Lloyd Dunkelberger, Author at Florida Politics

Lloyd Dunkelberger

Lloyd Dunkelberger is a Tallahassee-based political reporter and columnist; he most recently served as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

House Speaker rejects state aid for Miami’s Amazon bid

After playing the key role in reducing and revamping Florida’s economic development program last year, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday he has no interest in developing a state incentive plan to bring Amazon’s new headquarters to Florida.

Florida suddenly became a contender for the giant online retailer’s second headquarters — dubbed HQ2 by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — after Miami emerged as one of 20 finalists for the project, which could generate some $5 billion in spending and lead to 50,000 jobs.

Miami, which was competing with 238 other cities, was the only finalist in Florida, although the Miami bid also includes sites in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Gov. Rick Scott, who has supported using state funding and incentives to bring major employers to the state, said it was “great news” that Miami is a finalist.

“With our low taxes, unbeatable weather and world-class airports and seaports, there is no doubt Florida should be the number one choice,” Scott tweeted.

In an interview with The News Service of Florida on Thursday, Corcoran said he was doubtful that Florida would end up as the location for the Amazon project, citing remarks by Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, a Hialeah Republican who formerly served in the state House.

Bovo told The Miami Herald in October that Miami-Dade’s transportation challenges would ultimately eliminate Miami from contention.

“What was the reason?” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, asked. “There’s not enough money? We didn’t throw enough incentives? No, (it’s) because of their infrastructure and their transit issues.”

Corcoran listed the items he said “site selectors” consider when relocating.

“Here’s what we ought to do as a state. I’ll say it until I’m blue in the face,” Corcoran said. “There are five things that site selectors look at. The most important being having a great educational system.”

Corcoran said the key factor in Florida losing out to Boston in trying to attract the General Electric headquarters was that the Boston area had better schools, from kindergarten through the university level.

He said Florida — the third largest state in the nation — in contrast only recently had one of its schools, the University of Florida, make the U.S. News & World Report top 10 list of public universities.

“That’s a problem,” Corcoran said. “There’s where the investments should have been made and should continue to be made. If you have low crime, low taxes, low regulation, a good infrastructure and you have, more than anything, a great educational system, we will not have a single problem luring all the businesses and all the people in this country here.”

Corcoran’s remarks are in line with his effort last year to overhaul economic incentive programs in Enterprise Florida, the state’s top economic development agency. The final result was an $85 million “job growth” fund that can be used for regional projects but not for incentives aimed at individual companies.

Counties face increased pension costs

Florida counties will have to contribute an additional $66 million to the state pension fund in the new budget year, according to legislation that has started moving in the Senate.

As a result of a decrease in the assumed rate of investment return on the $160 billion pension fund, counties, school boards, state agencies, universities, state colleges and other government entities will have to increase their contributions in the 2018-2019 budget year to make sure there is enough money to pay retirement benefits in the long term.

The increased payments total $178.5 million, including $66.4 million for county governments, according to legislation (SB 7014) approved by the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee last week.

School districts, whose employees represent about half of the 627,000 active pension participants, will have to contribute an additional $54.4 million.

State agencies will have to contribute another $31 million. Universities will have to contribute $11.8 million and state colleges an additional $4.8 million.

A handful of cities and special districts that participate in the state retirement system will face a $10 million contribution increase.

County governments, which face the largest contribution increase, will have to accommodate the added expense as they shape their 2018-2019 budgets.

“Counties are closely monitoring the FRS (Florida Retirement System) contribution but remain committed to a program that provides retirement security to our dedicated public servants,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

The bulk of the other contribution increases are part of overall budget challenges facing House and Senate members as they craft the 2018-2019 state budget, which takes effect July 1.

The $54 million increase for school districts, for example, will be in the mix as lawmakers address overall public-school funding. Lawmakers are already having to accommodate an increase of more than 27,000 new students next academic year, and the House and Senate remain at odds over using increased local property tax collections to boost school spending

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, a Republican from Fleming Island, said the state pension fund in the Senate budget bill will be “fully funded with the new assumptions.”

“It’s an obligation of the state,” Bradley said. “And we are comfortable with the current level of (pension) benefits in the Senate, with the understanding that when you change the assumptions, that requires more money to go to that area.”

The Florida Retirement System Actuarial Assumption Conference lowered the projected rate of return on the pension fund’s collection of stocks, bonds, real estate and other assets from 7.6 percent to 7.5 percent last fall.

