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Andy Gardiner endorses Carlos Lopez-Cantera for U.S. Senate

Carlos Lopez-Cantera has snagged the support Senate President Andy Gardiner.

The Orlando Republican announced Tuesday he was endorsing Lopez-Cantera in the U.S. Senate race. The endorsement comes about a week after House Speaker Steve Crisafulli threw his support behind the lieutenant governor.

“In Florida, Carlos has been a leader in limiting government’s influence into the lives of the everyday Floridians and the result has created less taxes, less regulation and more freedom for citizens to achieve economic independence,” said Gardiner in a statement Tuesday morning. “Carlos has a record of conservative leadership focused on delivering results, which contrasts with the empty Washington rhetoric we have become accustomed to.”

Lopez-Cantera is one of five Republicans vying for their party’s nomination to replace Sen. Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate. He’ll face Rep. David Jolly, Rep. Ron DesSantis, Todd Wilcox and Carlos Beruff in the Aug. 30 primary.

“I’ve worked with Andy for a number of years and his commitment to Florida’s success and economic freedom is going to be an incredible asset as he joins the team,” said Lopez-Cantera in a statement. “As Andy and I continue to work together on this campaign, I appreciate his efforts as we send the message to Washington that it is time for a Florida Republican in the U.S. Senate.

Jeff Brandes say his next focus will be on reforming Florida prison system

A mentally ill inmate who was in protective custody was found dead at the Columbia Correctional Institution on Tuesday, a day after a corrections officer was hospitalized in an attack.

It’s yet another black mark on Florida’s prison system, one that many say is overcrowded and underfunded. The Department of Corrections, though, insists those issues had nothing to do with the attack.

The Florida Legislature opted not to give the Department of Corrections the 734 additional positions that the agency said were necessary to make Florida’s prisons more secure during the just-concluded Legislative Session. The new jobs were part of an effort by the department to have corrections officers work eight-hour shifts instead of 12-hour shifts. The department has been reeling from a series of reports about issues such as contraband smuggling and abuse of inmates.

St. Petersburg state Sen. Jeff Brandes  says it’s time for a change in how the Legislature deals – or hasn’t dealt – with the issue. He vows to put his energy into taking a fresh look at the problem.

“We have a prison system with 100,000 prisoners in it,” he told the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon with the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation at Maestro’s restaurant in Tampa on Friday. “We have a prison system that, if you go in today as a guard, you are likely not be employed there within a year,” he said, referring to statistics that say that one-quarter of all prison guards in the state don’t last a year, and nearly a third leave within two years. He also mentioned how guards only start out making $30,000 annually, and often are recruited to work in local sheriff’s departments at considerably higher pay, sometimes with signing bonuses attached.

“We have a problem with our prison system in crisis. Our prisoners are in crisis,” he said solemnly, adding that it was crucial for lawmakers and citizens to think about “separating those who we’re scared of, from those we’re mad at.”

Other issues that came up during the forum was the fact that Governor Rick Scott‘s top legislative priority of the year – a proposal to have the Legislature fund $250 million in economic incentive cash – did not get passed this year.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee from Brandon said he supported the proposal, but said that too many other Republican lawmakers saw it as a form of choosing winners and losers, and could not get behind it.

Lee said that plan, as well as the governor’s call for a $1 billion tax cut, became less realistic once revenue estimates in January revealed that there was a $400 million reduction in general revenue from previous estimates. Added on was the state’s loss of funding for the Low Income Pool, or LIP, a joint state-federal program that helps some hospitals and clinics pay for treating uninsured and under-insured patients.

“Unless we come up with another way to draw down federal money, hospitals in the state of Florida are going to continue to be on their own, and we’re going to continue to have to invest GR (general revenue) money,” the Brandon Republican said. He added that another potential source of money faded with the inability to get a gaming compact signed this year.

“Frankly, we just didn’t have a billion dollars,” he said.

Tampa GOP Rep. Dana Young, who is now running for the newly created state Senate District 18 seat in Hillsborough County, once again expressed disdain at an unidentified state senator who she said singlehandedly thwarted a bill that would have provided a regulatory framework for ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft.

“It passed the House unanimously, so I just want you to know, it wasn’t ‘the Legislature,’ it wasn’t us not doing our jobs, it was a procedural issue and that is something that could have saved a lot of trouble here in Hillsborough County, a lot of drivers getting tickets, and I just wanted you to know the rest of the story.”

