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Staff Reports

Jeff Brandes loses a couple of priorities, but brings home other wins

Sen. Jeff Brandes promised criminal justice reforms, a sweeping transportation bill, banning fees on consumer report security freezes and “merlot-to-go,” but only half of those came true by the time the 2018 Legislative Session wrapped up.

As the process moved toward the 60-day finish line, the Pinellas County Republican was optimistic about his bold proposals.

His criminal justice reforms were sailing through committees, along with their companion bills in the House. His proposals would have created a council to oversee the criminal and juvenile justice systems, prohibit issuance of attorney’s fees in proceedings for a protective injunction for repeat sexual offenders and allowed judges to depart from mandatory sentences in drug trafficking cases.

A transportation bill he championed landed on the full Senate floor with a week left to go in Session. And Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis was helping him champion a consumer report bill that ultimately passed the Legislature.

By Sine Die though, most of his criminal justice priorities were dead, as was the broad transportation package.

Senate Bill 1218, the criminal justice package with seven measures tucked in it including some of the efforts mentioned above, did not make it past its last committee stop. And a key risk assessment tool that accompanied that bill was stripped of funding when Senate leadership gave a good chunk of the money to fund Vivitrol, a medicine used for drug treatment.

Senate Bill 1287, the broad transportation package changing various commercial motor vehicle regulations and creating tougher penalties for those who commit cargo theft, died in messages on the last day of Session.

But it was not all bad for Brandes.

Some of the measures he championed that passed the Legislature included those seeking to prohibit state agencies and local governments from entering or renewing contracts with companies that boycott Israel, adding new protections to health care sharing ministries, and barring consumer reporting agencies from charging a fee for security fees on a credit report.

The Legislature also passed a bill that reduces the minimum age for someone to work as a correctional officer from 19 to 18 to fill in personnel shortage at correctional facilities, even though 18-year-olds would not be allowed to supervise inmates.

As the Senate’s top budget writer for criminal justice issues, Brandes got money for programs in the Department of Corrections and cameras at the Department of Juvenile Justice even though it was not as much as he initially wanted.

In initial budget proposals, for example, Brandes wanted to get $8 million to buy DJJ cameras to increase accountability on abuses that go on in the facilities, but in the end, legislative leaders only approved the project at $1 million.

Other member projects he pushed for that got funding include $1 million for the Pinellas County Lake Seminole Sediment Removal and Restoration Project; $1 million for USF St. Petersburg STEM programs; and $150,000 for the Florida Automated Vehicle Driver Education Initiative.

January unemployment rate held below 4 percent

The January 2018 jobs numbers are out, and they still paint a rosy economic picture.

Per a release from the Department of Economic Development: The unemployment rate of 3.9 percent in January 2018 was the same as it was in December, yet down 0.7 percentage point from a year ago.

As has been the case for a while now, St. Johns County, at 3.3 percent unemployment, is the lowest rate in the state. The highest rate (6.0 percent) is in Citrus County.

Over the year job gains likewise continue to tell a story of expansion, with 21 of 24 metros showing year over year job gains. Orlando, followed by Tampa and Jacksonville, continues to show the most robust growth.

The sole slack in the statewide figures comes when unemployment is not “seasonally adjusted,” as that metric sees 4.1 percent, up from 3.7 percent in December.

Total labor force participation of those 16 and over is 59.2 percent, which is roughly three percent below the national number. Of course, caveats for Florida includes a population of retirees higher than the national average.

As is tradition, Gov. Rick Scott and Department of Economic Opportunity head Cissy Proctor offered affirmational quotes.

Governor Scott said: “I am proud to announce that Florida businesses kicked off 2018 by creating more than 10,000 new jobs for families across the state in January. Each new job means a family is able to provide for themselves and continue to succeed in our state. That is why we have worked nonstop to make Florida more business-friendly by reducing burdensome regulations and cutting taxes. This includes putting a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that will make it harder for politicians to raise taxes on future generations so our progress cannot be undone. We look forward to seeing the many more opportunities that will be created throughout the year as more job creators choose to grow in Florida.”

“Florida businesses have created more than 10,000 jobs in January alone thanks to Governor Scott’s commitment to lowering taxes and business-friendly policies, which allow companies to grow and prosper in our state. I am proud of the Sunshine State’s flourishing economy, making our home the greatest place to live, work, play and raise a family,” Proctor added.

Worth noting also: year over year, the median housing price in Florida is up almost 10 percent, from $220,000 a year before $240,000 today.

The February numbers are slated for a Mar. 23 release.

Legislature approves tax cut package

The Legislature on Sunday gave the final OK of a negotiated tax relief package that would, among other things, allow Floridians to buy tax-free clothes and school supplies during three days in August and tax-free hurricane gear at the start of June.

The roughly $171 million package (HB 7087) was passed by the Senate 31-5, then approved by the House 95-12 at an extended legislative session Sunday to also vote on the state budget.

The size of the tax package is close to the $180 million that Gov. Rick Scott proposed late last year.

The package includes “$71.2 million in recurring tax cuts and $97.4 million in one-year tax cuts,” a Senate summary said. “The legislation creates a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday August 3-5, 2018, and a seven-day disaster preparedness sales tax holiday June 1-7, 2018.

“The legislation permanently lowers the sales tax charged on commercial leases,” it adds. 

The House and Senate scaled back tax cuts as money was shifted after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County.

Money had to come “from everywhere, from tax cuts, from member projects, the K-12 budget,” Republican Rep. Paul Renner of Palm Coast, chair of the Ways & Means Committee, told reporters Sunday. “We did the best we could with available dollars.

