Two well-established Florida agencies could be nearly wiped out by the end of the 2017 legislative session. The power player behind that mission doesn't come to lose.
Official. House Speaker Richard Corcoran Issue. Corcoran and Florida Gov. Rick Scott are in a public battle over funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida.
Richard Corcoran isn't afraid to mess with fire.
There's the fire pit in the backyard of his Land O'Lakes home. That's where Corcoran holds court with friends and family. It's where he talks about anything and everything, from America's Founding Fathers to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to home decor choices.
Then there's the raging firestorm Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who ascended to the uniquely powerful Florida speaker of the House position late last year, ignited in Tallahassee over Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. It's caused sides normally in the same camp to bicker over core philosophies on spending and the definition of corporate welfare. It also scrambled tourism marketing and economic development officials, who jammed the state Capitol with pleas not to slash their budgets.
And, significantly, it's engulfed fellow Republicans Corcoran and Florida Gov. Rick Scott in an unusually public and caustic riff.
The crux of Corcoran's position is Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida — two of Scott's prized programs — are unaccountable, secretive and the epitome of crony capitalism. Enterprise Florida is a public-private partnership tasked with retaining businesses and wooing new ones to the state, while Visit Florida is the state's tourism marketing arm.
Corcoran's endgame: Eliminate the agencies outright, or at least significantly restrain the budgets, which combined were more than $150 million last fiscal year.
“There are cockroaches everywhere, and I think you're seeing that,” Corcoran said in late January at an Associated Press meeting for reporters in Tallahassee, the first of many shots he's fired. “You turn on the lights, and there's Enterprise Florida and you say, let's take a closer look ...”
Corcoran, 51, backs up his brash sound bites. The House Appropriations Committee, in a Feb. 21 vote, approved a measure that would defund Enterprise Florida and squeeze Visit Florida's budget from $76 million to $25 million. The proposal is expected to hit the House floor the first week of the legislative session, which starts March 7.
What Corcoran calls crony capitalism Scott calls the single greatest thing that's fueled Florida's recovery from the recession. His proof: 1.26 million jobs added in Florida since 2010, a large chunk coming from the record-breaking tourism sector.
Scott, who won two gubernatorial campaigns primarily as a run-it-like-business, anti-establishment candidate, says Corcoran and his allies are misguided. The governor, in a Feb. 20 op-ed piece, says the House has “decided to try to totally eliminate funding for the one area where we can easily show a major return on the investment of your tax dollars.” Corcoran, in public statements and Twitter posts, retorts with his own data nuggets. Like this one Feb. 20: “Eight companies got $444 million in state incentives between 2006 and 2008. Only one met or surpassed its job promises.”
Scott has questioned Corcoran's motives, saying the speaker might be angling more for a gubernatorial run of his own in 2018 than doing what's right for Floridians. A Scott-backed political committee has run a Facebook video ad that labels Corcoran a “fake news” peddler.
Corcoran, in a wide-ranging interview, doesn't rule out a run for governor. But he adds that his future is irrelevant to his current position.
He instead pits the battle as taxpayers versus the entrenched establishment. The fallout, he says, is the price for taking on the status quo. Says Corcoran: “They teach you in law school that when you're right, pound the facts, and when you're wrong, pound the table.”
Time it right
Corcoran's shock and awe strategy created a seismic stir Tallahassee. Pre-session, says Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, is normally quiet, behind-the-scenes deal making.
“I've never seen session come out this way,” says Bennett, who spent more than a decade in Tallahassee, in both chambers of the Legislature, and was president pro tempore of the Senate from 2010 to 2012. “I've seen lots of discontent. I've seen governors not agree with speakers and members not get along with governors, but never like this. They never come out firing.”
Adds Bennett: “I'm kind of shocked that Corcoran went to war like this in the front.”
The Corcoran-Scott spat has another dynamic. It forces newly elected House lawmakers to make a high-stakes difficult decision: Vote with Corcoran, and you're on Scott's hit list. Vote against Corcoran, and it could be worse.
Consider this: Bennett recalls the time when a rookie state representative voted against a House speaker. That representative came to work in Tallahassee the next day and his parking spot was gone. His chair, with a phone on it, was sitting in the hallway.
Corcoran's scorched-earth drive to victory isn't an act, says Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco. “With Richard, it's 100 miles an hour or he's just not interested in it,” says Nocco, who is on the board of a charter school, Classical Prep in Spring Hill, founded by Corcoran's wife, Anne, in 2011. “There's no in between. There's no, 'Let's just go shoot baskets.'”
Nocco has learned two big lessons from Corcoran. One is don't be wishy-washy, to never “stand on the yellow line.” Another is to bring big ideas, and “never settle, never settle.”
