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With hand recount complete, Janet Cruz wins battleground state Senate seat

Senate District 18 presumptive winner Janet Cruz is again declaring victory in her bid to unseat incumbent Republican Dana Young.

After a manual recount conducted in Hillsborough County, Cruz — who was last the House Democratic Leader — maintains a 382-vote lead over Young, according to the Florida Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Cruz’s victory is not official until election results are certified. The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections will certify election results Sunday at noon.

Technically, more votes could still come in for either candidate. The office can accept signature cures on ballots that were tossed because the signatures didn’t match that on file until Saturday at 5 p.m. Still, that’s unlikely to yield enough votes to sway the election.

“I am happy to finally call my colleague, ‘Senator-elect Cruz,’ ” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, the chamber’s Democratic Leader-designate.

“We always knew Janet would be a fine addition, and the voters thought so too by electing her,” she added. “It’s finally real now that the votes have been confirmed.”

Hillsborough County’s SD 18, which encompasses portions of Tampa, and was one of the seats targeted for a Democratic pickup. The campaign was a heated one, with each candidate hurling accusations at the other.

The Young campaign pressed hard against Cruz over allegations that she did not live in the House District she formerly represented, and over a property tax snafu in which Cruz claimed a homestead exemption on two properties.

Cruz rectified the issue and paid back the tax, plus interest.

Ultimately, Cruz was able to overcome the constant barrage of negative attacks against her and, on election night, walked away with a razor-thin margin in her favor. Since then, that lead has continued to hold.

She officially declared victory the day after the election.

“I am honored to serve the people of Hillsborough County in the Senate and I want to extend my sincere gratitude to Leader Designate Gibson for her support,” Cruz said.

“Senate Democrats have been on the front lines of the battles for a stronger public education system, common sense gun safety reforms, and expanding access to health care to every Floridian. I look forward to standing united with our caucus as we continue the fight for these values on behalf of working families throughout our state.”

Autonomous vehicles

FITCon 2018: Cable could be the key for ‘connected communities’

The cable industry was once a titan of video, and while millions of customers still have coaxials screwed into the back of their sets, the business is rapidly shifting toward one focused on broadband internet and the myriad opportunities it brings, from self-driving cars to connected communities.

State Rep. Jason Fischer, Rick Cimerman of the National Internet & Television Association, and Chris Spencer of GrayRobinson participated in a Thursday panel at Florida Internet & Television’s FITCon 2018 that detailed how cable companies could provide the foundation for these emergent technologies to deploy safely and successfully.

“We have 66 million broadband customers today 52 million video customers and 31 million voice customers,” Cimerman said. “So we really consider ourselves the broadband industry. And by the end of this year, the statistic we have in here, and I think it’s a little low, but it says that 70 percent of people across the country will have gigabit internet speeds available to them from cable operators.”

Some perspective on those speeds: A gigabit works out to 125 megabytes a second, or about 25 typical iTunes song downloads within the blink of an eye.

With that kind of bandwidth becoming more readily available month-to-month, cities can start thinking about implanting sensors in roads to aid autonomous vehicles, or placing smart light poles in public parks to tamp down on trespassing, or crime, after dark.

The possibilities extend far beyond that, and new uses are being discovered as cities become more familiar with the technology.

“In Washington, D.C., a system has been implemented with sensors in all of the public trash cans and of course waste management — not the company but the service — is a big deal. So, by putting these sensors in the receptacles they are able to better know when to pick up, using sort of UPS-style technology to reduce emissions save money,” Cimerman said.

“But there’s been a side benefit that’s important in a city like Washington DC: rodent control. It turns out they’re much more able to figure out where they need to take action based on where the garbage actually is,” he continued. “So, that was sort of an unintended but happy consequence of deploying sensors for waste management purposes.”

That’s Washington, but what about Florida?

Spencer, a former aide to St. Petersburg state Sen. Jeff Brandes, said the Sunshine State is unique in that it was the “second state in the country to adopt legislation on autonomous vehicles back in 2012” and “also the first state in the country to repeal a law on autonomous vehicles, basically.” That AV law was replaced with another making it legal for self-driving cars to ride down the road without a passenger on board.

“That was a that was a smart inclusion in statute back in 2014 and no one else would be paying attention aside from Representative Fisher and Senator Brandes and a few other very select members of the Legislature,” he said.

The new tech will require quite a bit of capital outlay from cities and the private sector, but Fischer said that the state government sees developing “connected communities,” including investments in getting Florida AV-ready, as a top priority.