During the Session, Uber specifically put the onus on Senate President Andy Gardiner for the bill’s lack of progress in the Senate.

And Tampa Rep. Janet Cruz made a pitch for more funding for community colleges, generating cheers from the business community. “This is your work force,” she said, specifically alluding to Hillsborough Community College, which did receive $65 million from the Legislature. “These are the people who live in Tampa, and stay in Tampa that will go from HCC to USF and stay at home and help their families. So that’s an area where we can do better.”

Andy Gardiner expects Democrats to make some gains in 2016 state elections

Outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner conceded Thursday that the presidential election, the possible “Trump effect,” and other issues likely will lead to Democrats making gains in the Florida Legislature elections this fall.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, told the Tiger Bay Club of Central Florida that he is confident the GOP will retain its majority in the Senate but that this year voters appear to be looking at experience as a liability.

“I certainly don’t see the Florida Senate flipping Democratic, but I do think there are some seats they are going to pick up here in Central Florida, potentially, and some seats they will pick up,” Gardiner said. “What that number is, I don’t know.”

Gardiner, Orlando Democratic state Sen. Geraldine Thompson, Orlando Republican state Rep. Mike Miller, and Orlando Democratic state Rep. Randolph Bracy all gave their views Thursday on what they all agreed was a far more productive and far less combative Florida Legislative session in 2016 than the one last year.

But Gardiner and Thompson, who are leaving the Senate, also looked ahead.

The two were responding to a question about whether the “Trump effect” – a wave of anti-establishment voters following Donald Trump – would affect the Florida elections. Gardiner said he expects experience to potentially be a liability for candidates this year, but also said any presidential year could be tough, though he noted plenty of Republicans won in districts carried by President Barack Obama in 2012.

“I think it’s not just the ‘Trump effect,” said Thompson, who is running for Congress rather than for re-election. ” I think it’s also Fair Districts, and the redistricting now that makes competitive seats out of what had for a long time not been competitive. There are projections in the Florida Senate the Democrats could pick up four additional seats.”

She cautioned that money will favor Republicans and could play a big role.

But she added, “I think there are possibilities, and I think Fair Districts is the reason for that.”

The comments came in a wide-ranging discussion that and the quartet express mostly satisfaction for results of the past session, and assessments of what passed, what died, and what likely would come back next year.

Gardiner predicted that the Seminole Tribe’s gambling compact blackjack provision would be back next year. He expressed frustration that this year the deal Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration had negotiated with the Seminoles got weighed down with issues of tax reductions for parimutuel outfits, notably race tracks.

He thought there might be a good chance that Florida could take up Medicaid expansion again next year, seeking a federal block grant to fund a plan similar to the one he championed in the Florida Senate in 2016.

He said he expected the guns on campus and open-carry proposals to return, though he didn’t sound disappointed that they died this year when Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla decided he would not hear them in the Senate Judiciary Committee he chaired.

“What I tried to do with my chairs is, I empowered them to make decisions. And when it came to guns on campus and open carry, my chairman, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla out of Miami, had a different view on it,” Gardiner said. “I wouldn’t have been criticized if I said, ‘Miguel you have to hear that bill.’ But that’s not how ran the Senate.”

He was less enthusiastic about the prospects of a bill to incentivize the movie industry to film in Florida, an initiative that Miller championed. He and Miller both agreed that financial incentives are out of favor in the Florida House.

“I do give Rep. Miller a lot of credit on that. He fought the good fight, and unfortunately we’re just heading in a different direction right now,” Gardiner said.

Mural

Still no decision on Florida Senate’s “Five Flags Mural”

With work well underway on renovations of the Florida Senate chamber, there’s still no word on the fate of the decades-old mural that greets visitors to the chamber’s fifth floor public gallery.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said Tuesday no final decision has been made about the artwork’s future. This past October, Betta said the mural will be taken down because it’s showing signs of age, including fading and peeling.

The “Five Flags Mural” also happens to depict a Confederate flag, which the Senate previously voted to remove from its official seal and insignia. Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa had explained that the flag is a “painful symbol of oppression.”

The name of the mural refers to the five flags that have flown over the state: U.S., Confederate, Spanish, French, and British.

The flag is over the shoulder of Gen. Joseph Finnegan, commander of the Confederate forces at the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in north Florida, the largest Civil War battle fought in the state.