It was the fourth year in a row that analysts have lowered the assumed rate of return on the fund.

The decision came after new evaluations from independent financial consultants projected a 30-year rate of return for the pension assets in the range of 6.6 percent to 6.81 percent.

With a 7.5 percent assumed rate of return, the Florida pension fund is expected to be able to pay 84.4 percent of its future obligations, with a $27.9 billion long-term unfunded actuarial liability, according to the consultants.

Public employees who participate in the pension plan have been required to contribute 3 percent of their annual salaries to the fund since 2011.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Supreme Court ready to wade into water war

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Monday in a decades-old legal fight between Florida and Georgia over water flow into the Apalachicola River.

A court-appointed special master ruled in February that Florida had not proved its case that a water-usage cap should be imposed on Georgia to help the river and Apalachicola Bay, one of the most productive estuaries in the country, known particularly for its oysters.

Florida is asking for the case to be returned to the special master to develop a more “equitable” distribution of water between the states from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system. In briefs filed with the court, Florida has argued that an increase in water consumption by Georgia, including in the Atlanta area, since the 1970s is “effectively strangling the Apalachicola region.”

“For decades, Florida has done everything it could to avert that result – and Georgia has fought it at every turn,” a Florida brief said. “This litigation represents Florida’s last opportunity to stem Georgia’s inequitable consumption, and protect these irreplaceable natural resources, by apportioning the waters equitably between the states.”

In a brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold the special master’s report, Georgia said Florida is asking for “dramatic and costly reductions in Georgia’s upstream water use – cuts that threaten the water supply of 5 million people in metropolitan Atlanta and risk crippling a multibillion-dollar agricultural sector in southwest Georgia.”

Georgia has argued that even if the court ordered a new water-distribution plan, it wouldn’t guarantee that Florida would receive more water, since water flow is controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers through a series of reservoirs and dams in the river system that, in effect, control “the spigot at the state line.”

In his report, Ralph Lancaster, a Portland, Maine, lawyer who served as the special master in the case, said that because the Corps was not a party in the lawsuit, it meant that a court ruling could not “assure Florida the relief it seeks.”

But citing subsequent comments from the Corps, Florida said the federal agency would adjust its water policies in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system based on the court’s decision.

“It is at the very least reasonable to predict that the Corps would respond to an equitable apportionment by this court just as one would expect – by adjusting its operations to effectuate that decree consistent with this court’s decision and other applicable law,” Florida said in a brief.

A key legal issue before the Supreme Court is Lancaster’s finding that Florida failed to prove “by clear and convincing evidence” that imposing a cap on Georgia’s water use “would provide a material benefit to Florida.”

In its briefs, Florida said it has provided evidence that Georgia’s water usage has damaged the Apalachicola River system. It cited Lancaster’s finding that “real harm” was occurring from decreased water flow into the system and from Georgia’s “largely unrestrained” agricultural water use.

But Florida’s lawyers argued that Lancaster erred in further applying the “clear and convincing” evidence standard to the yet-to-be-determined water redistribution plan.

“Never before has this court found both injury and inequitable conduct (as the special master did here) and yet held that the court is powerless to do anything about it,” Florida said in a brief.

Georgia said Lancaster was following precedents set in other multi-state water disputes and that he “correctly held Florida to the exacting burden of proof that this court has imposed on states seeking to upend the status quo at the expense of a coequal sovereign.”

Georgia’s position was supported by Colorado, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief raising concerns that a court ruling in the case could impact water agreements in the western portion of the country.

“The court has consistently made clear that the complaining state faces a heavy burden to prove both its injury and its right to relief by clear and convincing evidence,” Colorado said in its brief. “This court has never held, as Florida suggests, that the burden decreases, or `the equation changes,’ after a complaining state has proven only part of its case, namely, an alleged injury.”

The Supreme Court case is the result of a lawsuit filed by Florida in 2013 after the collapse in the prior year of the Apalachicola oyster industry, which normally supplies 90 percent of the oysters in Florida and 10 percent of the nation’s oysters.

But the fight between the states over water flow in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system has gone on for decades, leaving officials in both states bitterly divided over the issue and resulting in costly litigation.

Last spring, the Florida House Appropriations Committee estimated that Florida had spent some $72 million in legal fees in the fight from 2001 to early 2016.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

University leaders back dropping grad student tax

The presidents of the University of Florida and Florida State University said a last-minute decision by congressional leaders to scuttle a proposal to tax tuition waivers for graduate students would be a major victory for higher education.