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano says Corcoran, going back to when they met when the speaker was barely out of high school, has always had a “Let's do this” edge. “When Richard gets focused in on something, you will not tear him away from it,” says Fasano, a longtime Republican leader in the Florida House and Senate. “He will achieve what he set out to do. Some people don't know that yet, but they are starting to know that.”
Yet Nocco and Fasano, who both consider Corcoran a good friend, say there's a palpable downside to the speaker's hyperfocus. It leaves little room for compromise — a potential train wreck in politics. “He feels like he always wants to win in everything,” Fasano says, “but you have to be able to give a little bit, otherwise you will not get anything done in Tallahassee.”
Corcoran traces his competitive sprit to his parents, World War II veterans. His father was an American solider and his mother, daughter of a British tea planter, was in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in London. The couple met in Montreal, and Corcoran and his twin sister, Susan, were born in Toronto. They were two of five children.
The Corcorans moved to Pasco County when Richard was 11, and he began to crave all things America. He memorized the state capitals and the presidents. He asked his fifth-grade teacher to recommend books on America and American history.
One figure stood out: Davy Crockett and his underdog tale of against-all-odds bravery. “I love that story and how he told the governor of Texas to go to hell, I'm going in,” quips Corcoran regarding the Battle of the Alamo, where Crockett was killed.
Corcoran played tennis, golf and basketball growing up, and was particularly good at tennis. He went to St. Leo College and law school at Regent University, a private Christian university in Virginia Beach. He also served six years in the U.S. Naval Reserves.
Like many conservatives who came of age in the 1980s, Corcoran admires Ronald Reagan. And somewhere along the way he got hooked on another conservative icon, William F. Buckley. He loved watching “Firing Line,” where he learned about philosopher-economists such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and Art Laffer.
Then he and Fasano connected at a Pasco County Republican Club meeting, and later launched a Young Republicans Club. “He was a rare find,” Fasano says. “He would have his shirts and his ties and his briefcase wherever he went. We kidded him about that all the time. We called him Alex P. Keaton.”
Corcoran worked on several Republican campaigns in the 1990s. He ran for the Florida House in 1998 and didn't even get to 30% in a two-candidate race — a rare setback. Around that time he also met a young, up-and-coming Florida House representative named Marco Rubio.
Corcoran and Rubio met for lunch at a Chili's in Ocala. They chatted about families, principles and how to win elections. “Marco is an amazing guy and an amazing speaker,” says Corcoran. “They only come around like that once in a lifetime.”
Corcoran ultimately became Rubio's chief of staff when the Miami Republican served as speaker of the Florida House. Corcoran helped Rubio write the book “100 ideas for Florida's Future” when Rubio was House speaker-designate. That book helped launch Rubio's national political career.
While much of the chatter of late around Corcoran is about his competitiveness and confrontational side, several people who know him well say that only masks his other feature — his intelligence.
“Richard is one of the smartest people I know and I've ever been associated with,” Fasano says.
Corcoran was first elected to the House in 2010. One of his regular foes, at least by party affiliation, former House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, says Corcoran is playing a bit of 4-D chess.
“He's a very calculated person. He's going to know the outcome of the decision before he makes a move,” says Pafford. “He's built and fashioned himself a Florida House to suit his ambitions very well. And it's been years in the making.”
Corcoran chuckles at comments about his supposed calculated cunningness. His passion, he says, comes from the fight, not only the victory. “I think being in the arena is where the joy is,” says Corcoran. “No one said it's going to be easy. But I'm not afraid to lose.”
A father of six children, ages 4 to 16, Florida Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran says he has little time outside family and work. One of his passions is sports, including playing tennis.
He also has an eclectic reading list that ranges from nonfiction by outdoor storyteller Jon Krakauer to novelist Ernest Hemingway. He's currently reading a new Michael Lewis Book, “The Undoing Project,” about Israeli psychologists. And a recent favorite is John Grisham's “The Whistler,” which he read last Christmas.
Some of the business-related bills and issues expected to come up in the legislative session, which starts March 7, include:
Business rent tax: A large pool of pro-business groups will again look to legislators for relief on this tax — a 6% fee on any business leasing commercial property.
Certificate of need repeal: This proposed bill, sponsored by House Rep. Alex Miller, R-Sarasota, removes antiquated and expensive regulations for building new hospitals, nursing homes and hospices, Miller says.
Education: The Senate has prioritized an expansion of the Bright Futures scholarship program, and the House looks to expand school choice programs.
Gambling: A bill in the Senate could expand gambling regulations, specifically where slot machines and blackjack is allowed.
Judges: A proposal to place term limits on Florida Supreme Court justices and some appeal court judges is supported by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
Ride sharing: A few bills in the House and Senate intend to address uniform statewide regulations for ride-sharing services.
Workers' comp: Several groups, including the Associated Industries of Florida, introduced a proposal to hold down rates;
Workforce development: Multiple builders associations seek to get lawmakers to address the acute labor shortage in construction.