“… Priorities change. We were talking about Irma, and then Parkland happened,” he added. “Now you have to stop everything else to deal almost half a billion dollar in new spending.”

The House had initially offered a tax and fee package totaling $339.3 million in reductions next fiscal year. That amount included tax credits for programs that offer voucher-like scholarships to send children to private schools. The programs are in an education bill that has already passed both chambers.

The Senate matched the House proposal in providing tax breaks on agricultural fencing materials purchased for repairs after Hurricane Irma.

Also, both chambers have supported tax breaks for citrus packing houses that had their businesses interrupted by Hurricane Irma or by the deadly disease citrus greening and for fuel used to transport agricultural products after the storm.

The final deal includes a property-tax break for homeowners displaced by Irma and a break for nursing homes that purchase electric generators.


The News Service of Florida contributed to this post. 

How pink became sine die tradition in Tallahassee

Pink is what distinguishes the last day of Florida’s Legislative Sessions.

Lobbyists, consultants, former lawmakers and observers, clad in pink outfits, roam the Capitol hallways during the session’s final hours.

Pink is the tradition for Capitol veterans to pay tribute to the late lobbyist Marvin Arrington.

“Marvin was here for a long time, and he had a tradition of wearing a pink sports coat on the last day of Session,” said Wayne Malaney, who lobbies for newspaper publishers.

In 2002, Arrington succumbed to a heart attack in a parking lot a block north of the Capitol. It was the Monday of the last week of session for that year.

By the time people realized he was in crisis, smoke from the spinning of his car tires filled the downtown area.

“Marvin wore pink carnations and no one serving today was here when Marvin was, but those who remembered him by wearing pink,” said Keith Arnold, who served in the House in the 1980s and 1990s and now lobbies.

The last day of the 2002 session, Arrington’s son, Reynolds, and nephew, Patrick, showed up at the Capitol wearing Arrington’s trademark pink jackets. Joining them are more than 100 lobbyists sporting pink: carnations, jackets, shirts, all responding to Reynolds’ request to remember his dad with a display of pink.

“Anyone that’s man enough to wear pink at your age is man enough for us to listen to,” former Speaker James Harold Thompson said to the Orlando Sentinel.

People observe traditions for a variety of reasons. They are a tool to keep up predictability in a changing world, to create self-identity for a group within a larger society and serve to transfer knowledge from one generation to the next.

“I wear a hideous pink jacket for Marvin; he was a great guy, a wonderful man,” Dave Ramba said. “His son comes for the final day and we as a community watch out for him, he was just 13 years old when he lost his father. We’ll all be wearing pink carnations.”

Marvin Arrington’s father, C. Fred, served in the Florida House in the 1950s and Marvin would tell friends he grew up at the Capitol. Among lawmakers, their staff and journalists he was known as a “white hat,” an honest broker of information.

For some Tallahassee politicos wearing pink is a statement of values.

“We respected him greatly for his intellect and honesty,” said Steve Schale, who knew Arrington while working for Rep. Doug Wiles. “And my way of paying homage to the way I think we are supposed to treat this business as advocates is to wear pink for Marvin Arrington.”

Seeing pink at the Capitol on Session’s final day, to paraphrase Artis Whitman, is a visual reminder of how each generation takes nourishment from earlier ones, giving knowledge to those who come after.

Or, then again, Ramba may be right: It’s a hideous fashion statement but a fun way to remember a “great guy and wonderful man.”

Lobbyists wear their pink, in honor of Marvin Arrington, an insurance lobbyist with an affinity for pink who died during the last week of the 2002 Session, on the fourth floor Friday, May 5, 2017, at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Photo by Phil Sears

Takeaways from Tallahassee — Where is Justice 2 Jesus?

The 2018 Legislative Session came and went, and Brian Pitts of the advocacy group Justice 2 Jesus was nowhere to be found.

One of the last times he was spotted was November at the Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee. It was the last meeting for former state Rep. Neil Combee and after he said farewell, Pitts came to the podium to scrutinize the Venezuela divestment bill.

“This really makes my day because this is my last committee,” Combee told Pitts. “I would have been heartbroken if Brian Pitts did not want to talk about a bill before the committee.”

“I love you too,” Pitts told Combee before hammering on the proposal.

Brian Pitts and Justice 2 Jesus are MIA this Session.

Since that meeting though, the 46-year-old gadfly, who has long been a staple of the legislative process has been absent.

His last Twitter rant, in its usual all-caps matter, was sent out Jan. 2, a week before Session started.


And as reporters and lobbyists inquired about the disappearance act, he favorited tweets of those who speculated that he might be out because of a “long flu” or “influenza.” Pitts, however, never confirmed why he’s been out.

After multiple attempts by Florida Politics to reach him, calls went unanswered and straight to voicemail.

“Our Lord is here, Jesus Christ … good day and God bless,” he says before the beep.

Coming up, the usual assortment of tidbits, leftovers and not-ready-for-prime-time moments by Ana Ceballos, Jim Rosica, Danny McAuliffe, Andrew Wilson and Peter Schorsch.

But first, the “Takeaway 5” — the Top 5 stories from the week that was:

Stoneman Douglas Act signed — Gov. Rick Scott signed the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act” Friday while parents who lost their children in the school shooting stood by him. The $400 million proposal creates unprecedented gun-control measures in the state, gives more funding to schools for security and mental health services and allows school staff to participate in a program that trains them to shoot active shooters. The bill defies the National Rifle Association, which is opposed to banning the sale of bump stocks, raising the legal age to buy assault weapons from 18 to 21 and a three-day waiting period for all firearms. The legislation does not include a ban on assault weapons despite outcry from Parkland shooting survivors.

