Ana Ceballos – Florida Politics

Ana Ceballos

Ana covers politics and policy for Florida Politics. Before joining Florida Politics, she was the legislative relief reporter for The Associated Press and covered policy issues impacting immigration, the environment, criminal justice and social welfare in Florida. She holds a B.A. in journalism from San Diego State University. After graduating in 2014, she worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Monterey Herald and the Monterey County Weekly. She has also freelanced for The Washington Post at the U.S.-Mexico border covering crime in the border city of Tijuana, where she grew up. Ana is fluent in Spanish and has intermediate proficiency in Portuguese.

‘It was time for a sabbatical’: Scandals drive Brian Pitts away

After years of being a persistent—sometimes annoying—presence in committee rooms across the Capitol, only one thing was able to make Tallahassee’s best-known gadfly hang up his corduroy jacket: a snowball of scandals.

“Latvala, Clemens, Artiles—all this happened in one year. In one year! No, that is not acceptable and it was too much. It was time for a sabbatical,” said Brian Pitts, a self-described “civil activist” for Justice 2 Jesus.

Former Sen. Frank Artiles stepped down after using the n-word to refer to one of his colleagues in an alcohol-fueled night out in downtown Tallahassee.

Ousted Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Clemens resigned late last year after being accused of having extra-marital affairs with women in their political orbit. Latvala is currently under criminal investigation on accusations that he may have traded votes for sex.

“Latvala was an old fool trying to play with the young bucks as they do,” Pitts said. “Instead of using that institutional knowledge, he goes and acts like the young bucks, and he got caught.”

But Pitts said cases of misconduct began to take a toll on him early last year, before the sex scandals.

First was state Rep. Cary Pigman, who was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. Then came former state Rep. Daisy Baez, who resigned for violating residency rules, and later what he calls an “abuse of leadership” by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The last drop, though, was Sen. Oscar Braynon, he said.

The Miami Democrat was sponsoring his claims bill and after Braynon apologized for having a relationship with Sen. Anitere Flores that “evolved to a level [they] deeply regret,” he considered his bill tainted. Both senators are married.

“The Braynon and Flores affair, that was it,” Pitts said. “I gave the Legislature the opportunity to do without Mr. Gadfly or Mr. Preacher.”

That’s why Pitts said he vanished this Session. It wasn’t an illness. Or money issues, he assures. It was the pervasive misconduct that “came short of breaking the law” that pushed him out.

If he would’ve stayed, he didn’t know if he would be able to conduct himself appropriately in committee.

“I would have had to be dealing with them publicly in between their bills to say, ‘y’all got so many issues and are not in the position to deal with Floridians right now,’ and that would have been disrespectful,” the St. Petersburg resident said.

In his absence, the Capitol was stripped from his classic phrases that include “if the bill is too long, you know there’s somethin’ wrong,” “Jesus wouldn’t agree with this,” or “I’m telling you right now, before you shoot yourself in the foot.”

There were also no sightings of Pitts doing research on the lone computer in the corner of the Capitol’s fifth floor, diligently taking notes.

In place of his absence, he left a Twitter rant in all caps—as is his style—as a message ahead of the 2018 legislative session start. And once gone, another person took over his gadfly role: Greg Pound.

Pound, like Pitts, is a man who uniquely testifies on many topics and in many committees. But Pitts is more tame at the podium than Pound, something the Justice 2 Jesus activist says he is trying to teach him how to do.

“I tell him, ‘you still have to have respect for them’ and I say, ‘you are dealing with issues on the bill, this is not a soap box,’” Pitts said. “But he gets whacked out because he doesn’t follow the process.”

One classic example was when Pound marched to the podium and name-dropped an InfoWars article citing Parkland shooting victims as actors. This was said during the first Senate committee hearing on the controversial gun and school safety measure that was crafted in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre where 17 were killed and many others were injured.

His testimony was heard in a room packed with opponents of the bill, including Parkland student survivors and parents who lost their children in the school shooting.

“He gets too emotional, he is a class of his own,” Pitts said.

Whether Pitts will be back next session is unclear, but regardless of what happens, he said he is still keeping an eye on what goes on in Tallahassee. His job is to fight for “whatever is right for Floridians.”

“I continue to watch because I am not done with it. I have to watch because I need to know what is going up there because I need to know how it affect the locals,” Pitts said.

Six days after saying he was out, Larry Lee reconsiders re-election

In the midst of an emotional last week of Session, a tearful state Rep. Larry Lee Jr. told his colleagues in the Florida House in a 40-minute speech that he would not seek re-election.

Six days later, he is reconsidering that decision.

He is rethinking things because he says his phone has not stopped ringing. And now, his mother has recommended to “close his ears” to those talking to him, search for solitude and figure out what to do.