“Eventually in a couple decades driving a vehicle is going to be like riding horses. Fun to do but you don’t do it to work,” Fischer said. “There will be another autonomous vehicles bill this Session … and there will be another Smarter Cities Challenge grant that’s modeled off of the federal grant.

“I know that our leadership is behind it on the House side, but I’m not sure about the Senate side. Senator Brandes is our champion there and hopefully we’ll get leadership to fully buy into it. We’ll have something in that space. We’re going to try to aggressively move in that direction,” he concluded.

The money for those programs has come out of the state’s general revenue fund in past years, but Spencer said another potential silo of funds, fittingly, is the state Department of Transportation budget.

“We should also be trying to take advantage of the fact that we have billions of dollars — like billions of dollars — every year in transportation infrastructure that goes through the [Metropolitan Planning Organization] process, that goes through the state process, through the work plan. There are components of that that can be that can be leveraged I think,” he said.

In addition to AV and connected communities, an “internet of things” powered by cable infrastructure could play a major role in the health care industry.

“The federal Department of Transportation had a challenge grant and Columbus Ohio won the first one. One thing that was interesting about their submission was it was not straight on, you know, transportation related, but rather it was health related,” Cimerman said. “It had to do with the number of chronic disease patients, particularly diabetics, in Columbus that had issues because they could not get to appointments on time or keep appointments partly related to the transportation system.

“So, they wrapped in sort of an interesting story and they won that first challenge grant,” he said.

Hearing set in Senate discrimination case

A federal judge has scheduled a hearing Nov. 30 in a case filed by the Florida Senate after allegations by a legislative aide that she was a victim of sexual harassment and retaliation.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle this week scheduled the hearing after canceling arguments that had been planned for Nov. 8, according to an online docket.

Legislative aide Rachel Perrin Rogers filed a discrimination complaint in January with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The Senate filed a lawsuit in Hinkle’s court seeking a preliminary injunction to block an administrative law judge from requiring the Senate’s participation in the EEOC case.

The Senate contends, in part, that it is protected by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, though EEOC lawyers are fighting the Senate on the issue.

In canceling the scheduled Nov. 8 hearing, Hinkle pointed to questions about whether he or an appeals court should consider the matter. He said he wanted to allow time for both sides to file briefs on the “jurisdiction” issue. Perrin Rogers was at the center of a sexual-harassment investigation late last year that led to the resignation of powerful Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.

Perrin Rogers alleged that Latvala harassed her, triggering the Senate to appoint a special master to investigate the accusations. The special master, former state appellate Judge Ronald Swanson, found probable cause to support Perrin Rogers’ allegations — though Latvala has steadfastly denied them.

Perrin Rogers, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, subsequently filed the EEOC complaint against the Senate, alleging in part that she faced retaliation.

New push for offshore drilling as Florida awaits recount results

As Florida waits to find out the eventual results of its recounts, the Florida Petroleum Council urges renewed consideration of offshore drilling.

The timing is interesting, as presumed Gov.-elect Ron DeSantis is opposed to the practice.

The industry group asserted potential revenue of $2.5 billion as a result of offshore leasing in the Atlantic Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.

“The projected tax revenues outlined in this new study of potential federal offshore oil and natural gas production and activity could mean substantial investments in Florida such as in areas like education and opportunities to rebuild infrastructure,” said Florida Petroleum Council Executive Director David Mica.

“This opportunity to inject one billion dollars in increased state and local revenues, coupled with the additional billions of dollars for the economies of coastal states from previous studies, is critical for any plans to help improve quality of life for Florida’s residents and the overall future of the state,” Mica added.

The industry study suggests offshore exploration “could generate additional non-bonus and royalty revenue such as personal and corporate income tax, property tax, and sales taxes. The combined associated state and local tax revenues are projected to reach nearly $155 million annually by the end of the forecast periods, according to the report.”

The timing of this study is interesting, after voters approved a Frankenstein-monster amendment to the Florida Constitution that banned offshore drilling and workplace vaping.

The industry group objected to the bundling of amendments.

Florida officials, including Gov. Rick Scott, have opposed plans by President Donald Trump’s administration to allow oil and gas drilling in federal waters beyond the nation’s outer continental shelf — a jurisdictional term describing submerged lands 10.36 statutory miles off Florida’s West Coast and three nautical miles off the East Coast.

DeSantis, in his environmental plan, said he would “utilize his unique relationship with President Trump and his administration to ensure that oil drilling never occurs off Florida’s coastlines.”

The Trump administration announced earlier this year its plans to open almost all U.S. waters to offshore drilling. The Department of the Interior’s draft five-year program for oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf proposed the largest number of potential offshore lease sales ever.