It’s not yet clear whether the 10-foot-by-16 foot painting can be relocated, though Senate President Andy Gardiner is committed to preserving it, Betta said.

“Our construction managers have been seeking input from art preservation specialists to determine the best way of removing the mural,” she said. It’s been in place since the Capitol opened its doors in 1978.

It’s still “unclear if we will be able to remove the mural from the wall, or if the wall will need to be removed in pieces with the mural still attached,” Betta added.

Tallahassee attorney Jeff Howell, who led an informal drive to save the mural, had written to Gardiner last year that the work should be “preserved and moved to a place where it can continue to be viewed by Floridians.”

On Tuesday, Howell said he never received a response. “When we have more information regarding (the mural) component of the project, the Senate will reach out to those who have expressed interest” in it, Betta said.

Senate President Pro Tem Garrett Richter, the Naples Republican who leads the Senate’s Chamber Renovations Working Group, couldn’t be immediately reached by telephone.

The mural’s artist, Renee Faure, also could not be reached Tuesday morning. She previously told FloridaPolitics.com she found it “quite hard to believe that this defacement of artwork is being considered,” referring to its removal.

The Senate now is redoing its chamber, which has not been renovated since the building’s construction in the 1970s.

The nearly $5 million renovation, expected to be complete before the end of the year, includes a new ceiling dome and other design elements similar to the exterior of the Old Capitol, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum with the words “In God We Trust.”

House, Senate Republicans to hold fundraiser at Universal Orlando

How do you celebrate the end of a Legislative Session?

If you’re Florida House and Senate Republicans, you do it with a fundraiser at Universal Orlando.

Republican leaders will hold a fundraiser at Universal Orlando on April 9 and 10. The event, first reported by POLITICO Florida reporter Matt Dixon, will benefit the House and Senate Majority Committees, which oversee legislative campaigns.

Among those listed as headliners is Rep. Chris Sprowls, the Pinellas County Republican who may be the House Speaker beginning in 2021.

Last week, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, an Orlando Republican, conceded the 2021 House Speaker race to Sprowls. The move came after state Reps. Paul Renner and Mike Miller said they would support Sprowls. Several other of his colleagues tweeted their support for Sprowls after Renner and Miller flipped.

Sprowls is one of seven House and Senate Republican leaders headlining the event.

Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran and future Speaker Jose Oliva will represent the House leadership team, while Senate President Andy Gardiner, Speaker Designate Joe Negron, and Majority Leader Bill Galvano will represent the Senate leadership team.

Rick Scott says he’ll veto more than $250 million from state budget

Florida Gov. Rick Scott took a pre-emptive strike Tuesday, saying he plans to veto more than $250 million in projects when lawmakers send him the fiscal 2016-17 budget.

The move comes just days after the Legislature voted overwhelmingly — 40-0 in the Senate and 119-1 in the House — to approve the $82.3 billion spending plan. The proposal hasn’t officially been sent to Scott for his signature and vetoes.

“I will be signing this budget into law as soon as the Florida Legislature delivers it to me and withholding approval for approximately $265.1 million in projects that do not provide a significant return on taxpayer investment,” said the Naples Republican in a statement Tuesday.

The 2016-17 budget includes $20.2 billion for K-12 public school education, boosting per-student funding to $7,718; $1 billion for the Department of Children and Families to put toward mental health and substance abuse treatment services; and $10.7 million for Florida’s crime laboratories to eliminate the state’s rape testing kit backlog.

“During the Legislative Session, the House and Senate brought forth and passed, with overwhelming bipartisan support, a good budget that serves the needs of Floridians and creates an environment where businesses can thrive. I am grateful for Governor Scott’s thoughtful review and I believe he has used his veto in a prudent and fair manner,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli in a statement. “This budget accomplishes two of Governor Scott’s most important priorities; record funding for education and $1 billion in tax relief in the past two years. Governor Scott’s leadership allowed us to reach that goal. I look forward to the Governor’s final approval of the budget in the weeks to come.”

The veto list is significantly smaller than last year, when the governor vetoed $461 million. Still, the six-page veto list includes dozens of local projects, including millions of projects in the Tampa Bay area.

Among the Tampa Bay projects expected to see the veto pen: $100,000 for the Hillsborough Healthy Start Coalition; $500,000 for the Hillsborough County Fair; $250,000 for the East County Regional Service/Resources Center and $250,000 for the Pinellas Education Foundation Career Path Planning.