Leaders close out budget — Legislative leaders reached a deal on a roughly $89 billion state budget early Thursday morning, setting in motion the 72-hour “cooling-off” period before lawmakers can vote on it. The spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year has nearly $90 million in last-minute funding including hurricane-related items that are contingent on federal reimbursements. The budget also has $67 million for arming school staff, $8 million in pay raises for juvenile detention and probation officers and a 36 percent pay increase for Florida Supreme Court justices who will now make more than $220,000 annually. Nursing homes will also get a $130 million bump in Medicaid payments.

Gambling conference surprise — Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran released a joint statement Friday night: “Despite the good faith efforts of both the House and Senate, a gaming bill will not pass the Legislature this session.” At last look, the House had offered five ‘limited gaming’ licenses in response to the Senate position for six new slots licenses in the state for counties that had OK’d slots expansion in local referendums. “Limited gaming” had meant slots or designated player games — a poker-blackjack hybrid — but not both. Another proviso from the House: Any new slots facility would have to be at least 100 miles away from the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, and at least 25 miles away from any other Seminole casino, including the one in Hollywood. It’s not clear when lawmakers will get another shot.

Member projects janked for votes — Before the gun and school safety bill passed the House, rank-and-file members who strongly opposed the measure had project funding for their districts removed from the budget. A POLITICO Florida analysis found that at least $10 million in House member projects the House and Senate had agreed to were pulled. As legislative leaders wrapped up the 2018 session, the budget came in late, and according to the analysis  it was “increasingly clear that the budget [was] used to whip members on the gun bill.”

Child marriage ban pushed through — Gov. Scott’s office said the governor intends to sign a measure that would ban all marriages under the age of 17. The “child marriage bill” was among the most-debated issues in the 2018 legislative session. Republican state Rep. George Moraitis was one of the toughest critics of the bill, saying that some minors should be allowed to marry with parental consent. He was the lone ‘no’ vote against SB 140. The bill would give Florida the strictest marriage law in the country in terms of age limits.

On Friday, Rick Scott signed the “Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act.” Immediately afterward, the NRA filed an injunction to block the new law.

Scott talks school security with police chiefs

Gov. Scott headed to Orange Park this week to talk about his school security plans with police chiefs from South and Northeast Florida.

Scott’s proposals following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre last month include raising the minimum age to buy a gun in Florida to 21, increasing funding for school security and mental health, and giving law enforcement the ability to temporarily confiscate guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Promises after Parkland: Gov. Rick Scott met with South and Northeast Florida police chiefs to discuss his action plan to help keep Florida students safe.

Scott said after the meeting that it was one of the things he didn’t propose — arming school employees — that ended up dominating the discussion.

Lawmakers added to the school safety plan a provision that would allow school employees who are not solely classroom teachers, such as coaches or support staff, to carry concealed weapons on campus after completing a training program.

Scott cheers bill blocking Venezuela investment

The Legislature got some praise from Gov. Scott this week for passing a bill that would bar the state from investing in any company that is doing business with the Venezuelan government.

Scott said the move would hold the Nicolas Maduro regime accountable and the bill was one of his announced priorities ahead of the 2018 Legislative Session.

“With the passage of this landmark legislation, Florida continues its commitment to the people of Venezuela who are fighting for freedom and democracy. This legislation will prohibit all state agencies from investing in the Venezuelan government and puts even more financial pressure on the Maduro regime by stopping any future state investment with them,” Scott said.

“I want to thank Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, as well as sponsors Senator Rene Garcia and Speaker Pro Tempore Jeanette Nunez, for their great work on this important bill.”

HB 359 cleared both the House and Senate with a unanimous vote.

Putnam names 2017 Forestry Firefighter of the Year

During a Wednesday Cabinet meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and the Florida Forest Service presented Senior Forest Ranger John DeWolfe with the Forestry Firefighter of the Year award.

“Our wildland firefighters risk their lives daily to protect Florida’s wildlife and residents from wildfire, and last year they courageously battled one of the most severe wildfire seasons in recent history,” Putnam said. “I congratulate John on being named the 2017 Forestry Firefighter of the Year and thank him for his selfless service.”

Adam Putnam names Senior Forest Ranger John DeWolfe  2017 Forestry Firefighter of the Year.

DeWolfe has been on the job for 20 years and has worked nearly every job in the field, from training to emergency response to land management. He also mentors the next generation of wildland firefighters.

“John is a crucial asset to our agency as a wildland firefighter, instructor and leader. He repeatedly demonstrates his commitment to his job and the safety of Floridians,” said Florida State Forester Jim Karels.

Instagram of the week

The week in appointments

Florida Commission on Human Relations Maryam Laguna Borrego will succeed Clyde Daniel on the commission. The 30-year-old is the assistant vice president of public affairs at the University of Miami, Coral Gables.

Borrego received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Florida. Her term ends Sept. 30, 2021.

Samantha Hoare is the executive director of Teach for America, Miami-Dade. She received her bachelor’s degree from Duke University and her MBA from Florida International University.

Hoare, 36, will succeed Sandra Turner for a term ending Sept. 30, 2021.

Both appointments are subject to Senate confirmation.