A U.S. House tax-overhaul plan would have made graduate students pay federal income taxes on tuition charges that get waived in exchange for duties like research and teaching. The U.S. Senate did not include the provision in its tax legislation.

As the final negotiations unfolded this week on the tax bill, which is primarily aimed at cutting corporate and personal income taxes, federal lawmakers said the tax on graduate tuition waivers is not expected to be part of the legislation, according to The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets.

However, the exact details of the bill will not be known until Friday when a conference report is released.

Presidents from all 12 of Florida’s state universities had joined a national campaign by higher-education leaders urging Congress not to tax the tuition waivers.

“All the presidents in our system have raised their concerns,” Florida State President John Thrasher said. “We’ve met with congressmen. We have written letters. We have done everything we can to make sure that they understand the significance and impact it would have on higher education.”

Thrasher and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs, who met with Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday, said the proposal to tax graduate tuition waivers was a top concern with the federal legislation.

“It’s important because our nation needs more students that get advanced degrees at the master’s and Ph.D. level,” Fuchs said.

“Many of these students come in and need a stipend to survive on,” Fuchs said. “Many have families. They are living on $20,000. If you start taxing income they aren’t getting, it’s critical.”

In the 2011-2012 academic year, more than half – 55 percent – of graduate students nationally earned less than $20,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

At the same time, master’s degree students received tuition waivers that averaged $10,949 nationally, while doctoral students had a $13,609 average waiver, according to the federal data.

About 57 percent of the waivers in 2011-2012 were for students enrolled in advanced-degree programs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“A repeal of (the waiver) would lead to an unaffordable increase in taxable income and make the pursuit of a graduate degree much more challenging, if not impossible, for many of these students,” according to the Association of Public & Land Grant Universities, a national group that includes Florida’s top public research schools. “In turn, this would greatly damage our nation’s scientific research enterprise.”

Thrasher said financially supporting graduate students is important because of the role they play at each school.

“These are people who really do make a difference in the university,” Thrasher said. “They teach. They do research. They provide so many great services.”

If the tuition waiver is taxed, Thrasher said schools would have to look at other ways to keep graduate education affordable.

“We would have to subsidize it from the Legislature or other programs,” he said. “It would be a burden on everybody.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

John Thrasher touts FSU progress, addresses challenges

As John Thrasher begins his fourth year as president of Florida State University, he said he has changed.

In his annual “state of the university” address to the Faculty Senate on Wednesday, Thrasher likened his transformation to the students who were freshmen when he assumed the presidency in fall 2014 and who will graduate as seniors in the spring.

That’s the nature of the university experience, he said.

“You can’t help but grow and evolve and change,” Thrasher said. “I’ve changed too, I promise you that. That’s the transformative nature of what a university is about.”

Thrasher’s growth as the leader of FSU has been impacted by events on his Tallahassee campus and in the nation at large, ranging from an on-campus shooting during his first month in office to federal immigration policies.

In a little more than the past month, Thrasher, a former state House speaker, had to deal with the off-campus death of a fraternity member and an unexpected search for a new football coach after Jimbo Fisher bolted for Texas A&M University.

Thrasher said “one of the worst days” of his presidency was early last month when he learned of the death of Andrew Coffey, a 20-year-old student from Pompano Beach who died at an off-campus fraternity party.

Coffey’s death, which is believed to be linked to alcohol, prompted Thrasher to suspend all Greek activity on the FSU campus while the administration, students, faculty, fraternities and sororities look for ways “to shift the campus culture.”

“I believe we are on our way. And I believe we are making progress,” Thrasher said, adding there will be some proposals “in the near future.”

A more recent challenge was the abrupt departure of Fisher. But FSU officials quickly resolved that issue by hiring former Oregon coach Willie Taggart.

Taggart briefly appeared with Thrasher before the Faculty Senate, something that Fisher never did.

Taggart emphasized one of his top priorities would be the academic standing of his team, including making sure players attend class, earn degrees and get jobs.

Taggart, a native of Manatee County, joked that he never could get into FSU as a student or a football player.

“Now I get to run the football program. I found a way to get in here,” he said.

National events have also guided Thrasher’s presidency, including the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children the opportunity to work and study in the United States.

Thrasher strongly defended the so-called “Dreamers” program in his speech last year, and he told faculty members on Wednesday “that my position hasn’t changed one iota.”

