Andy Gardiner Archives - Page 7 of 35 - Florida Politics

Orlando’s theme park companies pour at least $2.77 million into state politics

Orlando’s theme park behemoths – mostly Walt Disney companies – have already poured $2.77 million into campaign and political committees and parties for this election cycle so far, preferring Republicans by almost 3 to 1 over Democrats.

Disney, as usual, leads the way, with a combination of cash and in-kind services (typically providing tickets or opening theme parks or other Disney facilities to party events) worth $2.4 million in political contributions, according to campaign finance reports through Jan. 31, filed with the Florida Division of Elections.

Various Disney entities have poured in almost $1.5 million to the Republican Party of Florida, Republican candidates and Republican political action committees, according to the reports. Disney gave Democrats $560,000, and contributed another $339,000 to nonpartisan political action committees.

Various companies affiliated with Universal Parks & Resorts donated $247,000 to Republicans, $43,000 to Democrats, and $41,000 to nonpartisan PACs.

SeaWorld companies were frugal compared with its Orlando theme park counterparts, providing $23,000 to Republicans, $7,500 to Democrats and $7,600 to nonpartisan groups. All SeaWorld donations were in cash.

Busch Gardens in Tampa provided almost no political contributions. examined reports listed for the entire election cycle. For state Senate campaigns, that dates back to the start of 2013. For all others, the contributions date from the beginning of 2015.

The theme park companies use various corporate entities to sponsor political contributions. For example, Disney contributions come from such varied companies as Disney Worldwide Services Inc., Walt Disney Parks & Resorts U.S. Inc., Walt Disney Travel Co., Disney Destinations LLC, and Disney Vacation Development Inc. among others.

Most of Disney’s contributions to Democrats came through in-kind donations, providing services worth $370,000 total to the Florida Democratic Party, covering five different occasions.

Disney also provided in-kind services to Gov. Rick Scott‘s Let’s Get To Work PAC, valued at $252,000, and to the Republican Party of Florida, worth $155,000.

Disney’s total contributions to the Republican Party of Florida have totaled $544,000, and to the Florida Democratic Party, $467,000.

Disney also gave $125,000 to Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam‘s PAC Florida Grown PC; $75,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee led by state Senate President Andy Gardiner; $70,000 to state Sen. Bill Galvano‘s PAC Innovate Florida; state Sen. Wilton Simpson‘s PAC Jobs for Florida $55,000; and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli‘s PAC Growing a Sustainable Future, $37,000. Disney gave at least $10,000 to seven other PACs associated with Republican state office holders. Two Democrats’ PACs also got money: State Rep. Jared Moskowitz‘s Floridians for Practical Solutions got $10,000, and state Sen. Darren Soto‘s Sun PAC got $5,000.

Universal companies contributed $147,000 to the RPOF, $49,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, and $32,000 to the Florida Democratic Party. State Sen. Jack Latvala‘s Florida Leadership Committee got $7,500, as the only lawmaker’s PAC to get at least $5,000.

SeaWorld gave $5,000 each to the Florida Democratic Party, the Republican Party of Florida and the FRP PAC, and $2,500 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Its other political contributions were all of $1,000 or less.

Senate unanimously passes job training bill for Floridians with disabilities

A bill aiming to help Floridians with disabilities find work and get job training passed through the full Senate Thursday with a unanimous vote.

Senate Bill 962, sponsored by Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, requires the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, or VR, to come up with an improvement plan by Oct. 1 that lays out steps for making the program one of the top 10 in the nation.

The federal-state program helps disabled individuals find and maintain work and also provides services such as vocational evaluation, career guidance and on-the-job training.

The legislation is part of the “cradle to career” package of bills, a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, that seek to help Floridians with disabilities achieve economic independence.

“To have a complete cradle-to-career pathway to economic independence, we need to maximize opportunities for people with disabilities to gain skills that will enable them to utilize their own unique abilities in meaningful careers,” Gardiner said. “I’m pleased to see the Senate support this important legislation that will ensure our Division of VR sets specific goals and measures annual progress towards those goals.”