St. Lucie County Board of County Commissioners —  Anthony Bonna is a 30-year-old director of advertising and digital strategy for The Stoneridge Group LLC. He is also the founder of The Good Help Group LLC.

Bonna received his bachelor’s degree in finance from Georgetown University. He is appointed to a term ending Nov. 13, 2018.

Board of Employee Leasing CompaniesRon Hodge is the president and chief executive officer of Cornerstone Capital Group.

The 62-year-old fills a vacant seat on the board and will serve a term ending Oct. 31, 2019. His appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Southwest Florida CRC stop draws 300

More than 300 Floridians attended a March 5 public hearing held by the Constitution Revision Commission in Cape Coral.

More than 180 individuals filled out speaker cards to comment on proposals being considered by commissioners. All Floridians who attended the public hearing and wanted to speak were given an opportunity to be heard by the CRC.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting survivor addressing the CRC in Cape Coral.

The meeting was part of the CRC’s “Road to the Ballot” public hearing tour, which has already stopped in Fort Lauderdale, Melbourne, Jacksonville and Pensacola.

PIP repeal crashes

On Wednesday, Gov. Scott killed any hope for the newest attempt to repeal the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

The PIP repeal bill, SB 150 by Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee, had already stalled out at its most recent committee stop in the Senate, with Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier among those speaking out against the measure.

During a Wednesday Cabinet meeting, Scott praised Altmaier for his testimony, telling him he “did a good job on PIP.”

Lee intimated that Scott and CFO Jimmy Patronis weren’t behind his bill when it was in committee last week, pointing to Altmaier’s presence as evidence.

Tampa tweens take home Champion of Service Award

During a Wednesday Cabinet meeting, Gov. Scott and Volunteer Florida presented a Champion of Service Award to 12-year-olds Chase Hartman and Vance Tomasi.

The duo from Tampa founded read. repeat.,” an organization that collects gently used books from companies and individuals and distributes them to those in need. So far, they have collected more than 40,000 books and given more than 13,000 of them to public schools with high poverty rates.

Rick Scott and Volunteer Florida presented a Champion of Service Award to 12-year-olds Chase Hartman and Vance Tomasi.

“At such a young age, Chase and Vance have devoted their time to giving back and making a difference in their community. Their incredible work to deliver books to students across the state makes them worthy recipients of the Champion of Service Award today.”

Volunteer Florida CEO Vivian Myrtetus said it was “inspiring to see their commitment and dedication to helping others at only 12 years old.”

Legislature passes generator rule sans funding

A bill that would make Gov. Scott’s executive order requiring assisted living facilities to have power generators cleared the Legislature Friday, but it doesn’t carry an appropriation to help such facilities pay for upgrades.

Scott handed down the rule in the wake of a prolonged power outage at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills led to more than a dozen heat-related deaths after Hurricane Irma.

The rule would require such facilities to have 96 hours of emergency generator capacity to make it through power outages.

Lawmakers were never planning to cover the whole cost of the measure — experts estimate it will cost $280 million — but there were talks in the Senate of some funds to help smaller facilities make the change without a large capital outlay.

But that plan was not favored by the House, which passed SB 7028 with a 108-1 vote Friday.

Lawmakers back bill to incorporate Hobe Sound

The Legislature passed a bill this week to incorporate Martin County community Hobe Sound as a town.

HB 395 cleared the Senate with a unanimous vote Thursday and is now ready for a signature from Gov. Scott. If approved the residents of Hobe Sound would vote on whether or not to incorporate.

Lawmakers give the OK to incorporate Hobe Sound; now it’s up to voters.

“This legislation includes the opportunity for the citizens of Hobe Sound to vote on whether or not they would like for their town to become incorporated,” said Senate President Negron, a native of Hobe Sound. “The people of this community have waited years for this legislation, and I am pleased to see it earn the favorable support of both the House and Senate, and move to the Governor’s desk for his consideration.”

The U.S. Census includes Hobe Sound in the Port St. Lucie Metropolitan Statistical Area and estimated the community had 11,521 residents in 2010.

Sexual assault victims bring shoes to Capitol

Hundreds of shoes were on display in the Capitol Monday, and each pair carried a message to lawmakers from survivors of sexual assault.

Pairs came in from women, men and children aging in range from 3 to 89. The event was coordinated by Lauren’s Kids and the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.

One thousand shoes like these sit in the Florida Capitol — a reminder that survivors of sexual assault come from all walks of life.

The rotunda display was part of the annual “Walk in My Shoes” events hosted around the state by Lauren’s Kids, a charity started by South Florida Sen. Lauren Book.

The first of 15 planned walks all over Florida this month was held in Panama City Friday. A listing of the other walks is available online.

Identity theft bill gets NFIB stamp of approval

The National Federation of Independent Businesses cheered lawmakers for passing a bill that would alert business owners whenever their corporate filing information is changed and allow them to fix incorrect changes free of charge.

“NFIB applauds the passage of HB 661, which will protect small-business owners from becoming the victims of fraud,” said NFIB Florida director Bill Herrle.

Bill Herrle gives his approval for a bill against identity theft.

“This bill requires the Division of Corporations to notify business owners when changes have been made to their corporate filings without their knowledge or approval. This will provide significant protections for small-business owners against fraudulent activities and will go a long way toward thwarting the rising problem of business identify theft.”

HB 661, sponsored by Orlando Republican Rep. Mike Miller, cleared the House with a unanimous vote and was approved by the Senate Tuesday.

Bill amendment sparks giggles

One of the more entertaining amendments of the 2018 Legislative Session was introduced last week, courtesy of St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes.

