, has taken a hard line on restricting contact and interactions between House members and the lobbying corps.
"Now we'll have all these contracts of all these governmental entities and hopefully coming soon is the top 10 list of everything you could imagine: top 10 biggest spenders, top 10 lobbyists who get taxpayer money, top 10 county commissioners who let lobbyists do their job because they stink —- all of that's coming soon," he said.
The legislative session begins March 7.