Prompted by what Thrasher called “a display of racism and intimidation by white supremacists” in a protest over a Confederate statue in Virginia in August, he created an advisory panel at FSU to review official naming policies and recognitions on campus.

Thrasher, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said some people “occasionally ask me why I weigh in on these kind of issues.”

“I tell them the truth. It’s not about politics for me,” Thrasher said. “These matters affect real people, including members of our Florida State University family.”

“I will continue to speak out against anyone or anything that attempts to divide us based on our differences, whether it’s race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation or gender identity,” he added.

Thrasher also used his annual address to highlight key achievements for FSU in the past year.

He said the “most tangible” sign of FSU’s rise as an academic institution was moving to No. 33 on the annual U.S. News & World Report rankings of public universities. That represents an improvement of 10 spots over the past two years, the largest improvement among any of the top 50 schools, Thrasher said.

He said FSU is on its way to becoming a top-25 institution.

One key to improvement is the faculty, with Thrasher announcing the school plans to hire 125 new faculty members in addition to other hires that will occur as professors retire or move to other institutions.

“This is the single largest hiring initiative in our history, and it is one of the most important things we can do to increase our success,” he said.

Thrasher also said FSU is doing well in its “Raise the Torch” fundraising drive, which has a goal of $1 billion. He said the campaign, which will announce its total next September, will end up with an amount “that will amaze you.”

“I have no doubt that 2018 will again bring some challenges,” Thrasher said, noting he didn’t even talk about dealing with Hurricane Irma in September. “But we also will have more opportunities for even greater accomplishments.”

Property taxes likely to spur school funding fight

Another battle about using increases in local property taxes to bolster public schools will complicate upcoming state budget negotiations.

In his $87.4 billion budget proposal for 2018-2019, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday called for a $770 million increase in funding for Florida’s kindergarten through 12th-grade education system. But nearly $7 out of every $10 of that increase would come from rising local property-tax revenue, much of it the result of increasing property values with a stronger economy.

Senate leaders support the governor’s plan, while House leaders remain firmly opposed to using the increased local property tax collections, arguing that such a move would represent a tax increase.

The projected $534 million increase in local property tax revenue includes $450 million in “required local effort” taxes and $84 million in discretionary local school taxes.

In an explanation of Scott’s budget, his office noted the school proposal does not change the required local property-tax rate, meaning “there is not a tax increase.”

“The amount of local funding provided in the (school funding formula) calculation primarily increased due to a 6.15 percent, or $117.1 billion, rise in the school taxable value that was the result of an increase in the value of Florida property,” the explanation said. “When property values rise, it’s a good thing for Florida families.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley of Fleming Island said the Senate supports Scott’s K-12 plan, including the use of increased local property tax collections.

“It’s not a tax increase. It’s just simply not,” Bradley said.

“If I were to buy a lawnmower at Home Depot for $200 in January and then buy the same lawnmower as a present for my brother four months later and it’s priced $230, there will be more taxes owed on the $230 purchase, but that’s not a tax increase,” Bradley said.

He said it’s “just the same tax rate being applied to a purchase that is a little higher than it used to be.”

But House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O’Lakes, reaffirmed Wednesday the House’s strong opposition to using increased property tax collections.

“I think our position has been very clear for the last two years and it will not change,” Corcoran said. “We’re not raising taxes.”

The House prevailed in the negotiations on the current 2017-2018 budget, with the Senate agreeing to roll back the “required local effort” property tax rate to offset the increase in tax collections.

Rather than having the majority of an increase for the K-12 system come from local property tax collections, lawmakers funded most of the $455 million increase from state revenue, along with a $92 million increase in discretionary local property-tax collections.

But that meant the Legislature had to shift $364 million in state revenue, which could have been used in other areas of the budget like health care or criminal justice, to come up with a $100 per-student increase in funding.

Under Scott’s new plan, per-student funding would rise by $200, but that is based on $450 million in property taxes. If lawmakers reject using the property tax revenue, they will have to again shift more state revenue into the schools’ budget, which will be even more difficult in the coming year.

“We’re very committed in the Senate to K-12 education,” Bradley said. “And an important part of that commitment is making sure that we have the (local property tax collections). It’s not a tax increase. I agree with the governor. And that’s where we are.”

Corcoran downplayed the differences with the Senate over the next state budget, which will be debated when lawmakers begin their annual session in January.