The governor signaled he plans to veto $11 million set aside for construction of the Pasco-Hernando State College Performing Arts Education Center and $3 million for the Hillsborough Community College South Shore Campus.

Tampa Bay projects that weren’t cut from the budget? It looks like $1 million for a $10 million renovation of the Tampa Theatre will stay in the budget; as well as $2 million for Ruth Eckerd Hall renovations and $1 million each for repairs at the Lowry Park Zoo and a dolphin pool at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

“I applaud Governor Scott for his leadership and for performing his constitutional role so diligently. The state budget emerges from a process of conflict, debate, negotiation and compromise,” said House Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran in a statement. “Although I do not agree with every decision he has made, the Governor’s vetoes provide an important check on the budget process. They serve as a reminder to the Legislature that, no matter how good our final product, we can always do better. I look forward to working with Governor Scott over the next two years, and I know that together we will continue to produce better, smarter and leaner budgets.”

The governor does not appear poised to cut $7 million in new police radios or $20 million for the University of Central Florida’s downtown Orlando campus.

“We appreciate Governor Scott’s expeditious review of the budget and respect his ability to utilize his line-item veto authority. This work product passed the House and Senate with a level of overwhelming bipartisan support even greater than we have seen in recent years,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner in a statement. “We are pleased to see the Governor tentatively sign off on so many of the important priorities reflected in this legislation. His initial review appears very fair and we look forward to his final approval.”

Scott spent Monday on a 5-city tour where he claimed legislative victory, despite seeing his 2016 legislative priorities failing. The governor called on lawmakers to create a $250 million economic incentive fund, but legislators rejected that proposal. The Naples Republican also pushed for $1 billion in tax cuts, but House and Senate leaders slashed that proposal to $129 million in the waning days of the 2016 session.

Staff writers Ryan Ray, Mitch Perry, A.G. Gancarski and Scott Powers contributed to this report.

Property Casualty Insurers “disappointed” by failure to pass ride-sharing regulation

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said it was disappointed lawmakers capped off the 2016 Legislative Session without passing insurance regulations for Uber and Lyft drivers.

“Twenty-nine other states have passed legislation addressing insurance coverage requirements for TNCs, and it is past time for Florida to do the same,” the group said in a Friday email. “PCI will continue to work with lawmakers on a solution for 2017 so that this is the last year rideshare drivers and passengers operate without the necessary protections in place.”

PCI’s sentiment echoes that of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, which also issued a statement Friday lamenting the failure of SB 1118 and HB 509 this session.

Both bills cleared their committee stops, and HB 509 even passed through the full House by a 108-to-10 vote, though neither bill was heard on the Senate floor.

The trade group, comprised of nearly 1,000 member companies, said that “drivers and their passengers need to know their personal auto policy will not cover them if they are injured or if the vehicle is damaged in an accident.”

Still, PCI thanked Sen. David Simmons and Rep. Matt Gaetz, who sponsored the bills, as well as House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, primarily seen as Uber and Lyft’s biggest opponent in the Legislature

Uber legislation finally flames out

A compromise between Republican lawmakers and ride-hailing firms like Uber was on thin ice Friday afternoon as Session raced to a close, until finally, the bill hit a brick wall.

Sen. David Simmons, the Senate Rules Chair, had worked on the bill (SB 1118) for months. It would have mandated minimum commercial insurance requirements for drivers with Uber and similar app-based companies, known as “transportation network companies” in Capitol-ese.

The House — which favors a more Uber-friendly approach — passed its own bill (HB 509) last month that addressed insurance but also included a provision that is anathema in the Senate: Blocking local authorities, such as the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, from regulating the services and instead reserving that power to the state.

The two sides, with Uber at the wheel on behalf of the House, engaged in a heated and increasingly personal battle.

Simmons said he met “hours upon hours” with Uber, Lyft, and taxicab companies, insurers, and made “massive amounts of attempts” to come up with language that worked for all. It didn’t happen.

Uber made a last-ditch campaign urging the Senate to take up the House language via a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes. They even went so far as to deliver a three-feet-high stack of some 32,000 petition signatures to the desk of Senate President Andy Gardiner on Thursday, but to no avail.

In the end, after Sine Die, neither Simmons’ nor Brandes’ bill passed the Senate.

Meanwhile, the state of Florida continues to operate on a patchwork basis with some local governments allowing so-called “ride-sharing” apps, and other prohibiting or limiting it.