The one-line amendment to SB 1042 reads: “Where are you? Name everyone you know in the room with you.”

Jeff Brandes amendment on a bill elicited chuckles.

No, the bill is not about narcs, confidential informants or anything of the like. And no, even though this amendment came from Brandes, an unabashed technophile, it has nothing to do with his proposed regulations keeping Alexa or Siri from being creepy.

The amendment — which was approved — belongs to SB 1042, Brandes’ bill regulating online notaries public. It’s one of seven essential questions a notary would have to ask a customer when witnessing an electronic signature.

A couple of the others, which would be equally appropriate to ask before someone gets a tattoo or a marriage license: Are you of sound mind? Are you under the influence of any drugs or alcohol that impairs your ability to make decisions?

Registration open for 2018 Insurance Summit

Registration is now open for the 2018 Florida Chamber Insurance, set for Nov. 27 through Nov. 29 at the JW Marriott in Miami.

A ticket to attend the summit costs $325 for members of the Florida Chamber, while non-members can pick one up for $375.

The annual event features speakers from top companies in the insurance industry as well as question and answer panels on the most pressing insurance issues faced by the Sunshine State.

The Florida Chamber also said sponsorship opportunities for the 2018 summit are still available.

Those looking to attend can register online.

Now for this week’s edition of Capitol Directions:


Delegation for 3.9.18 — Insights from the Beltway to the Sunshine State

Trump follows through on tariff pledge

This week, much of the country and the world is talking about tariffs. That is because President Donald Trump said he would levy a 25 percent tariff on imported steel and a 10 percent surcharge on aluminum.

The media and a number of Republican politicians rang alarm bells saying such tariffs would start a trade war and perhaps undo the gains achieved through the tax cuts. Getting to the root of the matter, GOP Representatives in Congress and the Senate fear it could threaten their majorities in the fall.

When Trump announced his intention to impose the tariffs, his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, resigned and the markets tanked. The president said, in effect, “no worries; we’ll get somebody else.”

Surrounded by steelworkers, Donald Trump signs a proclamation Thursday setting tariffs on steel imports.

Perhaps the significant pushback from the GOP began to make some headway as the president appeared to back off on Wednesday night from making the announcement scheduled for Thursday. But Thursday morning, he was again laying hints that he was not backing down.

Nearly half of the House Republican caucus wrote to Trump urging him to at least narrow the tariff targets. House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady spoke for the group.

“Our message is pretty clear. We stand with you, Mr. President, on taking tough action against unfair trade,” Brady said. “And with the right tailoring, we think — and exempting fairly traded products that contribute to our national security as well — that our economy can grow and he can hit his target.”

Florida Republicans have not been going out of the way to support the president’s position, but some signed the Brady caution letter. Those included Carlos Curbelo of Kendall, Vern Buchanan of Longboat Key, Ted Yoho of Gainesville, Francis Rooney of Naples, and John Rutherford of Jacksonville.

One of Florida’s top business advocates also urged Trump to change course. After praising Trump for the tax reform that passed in December, Associated Industries of Florida (AIF) expressed their concern with the proposed tariffs in a statement from President and CEO Tom Feeney, a former Republican Congressman.

“Because Florida is a major international commercial hub and exporter, AIF and Florida’s business community are gravely concerned with the impact a new tax on steel and aluminum would have on free trade,” Feeney said.  “Any overzealous restraint on trade or tariffs on aluminum and steel here in Florida would potentially undercut the massive benefits Florida employers and employees are seeing as a result of President Trump’s regulatory reform and tax reform.”

In the end, Trump ignored the advice from domestic and foreign sources and imposed the tariffs on Thursday afternoon. As expected, he exempted Canada and Mexico while indicating there may be more carveouts.

“We’re going to be very flexible,” Trump said. “At the same time, we have some friends and some enemies where we have been tremendously taken advantage of over the years.”

The U.S. now awaits the response of the rest of the world.

Rubio joins colleagues to file school safety bill

The two-term Republican joined with 12 GOP colleagues to present a bill designed to allow 100,000 public schools the opportunity to improve school safety. The School Safety and Mental Health Services Improvement Act would provide the schools with access to federal dollars for school counselors, alarm systems, security cameras and crisis intervention training.

Schools needing security upgrades could use federal dollars for the security upgrades as well as help schools identify and treat mental illness. The bill also creates an interagency task force that would make recommendations — not install mandates — for developing best practices to achieve the bill’s goals.

Marco Rubio is going all in on a GOP school safety bill.

“While we focus on federal action to help prevent future attacks like Parkland, we must ensure that our local public school districts are given some flexibility in deciding how to safeguard their schools,” said Rubio. “This bill will allow 100,000 public schools to upgrade school security by using federal funds for measures such as school counselors, alarm systems, and training to respond to any crisis. Washington may provide the federal resources, but local communities optimally know how to utilize them to install school-specific safety measures.”

The lead sponsor of the measure is Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, a former Secretary of Education under President George H.W. Bush.

“Safe schools are for the most part a local responsibility, but in this case, the federal government can and should help,” said Alexander. “One way to do this is to give states and local school boards the authority to use federal dollars in different ways to make schools safer.”


Nelson quietly votes to advance banking reform bill

A bill that would effectively roll back some of the provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, passed in 2009, advanced to the next step in the Senate this week through a 67-32 procedural vote. Among the 67 were 17 Democrats, including Sen. Bill Nelson, who voted with Republicans and against their party’s leadership and the bill’s most committed opponent, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Idaho Republican Mike Crapo sponsored the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act. It also brought on 28 co-sponsors including 12 Democrats.