“Where we are right now is in a good place and the likelihood we’re going to end in a good place is as strong as ever,” he said. “I think it’s a good situation.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State colleges look for place in constitution

State college leaders are advancing the idea of having their 28-school system embedded in the Florida Constitution.

The Council of Presidents, which represents the school leaders, voted unanimously Thursday to support the concept as part of the ongoing Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a panel considering constitutional changes for the 2018 ballot.

“We are the only part of the public education system that is not recognized in Florida’s Constitution at all,” said Broward College President David Armstrong, who brought up the issue at the council’s meeting in Palm Harbor.

The Florida Constitution explicitly authorizes “a high-quality system of free public schools” for the K-12 system, a pre-kindergarten system and a state university system, including its Board of Governors.

The state college presidents have been working with Sherry Plymale, a member of the Constitution Revision Commission who has filed a proposed amendment (Proposal 25) that would provide constitutional authority for the college system. The proposal would have to be approved by the commission and be endorsed by at least 60 percent of voters next year.

“There shall be a single college system comprised of all public community and state colleges,” Plymale’s proposal reads in part. “A board of trustees shall administer each individually governed public college, and the board of directors of the college system shall oversee, coordinate and provide statewide leadership for the state college system.”

Commission member Nicole Washington is sponsoring a similar state college proposal (P83).

The main difference between the proposals is that Plymale’s measure would create a new statewide “board of directors” to oversee the state college system, while Washington’s proposal would leave the system under the Board of Education, which now oversees the colleges.

“I’m grateful for that,” Armstrong said about the proposals. “We are lacking advocates right now. To have someone like her (Plymale) and hopefully others who will stand up and talk about the importance of our system, the fact that is it is not in the Constitution and that it should be, is at a minimum something that is very positive for our system.”

At their meeting, the presidents adopted a recommendation that the commission propose placing the college system into the state Constitution “in a manner that preserves local authority.”

The emphasis on local control remains a key provision for the presidents, who argue their system needs more autonomy to react quickly to changing education and local workforce needs.

“One thing I have heard many of you say frequently is that no matter what happens, local control is very important because of how different our local communities are,” said Ava Parker, president of Palm Beach State College.

The presidents’ position is also an effort to engage more in a continuing debate in Tallahassee over the state college system.

The Senate is advancing a bill (SB 540) would also create a statewide board to oversee the colleges, while modifying performance standards for the schools and putting limits on their ability to enroll baccalaureate students.

Ed Massey, president of Indian River State College, said he prefers the way the college system operates now, while acknowledging that the continued debate in Tallahassee may mean “our governance is going to change.”

“They don’t need to do that without our voice,” said Massey, who was one of several presidents who said they will have to become more engaged in the proposals pending in the Constitution Revision Commission and in the Legislature, which begins its annual session in January.

Massey cited the history of the governance of the college system, which had been under prior boards and commissions before it was placed under the Board of Education in a 2003 government reorganization.

Massey said the new debate will give colleges a chance to make a case for bringing more “sustainability and consistency” to the governance system while underscoring the “strength, purpose and stature” of the system.

“We have to help figure out how to shape that,” he said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Democrats campaign for governor as field could grow

The three top Democratic candidates for governor sat on a stage Saturday night in the Fiesta Ballroom at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort and answered more than an hour’s worth of questions on issues facing Florida.

There were few differences in the responses from former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King as they addressed party activists and supporters gathered at the Florida Democratic Party’s 2017 state conference.

All three candidates supported the expansion of Medicaid and called for stronger environmental protections, including a response to climate change. They voiced support for public schools, a higher minimum wage and gay rights. And they repeatedly took shots at Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump.

But a major question went unasked and unanswered: Who will join the three contenders on the political stage before the Aug. 28 Democratic primary next year?

One potential answer sat at a $10,000 dinner table in the audience.

“I’m here. I’m thinking about it,” Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan said. “(Florida Democratic Party Chairman) Steve Bittel begged me to buy a table, and I finally gave in.”

Morgan said he will decide about the governor’s race in the spring.

On Wednesday, Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is expected to announce his entry into the race.

“The mayor has great respect for everybody in the race right now,” said Christian Ulvert, an adviser to Levine’s political committee who attended the Democratic gathering.

The possibility of the five Democrats vying for the nomination would make it the most crowded Democratic gubernatorial field since 1978, when Graham’s father, former Gov. Bob Graham, emerged from a primary and a then-required runoff election to win the nomination over a half-dozen rivals.