The bill now heads to the House, where Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen filed the companion, HB 1359.

Legislature divided over budget, tax cuts

Separated by nearly $1 billion in spending and differences over everything from tax cuts to health care spending, the Florida Legislature has less than a month left in its regular session to reach a deal on a new state budget.

Although Republican legislators stress they won’t have a repeat of infighting that marred their negotiations last year, they conceded that it will require some major compromises to end the session by March 11.

The final decision on the state budget could wind up affecting everything from how much money teachers get in the coming year to whether the state has a back-to-school sales tax holiday this summer.

“Now is the time where the pressure points, the decision points, are here,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican. “There are going to be some tough decisions. There will be stuff that won’t make it.”

Last year GOP legislators split over Medicaid expansion and wound up passing a budget just days before a potential state government shutdown.

Both the House and Senate on Thursday passed their rival spending plans. The Senate budget totals nearly $81 billion, while the House version is just under $80 billion.

And though portions of both budgets are aligned, fault lines exist on school spending, economic development and tax cuts. Both sides also have refused to endorse key parts of Gov. Rick Scott‘s budget recommendations, which could complicate a final resolution.

The House has pared its budget with a tax cut package that includes a 10-day back-to-school tax holiday and single-day tax holidays for the purchases of guns, computers and cellphones.

But the biggest part of the package is a cut in the tax charged on rent paid by businesses. The package totals about $350 million in the coming year, but the price tag grows to nearly $1 billion over the next two-and-a-half years.

Senate Republicans, however, remain wary of deep tax cuts, citing a volatile stock market and a softening national economy that could affect the state’s tourism industry.

Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chairman, said it would be “fiscally irresponsible” to pass a $1 billion tax cut package as Scott has proposed. He said to do so could force legislators to enact tax hikes in two to three years.

Senate leaders are also floating an idea that instead of passing business-targeted tax cuts they put more state money into public schools. That would allow local school districts to slightly trim property taxes they charge.

Another key difference: The Senate has set aside $250 million for a fund that Scott wants to use to lure new businesses to the state. The House has refused so far to agree to any amount. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said he wants an agreement first on how the money will be parceled out.

Scott, talking to reporters Thursday, contended that he would wind up getting his priorities passed.

“I’m very comfortable we are going to have a good end,” Scott said.

The Senate and House votes came after two days of questioning, amendments and sometimes harsh debate. Though the Senate passed its budget by a 40-0 vote, the House vote was 85-29, with many Democrats voting against the bill.

Democrats were sharply critical of a provision included in the House budget that would prohibit health care providers from using state money to contract with Planned Parenthood to provide services. They also faulted the budget for failing to eliminate waiting lists for state services and for failing to include a pay raise for state workers.

“It doesn’t go far enough to actually have an impact on working and middle class families,” said Rep. Edwin Narain, a Tampa Democrat.

Senate approves first responders’ survivors’ benefit bill honoring Orange County deputy

Two years ago Thursday Orange County Deputy Sheriff Jonathan “Scott” Pine was gunned down while pursuing a suspect. On Wednesday the Florida Senate did all it could to make sure his surviving family – and others – won’t have to wait another year for financial security.

The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 7012, which would increase survivors’ benefits for spouses and children of first responders who are killed in the line of duty.

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives. The Senate sent it over with as strong a message as it could muster that senators want to see this bill approved as soon as possible and enacted this year. They want it to avoid the fate a similar measure met last year after the Senate passed it but the House failed to take it up before the 2015 session abruptly ended in chaos.

This time, at the request of the sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring of Margate, all 40 senators signed on at the last minute as co-sponsors.

“For me personally it was the low point of last year when the session ended early,” Ring said. “I hope we can make a very strong showing on this bill as it goes over to our friends on the other side.”

Then all voted yea.

“Thank you, Senator Ring,” Senate President Andy Gardiner said. Then he looked into the gallery at Pine’s widow, Bridget Pine, nodded and waved to her, and added, “Thank you.”

