Ben Albritton – Florida Politics

Democrat Catherine Price files for Senate District 26

Lake Wales Democrat Catherine Price announced Friday that she would run for the Senate District 26 seat being vacated by Sebring Sen. Denise Grimsley, who is running for Agriculture Commissioner in the fall.

“Tallahassee seems to be broken and our state is in desperate need of better political leadership. We need legislators who are educated, experienced, and committed to working for the people, rather than puppeting for powerful special interests,” Price said in a press release.

“I cannot sit this one out in good conscious. We are at a critical juncture in Florida and in the world where we can choose to work together to solve the issues we face, or we can continue down the path of increased chaos and infighting.”

Price is a Lake Wales native and first-time candidate for public office. Price said the bulk of her career has been helping people get access to affordable healthcare, including organizing a successful half-cent sales tax ballot initiative that currently generates $36 mllion annually for indigent health care in Polk County

Price also served as Chairwoman of the Polk County Healthcare Alliance from 2007 to 2010.

“Too many hardworking people in Florida don’t have healthcare because they either don’t have access or it’s just too expensive. I’ve spent a lot of time advocating for affordable healthcare in Tallahassee and DC, and I can tell you that too many of these politicians just don’t get it,” she said.

Price joins Republican Rep. Ben Albritton in the race. Through the end of February he had raised $142,600 and had nearly $99,000 of that money in the bank.

SD 26 covers the whole of DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee counties as well as parts of Charlotte, Lee and Polk.

The district, which has a similar footprint to the old District 21, carries a massive advantage for Republicans.

Grimsley did not face an Election Day challenger in the 2016 cycle, though the Senate redistricting plan shows the seat would have gone plus-20 for Mitt Romney in 2012. It also voted plus-30 for Donald Trump in 2016.

Despite those margins, Price said she’s optimistic.

“But in 2018, a year where Democrats are hopeful that national momentum will help them win in unlikely districts, Senate District 26 is absolutely in play,” her campaign announcement read.

Democrats file in Denise Grimsley, Katie Edwards-Walpole districts

Democratic candidates have opened campaign accounts to try to succeed Sen. Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, and Rep. Katie EdwardsWalpole, a Plantation Democrat, in November.

Lake Wales Democrat Catherine Price opened an account last week to run in Senate District 26, which includes DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands, Okeechobee and parts of Charlotte, Lee and Polk counties, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Grimsley is running this year for state agriculture commissioner.

The only other candidate in the race is Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who had raised $142,600 as of Feb. 28, a finance report shows.

Meanwhile, with Edwards-Walpole’s recent announcement that she will not run for another term in Broward County’s House District 98, Plantation Democrat Louis Reinstein became the first candidate to open an account to try to win the seat.

Florida Forever, beaches will dictate environmental budget negotiations

The Florida Senate’s environmental priorities, which include boosting funding for the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, also known as Florida Forever, along with funding for beaches, are kinks that still need to be fleshed out before Friday’s budget conference deadline.

But Rep. Ben Albritton, House chair of the environment and agriculture budget conference, seems optimistic.

“In this particular conference, [the Senate’s] first offer there’s a lot of blue and a lot of yellows, which means essentially we’ve agreed on a lot of things,” Albritton said Wednesday night in reference to the color-coded newly released Senate offer.

“We are very much moving in the same direction,” he added. 

The original Senate budget — which was modified Wednesday as part of the negotiation process — allocated $100 million to Florida Forever, along with $50 million worth of non-recurring funds. An early review of the Senate’s first offer indicates the chamber has bumped the total transfer to Florida Forever to $200 million worth of non-recurring funds. Land acquisition programs administered by the Department of Environmental Protection reflect that boost in funding. 

“Clearly Florida Forever is something we have to work on,” Albritton said. “We are significantly apart on that.”

He believes the bargaining will focus on allocations to beach projects and Florida Forever — both favored by the Senate — and agricultural spends, such as citrus canker claims. Those claims are funded in the House at $107 million and are not funded in the Senate’s offer. 

Albritton said the Senate backed away from a $4 million spend on a ‘management best practices’ program for agriculture, bringing the two chambers’ budgets closer.

With regard to the Senate’s $50 million allocation for St. Johns River restorations and up to a $75 million allocation for springs restorations — priorities of Senate budget chief Rob Bradley Albritton said those details are “second tier” issues to iron out.

Greg Steube

Greg Steube is running for Congress; seeks seat being vacated by Tom Rooney

Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube announced Monday that he will run for Florida’s 17th Congressional District.

“I’m running because Washington is broken; it needs to serve the people it was intended to serve, Floridians; rather than special interests in DC,” Steube said in an email.