The large field brings more uncertainty and possibilities to the race, although key factors remain demographics, geography and, perhaps most important, money.

The three announced candidates have a head start and have been working to establish their identities among Democratic voters.

At the party forum, Graham talked about her election to Congress in 2014 over a Republican incumbent in a conservative-leaning North Florida district.

“I sent the Tea Party Republican packing. I won in a red year, in a red district,” Graham said. “We’re going to have a blue wave.”

Graham, a former school board attorney, is also making public education a key part of her message, accusing Republicans of turning schools over to the “education industry.”

Her name may resonate with Democratic voters who remember her father, although he was last on the ballot as a U.S. Senate incumbent in 1998. At the forum, Graham invoked his name, saying the ethics of her administration would be patterned after her father who “served 40-plus years with integrity.”

Graham is the only woman in the race, which could be a factor with women voters representing 58 percent of the Democratic electorate in the 2016 presidential primary.

In responding to forum questions, Gillum used his experience as a Tallahassee city commissioner and mayor to talk about specific programs aimed at helping juveniles stay out of the criminal justice system, establishing solar-energy programs and attracting higher-paying jobs.

Gillum, the youngest candidate in the field at 36, is the most charismatic speaker, talking about his rise over “intergenerational poverty” to earn a college degree and embark on career in public service.

He picked up an endorsement at the party conference from Julian Castro, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a leading national Democratic Hispanic leader.

But Gillum has been dogged by an ongoing FBI investigation into the city of Tallahassee government. Although he has said he is not a target of the probe, it remains a negative factor until it is resolved. It has hurt Gillum’s fundraising, where he trails the field.

Gillum is the only African-American candidate in the race, with black voters representing 27 percent of the Democratic presidential primary electorate last year.

Gillum and Graham both call Tallahassee their hometown, forcing them to share a limited geographic base.

King, a political novice, comes from the politically pivotal I-4 corridor, but his challenge will be raising his profile among Democratic voters. He has not been active in state or local politics, with former Orlando-area Congressman Alan Grayson saying the first time he met King was at Saturday’s forum.

King talked about his outsider status as an asset.

“We have had two decades of losing gubernatorial elections. I argue that we have got to do something different,” King said. “We need a fresh voice, a fresh face, a communicator. We need somebody who can win.”

King said he will bring his experience as an entrepreneur and developer of affordable-housing projects to his administration. He said Florida, which he characterized as being “at the back of pack” in major economic indicators, needs to do more to improve the economy.

He promised to make state and community colleges free for Florida students, saying increasing education levels of Floridians is a key to a better economy.

An area of concern for Democratic leaders is the relatively lackluster fundraising thus far by the announced candidates.

Graham led the field with about $2.7 million in available cash through Sept. 30 in her campaign account and a closely tied political committee, according to the state Division of Elections, with King holding about $1.8 million.

But that is dwarfed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor, who had raised nearly $20 million in the same period for his campaign and a political committee, with about $14 million in cash on hand.

Putnam’s financial advantage may be reduced by the expectation he could face three major opponents in the GOP’s Aug. 28 primary.

If Levine enters the race, he will become the Democrats’ leading fundraiser. His political committee had raised $4.77 million through Sept. 30, with most of it unspent.

Levine, a successful businessman before he ran for Miami Beach mayor, has a net worth in excess of $100 million, said Ulvert, raising the possibility he could self-fund a portion of the race.

Levine could also have a geographic advantage as the only candidate from densely populated Southeast Florida, where a third of the 4.8 million Florida Democrats live.

Money is not an issue for Morgan, who used part of his wealth to launch and pass a ballot initiative last year to broadly legalize medical marijuana. And unlike the other candidates, Morgan has already established a statewide presence through his medical- marijuana advocacy and ubiquitous television advertising for his Morgan & Morgan law firm.

Morgan is not rushing his political decision. He said his immediate priority will be attending the Breeders’ Cup races next weekend at the Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego, where he has a thoroughbred in contention.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Democrats look for momentum going into 2018 elections

Buoyed by a win in a special election for a state Senate seat last month, Florida Democrats are using a three-day party conference to prepare plans for the critical 2018 election year when they hope to retain a U.S. Senate seat and reclaim the governor’s mansion.

“Winning is so good. Let’s get used to it,” Stephen Bittel, chairman of the state party, told delegates and activists in a Saturday afternoon meeting at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort.