Pine had opted for the state’s investment benefit plan and had just three years of service at the time of his slaying, so his contributions left little for his wife and three children, Haley, now 7; Ryker, 6; and Maddox, 3.

SB 7012 allows the surviving spouses and children of first responders killed in the line of duty to opt into the Florida Retirement System pension plan, and the bill increases the survivors’ benefits in that plan from 50 percent of the member’s monthly salary at the time of death to 100 percent.

While Ring and the Senate Committee on Governmental Oversight and Accountability sponsored the bill, it was strongly pushed by Orange County’s delegation, including Republican Gardiner of Orlando.

“This is still an open wound in our community back home,” said Democratic Sen. Darren Soto, of Orlando. “It was a tragedy that was across the front page not only because of Deputy Pine’s bravery but the injustice of what happened with the pension system. The Pine family was left with next to nothing, when if he had the other, defined benefit it would have been a robust benefit plan for his wife and three children.”

Democratic Sen. Geraldine Thompson, of Orlando, said, “This will go a long way toward assuring that the Pine family, the children, will have a future that reflects the service he gave to the state of Florida.”

Uber launches petition drive to urge Senate to pass ride-booking legislation

Want your state senator to support ride-booking legislation?

Don’t worry, there’s a petition for that.

On Thursday, Uber launched a statewide petition drive to urge Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and the Florida Senate to pass ride-booking legislation. The push comes about a week after the Florida House passed a bill (HB 509) that creates a regulatory framework for transportation network companies, like Uber.

“Well over a million Floridians rely on the Uber platform, a bipartisan supermajority in the Florida House of Representatives passed a sensible statewide regulatory framework for ride-sharing, and Governor Scott has expressed his support for a bill that would help Florida maintain its competitive edge,” Uber spokesman Bill Gibbons said. “It’s time for the Florida Senate to act and take up the House ride-sharing legislation on behalf of their constituents.”

The House legislation gives regulatory power to ride-booking services to the state, cutting out local bodies. It also requires auto insurance of at least $1 million for “death, bodily injury and property damage” while the driver is giving a ride.

A Senate bill (SB 1118) sets insurance standards for drivers. That measure passed the Senate banking and insurance committee on Jan. 19.

Legislature wants to be dropped from federal redistricting lawsuit

The Republican-led Florida Legislature is asking a federal judge to dismiss the House and Senate from an ongoing lawsuit challenging the state’s congressional map.

Lawyers for the House and Senate filed the request Tuesday. The state Supreme Court last month approved a new map for Florida’s 27 congressional districts that will result in changes to the state’s political landscape.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner said he does not see a reason for the Legislature to defend the court ruling.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown has filed a lawsuit that contends her new district violates federal voting laws and diminishes the voting clout of minorities. The new map shifts the district of the Jacksonville Democrat from one that runs north-south to one that stretches westward to Tallahassee.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has asked that the lawsuit be dismissed.

Senate committee passes 2 key bills expanding health care access

Bills that would iron out rules for direct primary care contracts and encourage healthcare companies to give free health care to low-income Floridians passed the Senate Committee on Health Policy Monday.

SB 1144, sponsored by Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, would allow new medical facilities to bypass a lengthy review process known as “certificate of need” if they commit to giving free health care to low-income patients.

“This regulatory framework promotes access to care, while protecting safety net providers from unfair competition,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner. “Senator Gaetz’s legislation eliminates this burdensome process as long as facilities provide or fund a threshold level of charity care to low-income, uninsured residents.”

Under the bill, companies would need to give 1.5 percent of a new facility’s first-year profits to the Agency for Health Care Administration, and would have to match the area average for free health care from the facility’s second year and onward.

The committee also voted for a bill by Sebring Republican Sen. Denise Grimsley, SB 132, that clears up rules surrounding “direct primary care” – an arrangement where patients or their employers pay physicians a monthly fee for regular checkups and necessary care, rather than involving an insurance company.