Lee told Florida Politics he was not in the “best frame of mind” when he decided to pull the plug on his political career last week.

The Port St. Lucie Democrat was emotional and frustrated with the legislative process in the wake of the Parkland school massacre that left 17 dead and several wounded. Lee was one of the lawmakers who wanted to vote down the controversial gun and school safety measure and have Gov. Rick Scott call for a special session to resolve the issue.

He told colleagues he was resigning on the day the House would vote on the contentious proposal.

“That morning it all culminated,” Lee said. “It took those kids from Parkland to push me. I felt like we let them down. Some of our members said we should give them something, but I wanted to give them more.”

Two days before he made the public decision on the House floor, House Speaker Richard Corcoran called him into his office and asked him to take some time to consider not leaving his post.

Corcoran also gave him homework: to read the Book of Romans and the Bible verse John 8:32, which reads: “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” But Lee never did his homework.

“I was afraid that it might touch me and that I might want to stay,” said Lee, a religious man.

He then took a couple of days to mull it over, and with a “heavy heart” he sent a letter to Corcoran and told colleagues it was time for him to leave. A move he said lifted “tremendous weight off his shoulders.”

Lee has served in the Legislature since 2012 and admits that he has never wanted to be a politician, and even says he was naive to believe he could spark change from Tallahassee. But here he is, debating whether he should stay in the game.

He expects to reach a final decision in a couple of weeks, but admits that he has read the verse Corcoran asked him to read and he “still does not know the truth.”

Pinellas schools superintendent slams proposed funding for public education

The superintendent for Pinellas County public schools is slamming the proposed state budget that lawmakers are poised to pass Sunday because he says it will leave his school district with a nearly $3 million funding deficit.

“It’s clear that the additional safe schools and mental health funding has come on the backs of teachers and students,” Michael Grego wrote in an open letter.

The $88.7 billion state budget proposed for the 2018-19 fiscal year includes a significant funding boost for mental health services and school security in response to the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Parkland that left 17 dead.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the $400 million “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Act” into law on Friday.

Grego is in favor of the Legislature excluding most teachers from being armed, but has yet to determine if Pinellas County will participate in the program. And while he has been for expanding mental health services and safety measures, Grego said the money allotted to public education is not enough to cover operational costs like utilities, health care coverage for employees and other areas impacted by inflation.

“We will not be able to cover the cost of providing students the education they deserve if elected officials approve the state budget as currently proposed,” Grego said.

Grego says his district will get $2.2 million. From that, he says, $2.9 million must be spent on school resource officers and $2.2 million must go to pay for mental health services.

“Increased spending on safety and mental health needs to accompany sufficient funding for the heart of our work  — educating our students,” Grego said.

Read Grego’s letter below:

Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego blasts education budget. by Peter Schorsch on Scribd

Ballard Partners snags last-minute tax package tweak to help web-based client

The lobbying powerhouse Ballard Partners swayed lawmakers to add a new section to the state’s labor law that mirrors the exact business model of one of its online-based clients.

Handy Technologies, Inc., which hired Ballard Partners, will directly benefit from a last-minute add on to the tax cut package championed by Senate Budget Chair Rob Bradley.

The amendment language clarifies that those hired to do work through an online-based or mobile-app company are treated as independent contractors and not employees, and lists the exact household and handyman work services offered by Handy Technologies.

The change will not change workers’ compensation or healthcare requirements for those who currently receive them. It would just clarify that if an online-company is not paying those now to a contract worker, it doesn’t have to pay them in the future.

“We are pleased the Legislature continued to support the emerging marketplace contractor economy,” said Chris Dorworth, who is representing Handy Technologies as a registered lobbyist for Ballard Partners.

Uber is also in support of the change.

Bradley said he did meet with the firm and that the intent of the amendment is meant to clarify a “disguise in existing law” and would encourage “free-flow economic activity” in the state.

“I spoke with that firm, but it is consistent with where I have stood in this issues, like I have with Uber,” Bradley said.

“It was a natural fit for me,” he added.

Legislature passes $88.7B state budget to close out extended session

The Florida Legislature during a rare Sunday session passed an $88.7 billion state budget — the largest one in the state’s history.

“This balanced budget includes unprecedented K-12 per student funding, targeted pay raises for state law enforcement, state firefighters, and Department of Juvenile Justice probation and detention officers, and $100 million for Florida Forever, while setting aside $3.3 billion in reserves,” said Senate President Joe Negron.

The Senate passed (HB 5001) on a 31-5 vote (the five opposed were Democrats) and the House pushed it through on a 95-12 vote (also all Democrats who voted ‘no’).

The upper chamber also passed a tax cut package with little debate and some last-minute changes.