“My entire adult life has been about service, I enlisted in the Infantry after September 11 because I wanted to serve my country in the war on terror, after service in the military I served the state of Florida in the Florida House for 6 years, and the Florida Senate for the last 2 years.

“As a pro-life, pro 2nd Amendment, anti-illegal immigration fighter for our constitutional rights I will proudly support [President Donald] Trump and his agenda in Washington and I’m proud to have the backing of Florida’s law enforcement because they know they’ll have my support.”

Steube’s announcement also broached veterans’ issues and the national policy discussion following the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that left 17 dead.

“We need to make a change and it needs to happen today to protect our children. For years I have advocated for providing extensive training for those willing to protect our children in our schools and I’m very happy that President Trump supports a program that I have advocated for years,” he said.

“Securing our schools, taking threats seriously, and further funding our mental health programs are absolutely necessary.”

Along with the announcement, Steube included a long list of endorsements.

Early backers include Senate President Joe Negron, Senate President Designate Bill Galvano, Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, Naples Republican Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel as well as the sheriffs of Charlotte, Highlands, Hardee, Okeechobee and Glades counties.

CD 17 is currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, who announced last week that he would not run for re-election in the fall. The district covers parts of Sarasota, Lee and Polk counties as well as the whole of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee.

The seat is a Republican stronghold that voted plus-27 for Trump in 2017.

Steube is the first of many interested Republican state lawmakers to file for the seat.

Other possible entrants include Fort Myers Republican Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Port Charlotte Rep. Michael Grant, Wauchula Rep. Ben Albritton, and Sarasota Reps. Joe Gruters and Julio Gonzalez, though Gruters could be just as interested in taking over Steube’s Senate seat.

Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight has said he will not run for the seat, as have the three Republicans running for Agriculture Commissioner – Lehigh Acres Rep. Matt Caldwell, Sebring Sen. Denise Grimsley and former Winter Haven Rep. Baxter Troutman.

Steube’s full endorsement list is below.

Steube Endorsement List

How the dominoes could fall after ‘Rooney out’

Last week U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney put out the “Rooney out” message, launching a wave of speculation over who could step in and win the heavily Republican CD 17 in the fall.

So far, all the GOP candidates running to replace Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam – former Winter Haven Rep. Baxter Troutman, Lehigh Acres Rep. Matt Caldwell and Sebring Sen. Denise Grimsley – have taken their names out of the hat. Fort Myers Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto said she wasn’t ruling out a run, and a host of other elected officials within CD 17 have been even less public about their plans.

Florida’s 17th Congressional District covers parts of Sarasota, Lee and Polk counties as well as the whole of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands and Okeechobee.

The seat is a Republican stronghold that voted plus-27 for President Donald Trump.

The massive district covers a number of state legislative seats, but outside of Benacquisto’s nexus in Lee County, most of the GOP power players in CD 17 are concentrated in Sarasota County, though Rep. Michael Grant, who represents Charlotte County, is thought to be mulling a run, as is Rep. Ben Albritton, who represents DeSoto, Hardee and part of Polk.

At the top of the heap in Sarasota County are Sen. Greg Steube, Rep. Joe Gruters and Rep. Julio Gonzalez. Sarasota County Sheriff Tom Knight has said he will not run for the seat.

Then there are former pols such as Ray Pilon, who could jump in and muddy the vote within the Sarasota area even more, though he could just as easily lay out a return trip to the Legislature if enough of his former colleagues abandon their posts.

If any of those lawmakers make the plunge there could be a chain reaction that shakes up the Republican landscape in the Sarasota area, though Steube’s entry would register much higher on the Richter scale.

If he makes the call, his Senate seat will be a more natural step up for some contemplating the congressional jump, and a more realistic option for those lower down the totem pole.

Gruters is in no way at the bottom of that totem pole –  he chairs the Sarasota GOP and was one of President Donald Trump’s top men in Florida. Trump connections may not have played well in the HD 72 special, but both CD 17 and SD 23 have far greater Republican advantages.

The freshman lawmaker hasn’t ruled out a CD 17 run, but his likely play is to wait for Stuebe to announce for Congress and pounce into the Senate race, where he would have a massive advantage.

SD 23 covers all of Sarasota County and part of Charlotte.

GOP voters outnumber Democrats 161,000 to 114,000 and the seat voted plus-14 for Trump in 2016, putting it outside the common threshold for a “blue wave” flip.

So, who runs for Gruters’ seat if he goes for an upgrade?

Perhaps there will be a do-over for James Buchanan, the loser of the HD 72 special. He didn’t have to go through a primary in that race, but if he wants to become a lawmaker this year he’ll have to.