Nelson did not put out a statement or event tweet about his vote, but Warren did not hold back. She tweeted “this bill wouldn’t be on the path to becoming law without the support of these Democrats” while linking to another tweet that listed them by name.

The vote is a significant victory for the banking industry, which has seen its fortunes improve under Trump. He repeatedly promised during the presidential campaign to do a “big number” on Dodd-Frank.

The bill will have a further debate before the final vote, which even Warren expects will end with its passage.

Rubio, Diaz-Balart announce transportation grants for Immokalee

The community of Immokalee is celebrating an infusion of $13 million for local infrastructure projects. Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, who represents the Immokalee area, and Sen. Marco Rubio this week announced the awarding of a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation this week.

Communities from around the country applied for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, which are set aside to improve access to reliable, safe, and affordable transportation for communities in rural areas. The Immokalee grant was part of a $500 grant fund set aside in 2017.

Immokalee gets a cash boost for infrastructure, thanks to Marco Rubio.

“I am proud to announce the award of this TIGER grant that will help revitalize Immokalee’s infrastructure,” said Diaz-Balart. “From the installation of streetlights to the construction of bus shelters and sidewalks, the funds from this grant will be utilized to improve the quality of life for Immokalee residents.”

“Today’s announcement by the Department of Transportation is significant news for Immokalee,” Rubio said. “Having seen firsthand the devastation Hurricane Irma inflicted on southwest Florida; this grant will provide critical resources that will fundamentally transform Immokalee’s damaged infrastructure as residents continue to rebuild and recover.”

Since the launch of the TIGER grant program, $5.1 billion has been awarded for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure over eight rounds of competitive grants.  Throughout the TIGER program, these grants have supported projects that have a significant impact on the Nation, a metropolitan area, or a region.

Despite critics, DeVos’ Douglas High School visit ‘sobering’

The U.S. Secretary of Education visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Wednesday, the first day back for students since the Valentine’s Day shootings. Depending on the account, the visit with either controversial or sobering.

Betsy DeVos was led by school officials as she walked around the school without the media. During a media availability at a nearby hotel after her visit, Fox News reported DeVos described what she saw and heard from students as “sobering and inspiring.”

Betsy DeVos leaves a news conference following a visit to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“Some of them are doing quite well, but they all acknowledge that it’s a day-to-day situation,” she said. “For students who were actually in the building involved, it’s very tough.”

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel headline featured “some students unhappy” with her visit. Several posted negative tweets, including a student who said: “no one asked for this.”

On the day shooter Nikolas Cruz was indicted on 17 counts of first-degree murder, DeVos did not bring up the plan to arm some teachers. She responded to a question with “to say I support arming teachers is an oversimplification and a mischaracterization.”

DeVos indicated her support for having “people who are expert in being able to defend and having lots and lots of training in order to do so.”

‘Crystal Ball’ looks at possible Democratic wave in 2018

The talk about a Democratic wave in midterm elections continues. This week some statistical evidence bolstered that notion, while at the same time warning there is still time for Republicans to minimize what should be some losses in November.

Two Florida races were among the 26 nationwide that changed ratings, all favoring Democrats. In updates of congressional race assessments announced Thursday morning, Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball changed its rating of Murphy’s Florida’s 7th Congressional District from “Leans Democratic” to “Likely Democratic,” and changed Buchanan’s Florida’s 16th Congressional District from “Safe Republican” to “Likely Republican.”

Larry Sabato made some ‘Crystal Ball’ changes, all good for Democrats.

Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball is run out of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, assessing federal elections. Their analysis indicates Republicans are facing headwinds, in part because of enhanced Democratic enthusiasm.

“Democrats have been consistently overperforming Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential performance in special elections held since Donald Trump’s election,” Kyle Kondik, Sabato’s managing editor, stated in a news release issued Thursday morning. “My colleague Geoffrey Skelley has been tracking these elections, which are mostly for state legislative seats but also include a handful of congressional specials, and he calculates that Democrats have been running on average 13 points ahead of Clinton’s 2016 margin in the nearly 90 races held so far featuring a Democrat and a Republican.

“That speaks to the overall political environment, which clearly favors Democrats right now,” Kondik added.

At the same time, Sabato and Crystal Ball caution Democrats about becoming overconfident. The need to win 24 seats currently held by Republicans to gain control of the House, but that is no slam dunk.

Despite all these changes, Crystal Ball still thinks the odds of a House flip are only about 50-50, although they say those odds are probably generous to Republicans at this point. They write “we’re also cognizant of the fact that there’s still a long way to go.”

Over the past few months, some other races changed ratings, mostly in favor of Democrats. The seat held by retiring Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen now “Leans Democratic,” Republican Brian Mast of the 18th District (a new target of liberal donor Tom Steyer) is now in a race that is “Likely Republican” while fellow Republican Curbelo’s re-election is rated “Toss-Up.”

The open seat currently held by Republican Ron DeSantis is rated as “Likely Republican,” while St. Petersburg Democrat Charlie Crist joins Murphy in the “Likely Democratic” category.

 Gaetz to host Western Hemisphere Field Hearing

The Republican Congressman from Fort Walton Beach will host a forum on drug trafficking and terrorism next week. Gaetz will be joined by policy experts, law enforcement, and local elected officials to discuss the roles of countries like Venezuela and terror organizations like Hezbollah in drug trafficking.