Sen. Rob Bradley’s proposal that would treat certain workers who are hired to do a job through a mobile app or website was approved. The move would add a new section under the state’s labor law that would consider thousands of workers in the state independent contractors.

Gov. Rick Scott, at a press conference after the hanky drop, called the 2018 Legislative Session—his last as governor—”incredible,” saying “I couldn’t be more proud of this Session than all eight I have been a part of.” Scott is term-limited this year.

The Legislature also passed conforming bills to amend state law to provide for specific changes in the budget, or General Appropriations Act.

Much of the budget was already debated Friday, when the 60-day Legislative Session was supposed to end. Session had to be extended because legislative lawmakers could not reach a deal on time for the 2018-19 spending plan.

A constitutional provision requires a 72 hour “cooling off” period between a budget’s finalization and both chambers voting on it.

The budget takes effect July 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year. Now Scott will review the spending and no doubt issue a list of line-item vetoes, most likely of member projects. He has 15 days to complete his work.

The budget includes $400 million for the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act” that includes money for mental health services in schools, campus “hardening,” and demolition of the building on the Broward County school’s campus where a Valentine’s Day massacre left 17 dead.

“I’m going to fight for this bill,” Scott said, referring to a lawsuit the National Rifle Association has already filed against it in federal court. “I believe it does the right thing. We want to protect everybody’s rights but we also want to protect our kids and our grandkids at school … I want every child to be safe.”

Pay raises for juvenile officers, Supreme Court justices, state attorneys and public defenders are also part of the spending plan.

Other items that are expected to get final approval are $100 million for the Florida Forever program and $130 million to reimburse nursing homes.

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Reporting contributed by Capital correspondents Danny McAuliffe and Jim Rosica. 

Gary Farmer apologizes for taking ’emotional’ jab at Lauren Book

After state Sen. Gary Farmer came under fire for saying state Sen. Lauren Book’s family responsibilities may be too much to balance if she was chosen as the Senate Democratic Leader-designate, he apologized.

“I recognize that I failed to properly express my thoughts about the difficulties that a Caucus leadership role can play for any individual when it comes to family life,” Farmer said in a statement.

The comments were made Thursday night as the Senate Democrats tried to finalize a vote for the next Leader-designate. Sen. Randolph Bracy nominated Book for the role and that’s when Farmer said her responsibilities as a mother may come in the way. Farmer is also a father of two.

“In the heat of this private moment, I’ll admit that I got pretty emotional,” Farmer said in relation to his comments.

Sen. Kevin Rader called his comments “sexist” and “discriminatory” in a letter to Senate Democrats.

“I just can’t believe that we have a member in our caucus that would insult another member by using sexist and antiquated comments about her children being a hindrance for her to be the leader of our caucus,” Rader said.

After Rader sent the letter Thursday night, Senate Democrats held a meeting on caucus business Friday morning. They came out of it without a vote on who will be the next Leader-designate to succeed Sen. Audrey Gibson.

After that meeting, Farmer said he tried to reach out to Book but could not get in touch with her. He did not want to comment as to whether he was planning on apologizing. Hours later he did.

“I admire Senator Book, and her ability to balance being a parent while serving as a capable and effective legislator over the past two session,” Farmer said in a statement.

“I truly apologize for the way in which this came across, and want to be clear that it was in no way meant to be a broad statement on gender, or Senator Book.”

Senate kills human trafficking bill a day after it was revived

The last-ditch effort to revive a Senate human trafficking bill crashed Friday night after the House decided to strip language that would have created a trust fund for victims.

When it was up to the Senate to consider the changes to the bill, Republicans argued it should be killed because the House “did not do the right thing.”

“Our friends in the House stripped that out in an attempt to say that they did something in the face of these women, all for political glory,” said Sen. Rene Garcia, who was audibly out of breath after running to his desk to debate the proposal.

“Vote this down,” he asked senators.

Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, pleaded with senators to support the proposal because it would help women who are used as sex slaves in establishments across the state.

“We can bring that trust fund back next session,” Book said as she pointed to three trafficking victims in the gallery watching the debate.

After her closing, the bill was struck down in a voice vote.

The measure would have allowed victims of human trafficking to sue hotels and motels if the owners or employees turn a blind eye to the illicit activity. If victims won a suit, the court would assess a civil penalty against the accused in the amount of $50,000 in addition to any other damage reward. Those proceeds would then be deposited into the trust fund.

Book unexpectedly tabled the bill a few weeks ago after it sailed through committee assignments, but on Thursday, she successfully tacked her bill onto a House-backed bill that expands control and monitoring of sex offenders and predators in the state.

Once the human trafficking language was slashed from the sex offender bill (HB 1301), the Senate passed the measure unanimously, sending it back to the House.