His opponents will likely have more political experience than him this time around. Likely to join him in the HD 73 race are Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh and Lakewood Ranch Republican Club head Steve Vernon. Vernon took Gruters to the wire in the 2016 primary for HD 73, losing by just 385 votes.

That three-way primary would be a pricy one, but it’s a guaranteed House seat for the winner. HD 73 went plus-25 for Trump in 2016 and Democrat Liv Coleman, who is currently filed to run against Gruters, has only $5,000 of loans in her campaign account.

If Gonzalez’ makes a move, it’s likely for Congress. He told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune he’s “absolutely” interested in the seat. If he makes the plunge, there’ll be another battle royale for a state House seat.

HD 74 has a strong GOP edge. Republicans have 21,000 more registered voters than Democrats in the district, making the seat’s GOP advantage half again better than the 13,000-registrant advantage in neighboring HD 72, which recently flipped with the election of Democrat Margaret Good.

Gonzalez beat Democrat Manny Lopez with 63 percent of the vote in 2016, and no candidate has filed to run against him in 2018.

If he hops into the congressional race, his legislative assistant, Vickie Brill, is likely to take a shot, as are North Port Vice-Mayor Linda Yates and up-and-comer Justin Taylor.

Firsthand experience in the legislative process has been more than enough to win a seat for many lawmakers, but Yates brings the experience of an elected official, while Taylor has enthusiasm and ties to former Sen. Nancy Detert working in his favor. An endorsement from Detert, now a Sarasota County Commissioner, could make a big difference early on in a campaign.

No matter who replaces Rooney, expect a few extra fresh faces when the 2019 Legislative Session begins.

House eyes tax help for agriculture

Florida’s Hurricane Irma-battered agriculture industry, growing anxious as it awaits federal disaster relief, could land some help from the state House as part of a tax-cut package.

The House Ways & Means Committee, which is putting together a package, reviewed three measures Wednesday intended to help the industry, which sustained an estimated $2.5 billion in damages from the deadly September hurricane.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who owns a citrus grove, outlined a proposal that could offer one-time tax refunds on fencing and building materials for non-residential farm buildings. Also, a proposal would offer refunds on state and local taxes applied to fuel used to transport agriculture products from farms to processing and packaging facilities.

Another idea under consideration would value at salvage level machinery that has gone idle at citrus packing and processing facilities because of Hurricane Irma or because of citrus greening disease, which has ravaged the industry the past decade.

“If you have a packing house that is shut down, some of these packing houses would have employed 100 people, maybe more,” Albritton said. “If you hope and pray like I do that we’ll somehow, some way soon we’re going to find the bottom of citrus production in the state and we’ll turn it around and start growing again, those packing houses would have the opportunity be operational again. If they go in foreclosure and the bank owns them, what’s the good for the property owner.”

While price tags have not been affixed to the proposals and growers maintain that a stalled federal disaster-aid package will provide more relief, Albritton said after the committee meeting that the damage has affected farmers and others in the supply chain.

“In the shape that we’re in right now, every penny matters,” Albritton said.

The agriculture-relief proposals were among 78 recommendations rolled out of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness. The committee was created in the wake of Irma, a Category 4 storm that pounded the state Sept. 10 and 11 and left 84 people dead.

Adam Basford, director of state affairs for the Florida Farm Bureau, hopes the proposals will get further consideration.

“What we can do here at the state is help farmers stretch the dollars they can in recovery,” Basford said. “They’re not huge, life-altering impacts, but they do help farmers stretch the dollars they do have to spend to recover.”

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs has estimated damages to the citrus industry at $761 million, the nursery industry at $624 million and the cattle industry at $237.5 million. The sugar industry has been estimated at sustaining $383 million in losses, while vegetable and non-citrus fruit growers suffered $180 million in damages.

Meanwhile, talk of federal relief as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package approved by the U.S. House on Dec. 21, has fallen by the wayside as Congress struggles to remain open amid battles over a short-term funding bill.

“Maybe they’ll get through the politics of the day up there and look at the larger picture,” Albritton said. “I’m still optimistic and hopeful that we’ll be able to do something that is bipartisan out of D.C.”

Gov. Rick Scott talked Wednesday by phone with U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell regarding disaster relief, according to the governor’s office.

The state House’s overall tax-cut package is likely to meet or exceed $180 million in tax and fee cuts proposed by Scott.

The committee previously heard proposals such as further reducing a business-lease tax, eliminating sales taxes on diapers and holding sales-tax “holidays” for small businesses after Thanksgiving and at the start of the hurricane season.