Sen. Annette Taddeo‘s Sept. 26 victory in a special election for Miami-Dade County’s Senate District 40, which was previously held by a Republican, is being taken as a sign by Democrats that they can compete in a non-presidential election year when Democratic turnout has historically lagged.

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Broward County Democrat who is running for state chief financial officer, said the Senate win has helped counter some of the traditional mid-term “apathy” the party has faced in past elections.

“The Taddeo race for the first time since I have been in Florida demonstrated enthusiasm in the midterms,” Ring said.

One of the factors in the race was the ability of Democrats to tie Taddeo’s Republican opponent, former state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, to President Donald Trump. And while cautioning the 2018 general election is still a year away, Democrats say Trump may be a motivating factor for their party.

“Trump, plus 20 years of Republican control of this state,” said former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink about what factors could make next year a “wave election” in favor of Democrats.

“We’re not addressing transportation issues. We’re not addressing public education issues. Look at where we are on environmental issues. Our state could be so much better off,” said Sink, who narrowly lost the 2010 governor’s race to Republican Gov. Rick Scott.

Sink, who helped found the Ruth’s List organization that recruits women to run for local and state offices in Florida, said she is finding more highly qualified candidates willing to challenge Republicans, pointing to candidates ready to run against GOP incumbents in congressional districts in the Daytona Beach and Sarasota areas.

“We’re optimistic,” Sink said.

Ring, who is the most visible Democrat running for a state Cabinet seat, said it is too early to say if the majority of next year’s electorate will tilt toward Democrats.

“We know the liberal Democratic base is engaged like never before. We know the Trump supporters aren’t going to change their minds. So what is the other 80 percent going to do?” he said. “They’re still disengaged.”

But he said if Republicans remain unable to pass major legislation in Washington, D.C., it could turn the election in the Democrats’ favor. “But I’m not here to predict 12 months out,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who addressed the conference in a luncheon speech, cautioned party activists that they have to do more than just oppose Trump’s policies. Nelson is the only current statewide elected Democrat.

“It is our responsibility not just to criticize them, not just to criticize the president,” Nelson said. “It’s our responsibility, not only as Democrats but as Americans, to do what we can to right the ship.”

Asked about a potential challenge from Scott for the U.S. Senate seat, Nelson said he is taking nothing for granted.

“I approach every race like it’s going to be the toughest,” he said, adding that he is not ready to embrace the theory that an anti-Trump wave will help Democrats next year. “Anything can happen in that time.”

The defense of Nelson’s seat is one of the many challenges facing the party next year.

The governor’s race, which the Democrats have not won since 1994, remains muddled, with three major announced candidates but with more expected to join the race.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum was the most visible candidate for much of Saturday, talking to delegates and attending meetings. He was scheduled to be joined by former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham of Tallahassee and Winter Park developer Chris King in an evening forum.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine is expected to join the governor’s race next week, while Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan remains another potential candidate who may not make a decision until next year.

Another challenge for the Democrats is a lack of prominent candidates, other than Ring, for the three open state Cabinet seats for attorney general, agriculture commissioner and chief financial officer.

“I think there is impatience, which there always is with that inside-baseball crowd. But we’ve got a year to go,” Ring said, noting recent talk about state Rep. Sean Shaw possibly running for attorney general.

The Taddeo victory was an indicator that Democrats could work to further reduce the Republican majority in the state Senate, where the GOP holds 24 of the 40 seats. But that effort hit a setback, at least temporarily, when the next leader of the Senate Democrats, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, abruptly resigned his seat Friday after apologizing for having an affair with a lobbyist.

Democrats had been talking about making a serious bid for a half-dozen Senate seats next year, along with defending Taddeo’s seat. But former state Sen. Steve Geller, who is now a Broward County commissioner, said that is unrealistic without an influx of national money in the state races, where Republicans have a major financial edge.

“We’re going to have to concentrate on two or three seats unless we get national money,” Geller said.

But state party leaders are working to draw national attention to even local contests and state legislative races, making the pitch it will help in future presidential campaigns.

“We have worked hard to make sure the races and the wins that we have here in our state are being recognized throughout the country,” Sally Boynton Brown, president of the Florida Democratic Party, told the delegates.

She said victories like Taddeo’s Senate win help the party convince national donors that Florida is not “too big, too hard, too expensive” for the Democrats.

“We’re proving them wrong,” she said.

Bill Galvano brings policy skills to top Senate post

Sen. Bill Galvano, a 51-year-old lawyer from Bradenton, will be designated Tuesday by Senate Republicans as the next president of the Florida Senate.