NRA sues state shortly after Rick Scott signs gun-control measures

Almost immediately after Gov. Rick Scott signed gun-control measures that are unprecedented in the state, the National Rifle Association filed a federal lawsuit to try to block it.

Scott signed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Act” flanked by some of the parents who lost their children in the school mass shooting on Valentine’s Day. The legislation bans the sale of bump stocks, raises the legal age to buy an guns from 18 to 21 and creates a three-day waiting period for all firearm sales.

The NRA focuses on the provision that raises the legal age to buy a gun, saying it is violating the rights of law-abiding citizens and therefore, “unconstitutional, void and invalid.” Violating the new law would come with penalties of up to five years in prison.

John Tupps, the communications director for the governor, said the office will review the lawsuit before commenting on it.

The complaint also states that young women are at a particularly higher risk of being affected by the law.

“Females between the ages of 18 and 21 pose a relatively slight risk of perpetrating a school shooting such as the one that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, or, for that matter, a violent crime of any kind,” the suit states.

The national organization is suing Attorney General Pam Bondi and Rick Swearinger, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The controversial bill was hastily crafted in the wake of the school shooting that left 18 dead and several others injured. Legislation was approved despite bipartisan support and opposition. In addition to the gun-control measures, the new law puts boosts funding for security and mental health services in schools.

“The gun control provisions in this bill do not enhance school safety, They merely punish law-abiding citizens for the actions of a mentally ill murderer as well as the failure of government officials who did not do their jobs,” said NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer.

‘No vote yet’: Senate Democrats meet after ‘sexist’ comment drama

After concerns were raised about Sen. Gary Farmer saying Sen. Lauren Book would not be the best nominee for Senate Democratic Leader-designate because she is a mother, Senate Democrats met Friday to discuss caucus business.

But nothing was resolved.

The drama over the comments escalated when Sen. Kevin Rader sent a letter to his colleagues, saying he was withdrawing his support for Farmer as the future leader because of the “sexist and antiquated comments” he made about Book.

“I just can’t believe that we have a member in our caucus that would insult another member by using sexist and antiquated comments about her children being a hindrance for her to be the Leaders of our caucus,” Rader wrote.

Farmer told Florida Politics he tried to talk to Book Thursday night but could not reach her and would not comment further on the situation.

In his letter, Rader told colleagues Farmer should apologize to Book and caucus members.

“I know that things get heated while we’re here in Tallahassee and it’s the last week of session and sometimes tempers flare up, but there is no room in our caucus for sexist, discriminatory comments!” Rader said.

It remains unclear if an apology was made during the caucus meeting Friday. But after it ended, senators said “nothing was resolved” and that they were not aware that Farmer had apologized to Book, who quickly walked into her office after the meeting adjourned while declining to comment.

Sen. Oscar Braynon said there is “no vote yet” on who will be the leader-designate.

Lawmakers pass ban on minors marrying — but exclude 17-year-olds

A much-debated bill that would ban all marriages under the age of 17 passed the Legislature Friday; it now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. 

A spokesman for Scott said the governor “intends to sign” the bill (SB 140).

The vote in the House on the Senate bill was 109-1, with the only ‘no’ vote cast by Republican state Rep. George Moraitis of Fort Lauderdale.

He was one of the toughest critics of the measure and argued minors should be allowed to wed when a teen is pregnant.

The Senate was initially looking for an outright ban on all minor marriages, but the House wanted more flexibility with 16- and 17-years olds to tie the knot.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, for example, was in favor of allowing some minors to wed because he argued it would allow “high school sweethearts” to marry.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and state Rep. Jeanette Nunez championed the bills in their chambers.

Advocates for a strict minor marriage ban said the change would close loopholes in state law that have allowed children as young as 13 to marry older men.

The legislation emerged — and became high profile — because of the story of 58-year-old Sherry Johnson, who said she was forced to marry her adult rapist at age 11 after giving birth to a child. Johnson lobbied for an outright ban on marriage licenses for people under 18, with Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, proposing a ban.

After Friday’s vote, Johnson said she was pleased with the outcome.

“I’m happy with the compromise,” she said. “Eighteen was my top goal, but I will settle for the 17 with all of the restrictions that come with it. I think that it is very gratifying to me.”

The House last month approved a proposal that would have allowed people who are age 16 or 17 to get married under certain circumstances that included pregnancy. The proposal would have allowed minors to only marry people who are no more than two years older. Also, the proposal would have required couples to verify pregnancies and for minors to get written consent from their parents or guardians.

After the House approved its proposal, Benacquisto and Nunez worked on the compromise that passed Friday.

Material from the News Service of Florida is included in this article.

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