There are already measures in Florida statute that prevent oil companies from taking root on the parts of the Gulf and Atlantic coasts that fall under state jurisdiction.

The current law: “No permit to drill a gas or oil well shall be granted at a location in the tidal waters of the state, abutting or immediately adjacent to the corporate limits of a municipality or within 3 miles of such corporate limits extending from the line of mean high tide into such waters, unless the governing authority of the municipality shall have first duly approved the application for such permit by resolution.”

Special session unlikely for Ag. Commissioner concealed-weapons purview

In the bubbled world of Tallahassee, rumors started to spread before the polls closed of North Carolina-style special sessions by outgoing GOP politicos in case Democrats won statewide races.

With Nikki Fried ahead in the unofficial vote tallies for Agriculture Commissioner, such chatter intensified, especially over the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ handling of concealed-weapon licenses.

So far, however, there is no formal sign of a special session.

“There have been no plans or discussions, in any way, with respect to a special session to address any issue with the Department of Agriculture,” Fred Piccolo, a House spokesman said when asked about the issue.

Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, gave a similar response. “No. President-Designate Galvano has not been not involved in such a discussion,” Betta said.

The Senate will convene for an organization meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The House opens its organization session an hour later.

Both chambers will hold the first of six pre-session committee weeks starting Dec. 11. The 2019 Legislative Session will begin March 5.

Personnel note: Jose Oliva names Carol Gormley as chief of staff

Carol Gormley, a veteran legislative staffer, will be chief of staff to incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, according to an email sent to members by the Speaker’s Office on Wednesday.

Gormley is a highly-regarded health care policy expert who has worked for both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

She’s not a household name outside of Tallahassee, but Gormley is regarded as one of the most influential legislative bureaucrats in the Capitol.

As a House staff director, she has played an influential role in health issues such as Medicaid.

In 2012, she jumped to the Senate to be a senior policy advisor to then-Senate President Don Gaetz. More recently, she was a senior policy staffer to immediate past House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The news upends conventional wisdom that Jason Rojas had been on track to be Oliva’s chief of staff when the Miami Lakes Republican takes over as Speaker for 2018-20.

Rojas, who also has been a House staff director, moved to the Republican Party of Florida last year to serve in a policy development role that was considered a stepping stone to the Speaker’s Office.

Cabinet meeting called off

A state Cabinet meeting scheduled for next week with relatively little notice has been canceled.

The meeting was scheduled to be held Tuesday by telephone and include two Florida Power & Light power-plant projects in South Florida.

But a note on the Cabinet webpage Wednesday said, “This meeting has been canceled.”

No reason was given.

Representatives for Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The meeting was announced Monday and the agenda posted Tuesday morning.

Among the topics were plans by Florida Power & Light to build a 1,200-megawatt power plant in Broward County that has drawn opposition from the Sierra Club and a proposed FPL nuclear project at the Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade County.

Scott and the Cabinet act as a state “siting” board with authority to decide whether power-plant projects should move forward.

In 2014, they approved FPL’s plans to add two nuclear reactors at Turkey Point.

But the decision was overturned by the 3rd District Court of Appeal, as local governments argued the governor and Cabinet failed to use Miami land-development rules and erred in claiming they didn’t have authority to require transmission lines be installed underground at FPL’s expense.

Scott and the Cabinet are scheduled to meet Dec. 4.

David Simmons selected Senate President Pro Tempore

State Sen. David Simmons is primed to be the upper chamber’s second-in-command during the 2019 and 2020 Legislative Sessions.

Senate President-elect Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, on Wednesday announced his selection of the Longwood Republican to fill the role.

The Senate is expected to approve Simmons’ appointment on Tuesday, when the chamber meets for Organizational Session.

Simmons is a longtime state lawmaker, having served an eight-year stint in the state House before being elected to the Senate in 2010. During his first term in the Senate, Simmons served as Majority Whip, another leadership role.

The Pro Tempore “is responsible for ensuring we abide by the letter and spirit of the Senate Rules to ensure all Senators have the opportunity to advocate for their constituents,” Galvano wrote in a memo announcing the selection to his chamber colleagues.

“We share a love of history and an appreciation for the rules and procedures that govern the legislative process,” Galvano continued, noting Simmons previously chaired the Senate Rules Committee. “As President Pro Tempore he will ensure we maintain the high standards of fair and open civil discourse expected of the Florida Senate.”

Simmons has been a “reliable partner” in working through difficult policy issues presented to lawmakers, added Galvano.