The Republican lawmaker will lead the 40-member Senate for two years after the November 2018 general elections, assuming the Republicans hold their majority — now at a 24-16 margin — in the chamber.

Over the course of his 13-year legislative career in the House and Senate, Galvano has handled complex issues, including the investigation of a House speaker, a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe and, most recently, a major higher-education initiative.

“It’s not accidental that I entrusted one of my top legislative priorities to him,” said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, referring to Galvano’s handling of the Senate’s higher-education legislation.

Negron met Galvano when he was assigned to help the Manatee County lawmaker in his first campaign for the House in 2002. They had a common background as lawyers from medium-sized communities.

“He approaches legislative issues like you prepare for a trial,” said Negron, who has been Galvano’s Tallahassee roommate for about nine years.

Negron said Galvano is also strong in building long-term relationships in Tallahassee, which is important in passing legislation as well as rising in the legislative leadership.

“Bill is unique in that he is equally adept in the policy part of the political process as well as the social component,” Negron said.

Earlier in his legislative career, Galvano focused on health care, chairing a House committee. He later became the chamber’s Rules Committee chairman and then led a special committee investigating the conduct of House Speaker Ray Sansom, who resigned.

In his last year in the House, Galvano was one of the key architects of a major gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe in 2010.

After brief hiatus from the Legislature, Galvano won election to the Senate, where President Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, tapped him to oversee the $20-billion-plus public-school budget. It was Galvano’s first foray as a budget leader.

In 2015, Galvano led the Senate effort to resolve a redistricting challenge to the 40 Senate seats, after a court ruled the 2012 redistricting map had violated the state Constitution.

During Negron’s presidency, Galvano has led the chamber’s higher-education budget panel and is the sponsor of a Senate bill (SB 4) this year that seeks to expand and make permanent changes to Florida’s Bright Futures merit scholarship program.

“It’s made my career more interesting to be able to focus on these areas,” Galvano said in an interview. “And I think it will help give me some depth going forward.”

Major influences in Galvano’s life were his parents, Phil and Betty Galvano.

Galvano’s father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, was a self-made man who became one of the nation’s top golf professionals, claiming a list of clients that included celebrities like Johnny Carson and Perry Como.

Galvano said his father was also a strong believer in self-learning and education. In his honor, Galvano hosts an annual golf tournament each spring and has raised more than $3 million for Manatee County schools.

But Galvano said it was his 82-year-old mother, Betty, who helped guide him into a career of law and politics. He said she has always had an active civic life, evidenced recently when Galvano called her to ask how she was doing during Hurricane Irma and found out she was on her way to Moore Haven as a Red Cross volunteer.

“I really got involved in a lot of different issues through her and it piqued my interest in politics at a young age,” Galvano said.

Galvano’s wife, Julie, is an administrator at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton. The couple are parents of two sons and a 13-year-old daughter, Jacqueline, who is a budding actress and singer. Jacqueline, who keeps up with classes through the Florida Virtual School, recently completed a national tour in the musical “Annie.”

Asked about his legislative priorities as the next Senate leader, Galvano said he is looking to the Senate membership to develop ideas reflecting the scope and diversity of the nation’s third-largest state.

“I want to make sure my message is one of recognizing that everyone can contribute to the process, the empowerment of the members,” Galvano said about his agenda. “And most of all to be a facilitator of their ideas and their opportunities.”

Galvano said he knows the state will face budget challenges in the next few years, including dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

He also said he wants to help the state’s citrus industry, which lost crops in the hurricane and has a long-term challenge from citrus greening disease.

Galvano said he would also like to encourage more international trade and continue efforts to diversify the state’s economy, with the aim of creating more homegrown businesses rather than trying to attract businesses from outside the state.

Miami Lakes Republican Rep. Jose Oliva, who was recently designated by the House Republicans as their next speaker, and Galvano will preside over the Legislature in the 2019 and 2020 regular sessions.

Galvano said while he and Oliva may not always agree, they have already established a solid working relationship.

“I think whether it’s known or not, we have been able to resolve and work together on issues far more often than not,” Galvano said. “I don’t perceive that his and mine relationship will be one steeped in gamesmanship, but more based on how we as one team get things accomplished.”

Galvano also said since he began working with Oliva, whose family owns a cigar company, they have found another area of agreement.

“I have to say his cigars are the best I’ve had,” Galvano said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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