“We know how important basic primary care is to our overall health, and we want to make sure more people can afford to purchase these services from a doctor they know and trust, rather than in a hospital emergency room when they are at their sickest and most vulnerable,” Gardiner said.

The bill would require direct primary care agreements to be in writing, specify what services are included in the contract and make clear that it is not a replacement for health insurance, among other provisions.

SB 132 is similar to HB 37, sponsored by Port Orange Republican Rep. Fred Costello. That bill made it through its last committee stop on Jan. 27 and is ready for a floor vote in the House.

Grimsley’s bill now moves to the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, chaired by Fort Myers Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, while SB 1144 is heading to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, led by Hialeah Republican Sen. Rene Garcia.

Darren Soto running in interwoven race for 9th Congressional District

Darren Soto was the first person of Puerto Rican heritage to be elected to the Florida Senate. The Orlando Democrat, a commercial and civil rights attorney, is now working to become the first in the U.S. Congress from Florida by winning the 9th Congressional District

But he has an array of competing Democrats with more intertwining connections and angles in Central Florida politics than the party game “Twister.” Also, two Republicans are running for the seat.

Soto, 37, has been able to take advantage of the increasing presence of Democratic voters in the district located between Orlando and Winter Haven. There also is a growing number of Puerto Rican residents in Central Florida. Unlike others of Hispanic descent just coming to the United States, Puerto Ricans are already U.S. citizens and eligible to vote.

Until the recent economic crises in that Island commonwealth, however, most people of Puerto Rican descent came from the Northeast.

“They mostly are New York Ricans or New Jersey Ricans,” Soto joked. “I am a New Jersey Rican myself.”

Born in Ringwood, N. J., February 25, 1978, to Puerto Rican father, O. Lou Soto, and an Italian-American mother, Jean Soto, an adult Soto moved to Florida in 2001 with his family after receiving a degree in economics from Rutgers University in 2000. He received his law degree from George Washington University in 2004.

As a law intern in Orlando, he said he had already decided he liked the community and stayed. A senior partner in his law firm told him he needed to get involved in the Community.

“I joined the Democratic Party Executive Committee, an adult kickball team and up until about a year ago, I played guitar in a band, the Orange Creek Riders, but with the run for Congress I haven’t been able to play with them,” he said.

In addition to commercial law, Soto took up civil rights cases and has taken on several pro bono cases in the community. He represented clients in a 2006, federal class action suit against the City of Kissimmee concerning Hispanic voting rights.

In 2006, the Orange County Democratic Party had one promising candidate running for the Florida Legislature, Scott Randolph. None of the Republicans representing the general Orlando area were being challenged, so to take away some GOP money that might have gone to opposing Randolph’s campaign, several Democrats decided to challenge the Republican legislators and tie up the GOP’s money.

Soto ran against the incumbent Republican House member in District 40 and lost as did other Democratic challengers, but the strategy worked, and Randolph won his election to the House.

Ironically, the Republican incumbent Soto lost to was Andy Gardiner, the current president of the Florida Senate.

In 2007, less than a year after losing, Soto ran in a special election for a seat left vacant by Rep. John Quinones, Kissimmee Republican, who resigned to run successfully for the Osceola County Commission.

In 2012, Soto successfully ran for the newly created 14th Senate District after redistricting.

On the subject of now working in the Senate led by Gardner, his one-time opponent, Soto said “We work well together. “I have made it a habit both in my law practice and in the Legislature to work with the other side.”

In a recent newspaper “report card” Soto received a B+ for bipartisanship.

He attributes his success in getting bills passed in a Republican-controlled Legislature to his work in civil rights and commercial law.

“Primarily in my legal career I have been constantly in negotiations,” he said.

Soto’s ability at working across the aisle even on such liberal issues as gay and lesbian protections in the workplace and working to defeat attempts to convert Florida
to nonjudicial foreclosures and the split of the state Supreme Court are borne out by a friend, Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat.