“We have all seen David’s unmatched work ethic and tireless determination to fiercely advocate for the issues and causes he supports,” said Galvano. “However, those of us who have served with David in both the House and the Senate have also witnessed the countless occasions where he demonstrates the same tenacity and dedication when speaking up for his fellow Representatives or Senators if he feels that a colleague has been treated unfairly.”

Incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva announced his leadership team last week, along with committee assignments.

Personnel note: Chris Hudson moves up to AFP national post

A veteran of one of Florida’s most influential policy groups is going national.

Chris Hudson, state director for Americans For Prosperity-Florida, will now become AFP’s vice president of State Government Affairs. Hudson has been the group’s top Florida operative since 2014.

Skylar Zander, AFP-FL’s deputy director and chief legislative architect will become interim state director.

Hudson’s new role will be to drive national policy priorities “across the 36 states where AFP has had a permanent presence” according to a statement released Wednesday. Americans For Prosperity is the key political arm of the Koch Network; AFP-FL is its signature grassroots organization.

In Florida, Hudson played a significant part in developing a “permanent grassroots infrastructure” that included mobilizing thousands of Floridians to take action on a number of AFP issues: slowing down Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, enacting health care and education reforms (like the newly enacted Schools of Hope scholarships), as well as putting a check on government programs tagged as “corporate welfare.”

AFP-FL pressure on Florida lawmakers led to significant cuts and reforms of several incentive programs in Florida, such as film industry subsidies and taxpayer money for sports stadiums.

“I’ve learned a lot over my four years with the Florida Chapter,” Hudson says. “I’m looking forward to sharing those lessons with our teams across the country to help drive significant policy victories that promote the principles of a free and open society by reducing barriers, so all Americans can achieve their highest potential.”

Hudson also credits supporters, both locally and in Tallahassee, for “cementing AFP in their communities as a trusted resource to lawmakers and community groups.”

With such a foundation, Hudson says he is confident AFP-FL will reach “even greater heights.”

“I look forward to seeing firsthand our new and current leaders step up to lead the charge,” Hudson says.

Before his time at AFP-FL, Hudson spent three years leading government relations for public relations firm Strategic Advocacy and the Foundation for Government Accountability, a nonpartisan free-market think tank. In 2010, Hudson served as Central Florida field director for the House majority’s campaign effort, working with 20 legislative campaigns along the I-4 Corridor.

Hudson is based in Naples, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

TBARTA taps RSA Consulting, Suskey Consulting for first-ever lobbying contract

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority tapped RSA Consulting and Suskey Consulting to manage its state-level lobbying now that the agency is under new leadership and focuses more on regional transit.

The firms will try to draw down recurring state funding for the agency’s operations and identify funding for the proposed 42-mile bus rapid transit route connecting downtown St. Petersburg to Wesley Chapel along Interstate 275.

The Legislature previously approved changing TBARTA from a transportation agency narrowly focused on long-range planning and a vanpool service to a regional transit authority overseeing projects to better connect Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Pasco counties.

While the Legislature approved the shift in focus, it did not provide any operating funds on a recurring basis, which hamstrung the agency executing its new mission.

Alan Suskey, president of Suskey Consulting, said the firm has an idea of how much money they’ll seek from lawmakers in the 2019 Legislative session, but those numbers have not yet been approved.

Ron Pierce

RSA, led by veteran lobbyist Ron Pierce and includes Natalie King and Edward Briggs, and Suskey, along with his colleagues Donovan Brown and RJ Myers, also work for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit AuthorityThe TBARTA board approved the contract with the two firms last month during its regular meeting after considering the team’s success in drawing down state funds for PSTA and helping the agency land innovative new partnerships.

Pierce and Suskey helped secure $1 million in funding for PSTA to conduct a corridor study along the Clearwater Causeway evaluating the feasibility of a dedicated lane for transit. They also secured $500,000 in funding for the Central Avenue BRT route in St. Pete that will eventually connect downtown St. Pete to the Gulf beaches along First Avenues North and South.

The team was also behind the first-in-the-nation partnership between a transit agency and ride-sharing company Uber offering free rides to low-income transit users.

PSTA’s TD Late Shift allows people who are considered ‘transportation disadvantaged’ to use Uber during times when buses don’t run. The service is particularly helpful for riders who work third shifts and aren’t able to catch a bus to or from work.

“As a result of that success, TBARTA hired us to represent them in front of the Legislature,” Suskey said.

Pierce and Suskey will continue to represent PSTA in addition to its new duties with TBARTA. Suskey has an office in Pinellas County and tends to focus on matters on that side of Tampa Bay while RSA is more focused on Hillsborough County.

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