Matt Gaetz is hosting an event to ” engage in meaningful discussion relating to drug trafficking and terrorism in the Western Hemisphere.”

Gaetz’s goals are to identify main threats, receive recommendations to target those threats and to develop and execute a plan on how Congress can assist in combating and eliminating those threats.

The “Western Hemisphere Field Hearing” begins at 1 p.m. on March 12 at the National Naval Aviation Museum on Naval Air Station Pensacola. News media are invited.

Murphy launches bipartisan veterans’ employment bill

Creating incentives to hire veterans is the purpose of a bill introduced by the first-term Democrat from Winter Park and Republican Rep. Steve Knight from California. The Encouraging Veterans Employment Act of 2018 authorizes the Department of Defense to give preference to business that employs veterans when awarding contracts.

Murphy is the Ranking Member of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Contracting and Workforce. Knight is the Chairman of the committee.

Stephanie Murphy met with @VFWHQ representatives this week to discuss making the VA disability claims process less frustrating for veterans.

“Military service members risk their lives to keep our nation safe and have earned the opportunity to succeed once they decide to transition into the civilian workforce,” said Murphy. “The men and women of our military learn valuable skills and develop unique leadership qualities that make them an asset to employers — who may be unfamiliar with the value of hiring veterans.

This is the latest bill Murphy has sponsored on behalf of veterans. She recently introduced another bipartisan bill, the BATTLE for Servicemembers Act, to help the estimated 250,000 service members who leave the military each year to successfully transition to civilian life.

Murphy has also worked with Indiana Republican Susan Brooks to introduce a bill (H.R. 3558) to improve access to critical health care services for women veterans, including mammograms, maternity care, and routine gynecology visits.

Soto gets backing of Progressive Caucus PAC

The Orlando Democrat received the backing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Political Action Committee, an endorsement he might need as a buffer against a possible primary challenge by a congressman who once was a prominent voice for that caucus.

“Darren Soto is a fighter for economic justice. He works tirelessly for working Americans, and he always has. He marches for civil rights and civil liberties — for Dreamers, for Muslims, for LGBTQ Americans,” Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC Co-Chair Mark Pocan said in a news release from Soto’s re-election campaign. “The struggle for women’s equality has no better friend than Darren. Soto supports health care for all, a strong social safety net, and robust protections for workers who want to organize and fight for better wages and working conditions.”

Darren Soto gets the progressive nod, which could help in a Democratic primary.

Right now the endorsement appears more as a possible weapon for Soto’s only opponent in Florida’s 9th Congressional District, Republican candidate Wayne Liebnitzky of St. Cloud. Liebnitzky, whom Soto beat in 2016, is campaigning on a firm conservative platform and seeking to characterize Soto as too liberal for the district.

“He has only done what party leader [Nancy] Pelosi directed him to do, instead of taking care of the area,” Liebnitzky said. He added, “I guess I won’t lose any sleep tonight awaiting their endorsement.”

Yet off in the wings is the previous incumbent in the district, former U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, who had been one of the most strident progressive Democrats in Congress during his three terms. Grayson reportedly has been talking to Democratic consultants, trying to assemble a team as a possible challenge to Soto in a CD 9 primary.

Webster files bipartisan bill to commercialize innovations

This week, the Republican Congressman from Florida’s 11th Congressional District teamed with Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinksi to introduce ways of bringing innovations to the marketplace. The two legislators unveiled the Innovators to Entrepreneurs Act of 2018.

The bill expands the proven, successful Innovation Corps program. The Innovation Corps program, known as I-Corps, was created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 2011 to teach scientists and engineers how to turn their laboratory innovations into successful commercial products and services.

Democrat Dan Lipinski of Illinois joins Daniel Webster on a bipartisan innovations bill.

“The Innovators to Entrepreneurs Act expands on the time-tested I-Corps program through adding a course for commercialization-ready participants,” Webster said in a news release. “The NSF’s I-Corps program will bridge the divide between the academic world and commercialization sphere, playing a critical role in the efforts to increase innovation for all Americans.”

The course is based on the highly successful Lean Launchpad curriculum developed by innovator Steve Blank and widely used throughout Silicon Valley and beyond.  Since its inception, over 1,000 teams have participated in I-Corps.

“The federal government invests a lot of money in research and development annually,” said Lipinski.  “I-Corps is a modest investment that leads to a big return on federally-funded research by significantly increasing rates of research commercialization, economic activity, and job creation.”

Mast, Curbelo opponents pick up NARAL endorsements

Palm City Republican Mast and Kendall Republican Curbelo both have credible challengers to their re-election bids. This week, their challengers picked up endorsements they hope will mobilize women voters and carry them to victory.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, self-described as the country’s leading pro-choice advocacy group, has endorsed Democrats Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Lauren Baer for their bids to unseat the two incumbents. Mucarsel-Powell is challenging Curbelo while Baer is taking on Mast.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, the self-described leading pro-choice advocacy group, is endorsing Democrats Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Lauren Baer in Florida.

“Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Lauren Baer’s dedication to expanding access to reproductive health care is exactly what we need in Congress right now, “said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “We know they will stand up to the attacks the Trump administration and the GOP Congress make on affordable and accessible health care for all. They’ll fight for the values women and families in their districts hold dear, and that’s why we can’t wait to get them elected.”

 The Mucarsel-Powell race against Curbelo is rated as a tossup by the Sabato Crystal Ball. She welcomed the support.