“I am a New York Rican myself,” Cortes quipped. “Believe me, you need to stay focused (in the Legislature), but at the same time not take everything too seriously and he does that well.”

Soto was Cortes’ attorney and had encouraged him to run for mayor of Kissimmee, losing in the runoff, Cortes won a seat in the Florida House in 2014.

“He can be intense when needed, but he also can be easy going and (both) get things done,” Cortes said.

In May of 2013, Soto married Amanda Betlow, an Orange County schoolteacher.

“I suppose you might call that another incident of bipartisanship,” he said with a laugh. “I met Amanda on a blind date, set up by a friend Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler, who is a Republican.”

Soto has passed bills including the Street Racing Act, the Firefighter Death Benefit Bill (inspired by the death of Volusia County firefighter John C. Curry), and the Bus Driver Notification Bill with bipartisan support.

Florida’s 9th Congressional District contains parts of Orange and Polk Counties and all of Osceola County.

It is generally accepted to be a solidly Democratic District. It has been held by U.S. Rep Alan Grayson since he was elected to the then-redrawn district in 2012. Grayson has left the district seat open because he is running for the U.S. Senate.

The winner of the Aug. 30 Democratic Primary in the 9th Congressional District almost certainly will be the next member of Congress.

Because of that, the district has become an extremely competitive seat with some rather weird twists; a case of six degrees of political separation on steroids.

Six Democrats including Soto are running for the seat; several are heavy hitters. While Soto had raised the most campaign funds in the last reporting period of $340,237, Susannah Randolph, of Orlando, field director for Grayson and wife of Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph, had raised $293,835.

Her husband, the tax collector, is the candidate in 2006 for whom Soto and others “took one for the team” so he could be elected to the Florida House. Randolph left the Legislature in 2012 to successfully run for tax collector.

Dr. Dena Marie Minning, a physician and biochemist-researcher, who lives in South Orange County and who the Orlando Sentinel has reported as having a romantic relationship with Grayson, had raised $150,435.

Grayson, who is friends with Soto and posted his successes in the Congressional Record, of course, has made no endorsements in the race.

Former Rep. Ricardo Rangel of Kissimmee had raised $27,524, yet Soto defeated Rangel in the 2007 special election Democratic primary which first placed Soto into the Legislature.

Rangel was elected to a new Florida House district in 2012 but was defeated for re-election in 2014 by John Cortes, one of Soto’s closest friends.

The other two Democrats in the race are Osceola Democratic Party Chair Valerie Crabtree, who had raised $27,825 and Jason Borders of St. Cloud with $182.

Two Republicans are running for the seat as well. The GOP candidate with the most money raised for the campaign had $8,550.

Soto and Randolph appear to be the closest competitors both regarding the endorsement competition and in money raised.

But he said he is not worried about the heavy competition.

“Seventy percent of my Senate District is in the 9th Congressional District. I have greater name recognition than any other candidate for the Democratic Primary.’’

Senate budget eliminates direct funding for youth mentoring

State Sen. Joe Negron, a former budget panel chief, told his colleagues last month in an acceptance speech for his upcoming Senate presidency that the state must do more for its troubled children and teens.

“We should not and we will not tolerate serious wrongdoing by young people but, at the same time, let’s not criminalize adolescence,” he said, according to the Senate Journal’s version.

Most experts agree that after-school mentoring programs, such as those offered by Big Brothers Big Sisters, are effective at helping kids, especially those at risk, to succeed in school and develop social skills.

But the Florida Senate, in its proposed $80.9 billion budget for next year, seemingly has gone to a “dog-eat-dog” approach, telling the state’s mentoring programs that to get funding, they’ll have to fight for it among themselves.

The Senate budget, released Friday afternoon, essentially zeroes out funding for individual providers and instead creates a $30 million “competitive grants” program where organizations will have to apply.