The issue is practically guaranteed to come back in Tallahassee next year.

Lawmakers poised to approve nearly $82.3 billion budget

Putting behind a year’s worth of rancor, the Florida Legislature on Friday will approve a more than $82.3 billion budget that includes a slight boost in money for schools but also rejects many of Gov. Rick Scott‘s main priorities.

Just a few months ago the Republican-controlled Legislature was rushing to pass a budget to avoid a state government shutdown. This time the House and Senate put together a spending plan for this year that increases the state budget by about 5 percent without the arguing and finger-pointing that had consumed most of 2015. The vote guarantees that legislators end their session on time.

Along the way, though, legislators forged a budget that ignored much of what the GOP governor wanted. They shot down his bid for a $250 million fund to lure new companies to the state. Scott’s tax cut package, a centerpiece of his 2014 re-election bid, was scaled back significantly. Instead of using a budget surplus to give tax cuts largely to businesses, legislative leaders instead steered money to a small trim in local property taxes.

Both Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli insisted that their approach was a reaction to recent news that showed that Florida’s economic recovery may be faltering and that tax collections aren’t growing as robustly as once forecast.

“There’s a reality to how much money you have available and the resources you have and we had to recognize that,” Crisafulli said this week.

There are other places that legislators also bucked Scott. They agreed to borrow money in order to set aside more than $700 million in school construction projects. Florida in the past would routinely borrow money for building projects, but they had stopped because of  continued opposition from Scott.

Crisafulli defended the practice, saying that it makes sense to use bond proceeds for construction with interest rates so low. Still the move could risk a veto from Scott, who last year slashed nearly $500 million from the budget before signing it into law.

Democrats have usually been sharply critical of the annual budget. But this year they said they would vote for the budget to “send a message” to Scott. That means that the Republican-controlled Legislature should have enough votes to override Scott in case he vetoes the budget or spending items within it. It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

“We have a governor who refuses to govern and that has enabled us to cross party lines,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat.

Some legislators, however, said there are shortcomings in the budget. They complained it doesn’t include an across-the-board pay raise for state workers or boost spending enough in Florida’s troubled prisons system. A push by Florida’s prison chief to hire enough correctional officers to switch from a 12-hour shift to an 8-hour shift was not approved by budget negotiators.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, a North Florida Republican who is leaving his office because of term limits, harshly criticized GOP leaders for refusing to set aside more money for state workers and prison employees.

“We have the money, but we are cheating our employees,” Van Zant said.

Despite saying they didn’t have money for pay raises, legislators still spread throughout the budget tens of millions for hometown projects. Some of the same projects were vetoed by Scott last year, leading to rampant speculation that legislative leaders may have already agreed to override Scott. Crisafulli and Gardiner have continued to insist they don’t have any agreement on overrides.

“There’s going to be things in there the governor doesn’t like, there’s going to be things in there the governor likes,” Crisafulli said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Hillary Clinton pressures Rick Scott to “do the right thing” on abortion rights

It’s been a very Florida-centric day for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Clinton press shop has sent out reminders of Bernie Sanders‘ comments from 1985 on Cuba and Nicaragua, popular points of defense among the left at the time.

However, most of Clinton’s push has been about 2016 issues. And in her sights: Florida Gov. Rick Scott, as a few Tweets, signed “H” so you know they are from her, indicate.

At issue: the Governor potentially signing into law House Bill 1411, which includes several provisions that critics say will limit Florida women’s ability to access abortion care.

“States like Ohio, Utah, and Florida that attack Planned Parenthood are attacking women’s health, and they’re part of a dangerous trend. … If efforts to roll back women’s rights seem relentless, you’re right: States have enacted 282 abortion restrictions since 2010. … , all eyes are on you. Buck the trend: Do the right thing and protect a woman’s right to make her own health decisions.”

Including Ohio in the mix, another big March 15 primary state, is no accident; it reminds the Clinton base where she has been on the abortion issue since the beginning.

Bernie Sanders tweeted along similar lines on Wednesday, reports our Mitch Perry.

As is typical, Scott has not comment on whether he supports this bill. Clearly, only a veto would satisfy Secretary Clinton.

That would put him at odds with the Legislature, including Senate President Andy Gardiner.

“It was mentioned earlier that over the last 16 years, it seems like every year we do a pro-life bill,” Gardiner said.

“I’m leaving and I’m glad we did that.”

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