 “Now more than ever, we need women in Washington who will bring our voices and protect our rights,” said Mucarsel-Powell. “As a Latina immigrant, I come from a long line of strong women, and I am proud to have the endorsement of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Like Mucarsel-Powell, Baer is taking on a well-funded opponent and hopes abortion rights will play a vital role in the campaign.

“As a woman, a mother, and a proud defender of reproductive freedom, I am honored to have the support of NARAL Pro-Choice America,” said Baer. “Choosing to bring our daughter into the world was one of the most personal and important decisions my wife and I have made, and the act of carrying her, and now caring for her, has only reaffirmed my belief that reproductive choices are best left to women themselves.

On this day in the headlines

March 9, 1995 — The Florida Senate passed a bill that requires criminals to spend 85 percent of their sentences behind bars. “The message is clear that if you commit a crime in Florida, you will be punished and you will do your time,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg.

March 9, 1999 — The body of former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s laid in repose at the Supreme Court building. Blackmun, who served on the Court for 24 years, authored more than 300 opinions during his tenure, most notably the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Get ready for the return of TallyMadness!

Billion-dollar budgets … education … gambling. These are but three of the dozens of earth-shattering critical issues debated during the 2018 Legislative Session.

Who cares?

Session is also about the tangential and the trivial, but it’s tangential and trivial which drives the Florida Capitol.

That’s why Florida Politics is excited to announce the return of TallyMadness — an online voting competition to determine who is the “best” lobbyist in Florida.

Just like college basketball fans who fill out their brackets as part of “March Madness,” political aficionados in the capital and beyond can vote on a series of bracketed matchups pitting Florida’s top lobbyists against each other.

Voting in the first-round begins today and continues through Monday at 6 p.m.

You may vote as many times as you’d like.

Those who visit are asked to email any suggestions they have to improve the site — and later-round voting — to

Let the TallyMadness begin.

Joe Gruters sets his sights on Florida Senate

State Rep. Joe Gruters is setting his sights on the Florida Senate.

The Sarasota Republican announced Thursday he is filing for Senate District 23, which covers Sarasota County and parts of western Charlotte County. Incumbent state Sen. Greg Steube is vacating SD 23 to mount a bid for Tom Rooney’s Congressional seat.

Gruters, 40, has represented House District 73 since 2016.

“The campaign is about fighting every waking hour for a community that has given me so much,” Gruters said in a statement. “Fighting for good-paying jobs, cracking down on illegal immigration, and protecting the sanctity of life are issues I care deeply about. I will work tirelessly to achieve the results the men and women of this region and great state of Florida deserve.”

Gruters, a certified public accountant by trade, is also in his 10th year as Republican Party of Sarasota chair and has played an instrumental role as co-chair of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump won SD 23 by more than 14 points in 2016. In February, the president named Gruters to the Amtrak Board of Directors.

Gruters was key to bringing Trump to Sarasota twice as the Party’s “Statesman of the Year.”

Gruters also served as Gov. Rick Scott’s appointee on the Board of Trustees of Florida State University, Chairman of the Sarasota County Planning Commission, board member of the Florida Sports Foundation, and Treasurer and Executive Board member for the Sarasota County Humane Society.

As reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, many regional Republican leaders are already lining up behind Gruters, including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (Gruters was a former Buchanan staffer), Steube, most of the Sarasota County commissioners, Sarasota County School Board members as well as Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight.

Youth advocacy group urges Rick Scott to end ‘free-speech zones’

A youth advocacy group is launching digital campaign ads urging Gov. Rick Scott to sign a higher education bill that includes a provision that would end so-called “free speech zones.”

Generation Opportunity-Florida sent an email expressing particular support of a provision in Senate Bill 4 that would end so-called “free speech zones.”

‘By signing Senate Bill 4, Governor Scott would be putting an end to the unconstitutional practice of limiting free speech to secluded and pre-sanctioned ‘zones’ on college campuses,” said Demetrius Minor, the director for GO-FL Coalition.

“This practice not only violates the First Amendment but represents the kind of closed-minded thinking that is anathema to what college is all about,” Minor added.

The measure, known as the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act, is a big priority of Senate President Joe Negron and aims to improve transparency, faculty recruitment and graduation rates in the state’s higher education system by rewarding universities with four-year graduation rates.

To view the ad image that would be sent in direct email to the governor’s office, click here.

trauma centers

Safety net hospitals take a win in 2018-19 budget

Hospitals serving large numbers of the state’s Medicaid patients “applauded” funding in the 2018-19 budget they say “puts patients before profits.”

In a Thursday press release, the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida thanked budget writers for maintaining funding.

The Legislature agreed to fund another $319 million—including the federal share—in the upcoming year’s budget, as they did for this year (2017-18).

“Safety net hospitals ensure the highest level of care to all Floridians, regardless of their ability to pay,” it said. “By leaving intact this important funding policy, legislators showed compassion for the needs of low-income elderly, pregnant women, critically ill children and fragile newborns.”

Without the money, they “would have faced an even deeper financial hole caused by years of budget cuts,” the release said.

“Over the last five years, 14 safety net hospital systems have sustained half of the $688 million in combined net Medicaid cuts, putting vital programs and services at risk and adding pressure on communities to cover the cost of caring for their residents. Unfortunately, Medicaid only reimburses hospitals about 60 cents for every $1 of care provided.”

“The Legislature faced many issues of societal importance this session. We thank them for placing the preservation of the unique, special mission of safety net hospitals among their priorities. Across the state, our communities are better off for having this funding retained.”

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