Under the Senate plan, money will be awarded by a committee of members appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Andy Gardiner, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, and could include Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and other top officials.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the Education Appropriations Subcommittee, was unavailable for an interview, his assistant said.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta provided a statement from Gaetz: “The grant process is designed so worthy groups can be funded on the basis of their value to children and their results. Our committee is recommending more money in this fund than the total funded for these purposes in the past. (It is) a fairer process based on evaluation of results, not dependent on lobbyists, and (provides) more money for these worthy causes.”

In a Tuesday hearing, Gaetz warned the nonprofits that before they issue calls to “go to the Capitol and burn the place down,” they should realize their funding won’t be “on a line-item basis (but) they’re not being cut.”

When state Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat, questioned the overall education spending plan, Gaetz told him, “The concrete is poured, and it’s hardening … Everything is a zero-sum game.”

Representatives of the state’s nonprofit children organizations say they’re flabbergasted — and feeling betrayed.

“We’ve been getting funding from the Legislature for 19 years,” said Daniel Lyons, executive director of the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs. “We did everything we were asked to do, so this came out of nowhere.”

The Boys and Girls Clubs mentor about 6,000 children in over 200 facilities throughout the state.

Lyons said converting funding into grants for which each group will have to apply means organizations like his won’t get paid, if at all, until well after the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

“Talk about being bowled over and slapped in the face,” he said.

Jody Clifford, CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Florida, said she didn’t immediately know how many youths are in her mentoring programs “but it’s a huge number.”

Having to compete and wait for funding “could have a huge negative impact on the already low-performing children we help,” she said. “We’re absolutely stunned.”

On the other hand, the House proposed budget, also released Friday, keeps a method of direct funding to specific groups with a $14.8 million pot of money.

From it, $2.2 million is slated for Big Brothers Big Sisters, $3 million goes to the Florida Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs, and $6.2 million is for Take Stock in Children, a nonprofit led by Jillian Hasner, wife of former state Rep. Adam Hasner, the House Republican Leader in 2008-10.

Money for mentoring has been decreasing in recent years’ state budgets, going from $30.5 million in fiscal year 2014-15 to $18.4 million for 2015-16.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that Senator Gaetz’s “concrete” quote was in response to a question from Senator Ring. It also includes an updated comment on the Senate spending plan from Gaetz.

Rick Scott makes pitch for hospital transparency proposal at American Enterprise Institute

Florida Gov. Rick Scott made a pitch for his hospital transparency legislation, this time laying out his plan to a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C.

Scott, a former hospital executive, spoke at the American Enterprise Institute on Thursday. The Naples Republican used his appearance as a chance to outline a proposal that, he contends, would make hospital pricing more transparent.

“There’s no reason, in my opinion, that we should not know what things cost,” he said. “What I pushed for this year is that all hospitals should post all of their prices on their website. On top of that, if you go in for something, like to the emergency room, (hospitals) shouldn’t be able to charge you more than a certain percentage over their average price.”

Scott said hospitals need to tell patients “how much money they make, what their executive compensation is,” so they can make informed decisions.

In May, Scott created the Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding to look at ways government spending on health care can be more efficient. Scott and the board heard from Floridians who reported price gouging, and Scott said his proposal would attempt to put a stop to that.

“It’s wrong that our hospital industry doesn’t tell us what things cost,” he said. “It’s not fair to patients.”

Scott’s speech came as the state Senate health and human services appropriations subcommittee passed legislation aimed increasing transparency and availability of pricing and quality of service information.

The Senate proposal requires the Agency for Health Care Administration to work with vendors to create a database that consumers can research the cost of health care services. It also provides for penalties for “unconscionable prices.”

“Patients in need of medical treatment deserve to know how much they should reasonably expect to pay for particular services,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner in a statement. “This bill will make that information more readily available and also includes penalties for those entities who would charge unconscionable prices to Floridians in need of medical attention.”

Scott, however, told the crowd at the American Enterprise Institute that House and Senate proposals don’t go far enough, and there need to be penalties to ensure the law is enforced.

“Everyone should know what everything costs,” said Scott. “The information should be posted online, and you’ve got to have penalties. I think it’s important.”

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