Scott has requested cuts come by reducing driver-license fees and holding back-to-school and disaster-preparedness tax holidays.

alcoholic beverages

Bottoms up: Booze bills moving in House

A trio of alcoholic beverage-related bills moved through a House panel Tuesday:

— Beer advertisements in theme parks would be allowed under a bill approved by the Careers and Competition Subcommittee.

That measure (HB 669) was approved 13-2, with chair Halsey Beshears, a Monticello Republican, and Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican, casting ‘no’ votes.

This is the second year the bill’s been up before lawmakers. It stoked controversy last year: Critics said it would allow theme parks to “extort” ad dollars from beer companies and ultimately favor Big Beer manufacturers who can pay to put up the biggest and most ads.

They also could sponsor concerts. other events or attractions at parks. It’s supported by SeaWorld and Universal Orlando and opposed by beer distributors and the state’s craft beer industry.

The House bill heads to the Commerce Committee; a Senate companion (SB 822) has cleared one of its three committees.

— Legislation that would allow beer distributors to give away for free glasses imprinted with product names and logos to bars and restaurants was narrowly OK’d. Under current law, glasses must be sold. 

The subcommittee cleared that bill (HB 961) on an 8-7 vote. This also is the second year this bill has been before lawmakers.

Those in favor, including small businesses, say it’ll be a help to them to cut down on glasses lost from theft and breakage. Opponents, including many craft brewers, counter that they won’t be able to afford to keep up with the stream of free glasses from Anheuser-Busch InBev, the makers of Bud Light and Stella Artois.

Josh Aubuchon, general counsel for the Florida Brewers Guild, the craft beer industry’s trade group, told panel members many of his members sell their product only in kegs, not bottles or cans. Because branded glasses effectively act as passive advertisements for a particular label, he worried that bars would push out craft beers on tap in favor of Big Beer’s offerings.

This year’s House bill, carried by Sarasota Republican Joe Gruters, would limit “the total pieces of glassware, per licensed premises, (to) 15 cases per calendar year.” That’s about 360 glasses.

“Branded glassware … is intended to be used only to serve consumers the brand advertised on the glassware,” the bill summary says. The measure also would expire in June 2021 unless renewed by legislators.

The bill now moves to the Commerce Committee; a Senate companion (SB 1224) by Appropriations chair Rob Bradley has cleared two panels and will next be considered by his committee.

— A bill that would expressly allow Floridians to use a smartphone app to order alcoholic beverages to be delivered also cleared the subcommittee.

The panel OK’d the measure (HB 667) on a 13-2 vote. Republican Reps. Ben Albritton of Wauchula and Julio Gonzalez of Venice opposed it.

Services with apps such as Drizly and Shipt already deliver in the state, but “current law does not address orders received via the internet or other electronic forms of communication,” a staff analysis says.

The bill, carried by Miami Republican Daniel Perez, is supported by retail and restaurant groups, and by Target. The House measure now heads to the Commerce Committee; a Senate companion (SB 1020) sponsored by Tampa Republican Dana Young has cleared two of its three committees unanimously.

Ross Spano garners endorsement of 7 House Republicans for AG bid

Eastern Hillsborough County Rep. Ross Spano entered the Republican attorney general’s race later than his three other opponents; now he is attempting to catch up in creating a buzz around his candidacy.

The Dover Republican announced Thursday endorsements from seven of his GOP colleagues with whom he serves in the Florida House: Larry Ahern from Seminole; Ben Albritton from Bartow; Danny Burgess from Zephyrhills; Chris Latvala from Clearwater; Kathleen Peters from St. Petersburg and Charlie Stone from Ocala.

“I’m humbled and honored to have this support from my colleagues in the Florida House; earning their endorsements validates my decision to seek this critical office for our state,” said Spano. “I look forward to building on this base of support over the next several months as I share my vision and commitment to the office of Florida’s Attorney General.”

“Having held key criminal justice and judicial leadership roles in the House of Representatives, Ross Spano knows what it takes to protect our most vulnerable citizens and apply the law justly, ” said Peters. “His integrity and experience are unmatched; coupled with his fervor for upholding our state’s constitution, Florida will be in great hands with Ross Spano as our next Attorney General.”

“I know first hand how hard Ross Spano works for the people he represents,” said Latvala. “He is a true conservative and a man of impeccable integrity. He will be a great Attorney General.”

Spano, an attorney, has served in the House since 2012. Two of the three other Republicans in the race — Frank White and Jay Fant, also serve in the House, while the third candidate — former judge Ashley Moody — hails from Hillsborough County, same as Spano.

All three raised in the range of $1 million each to begin 2018 in their campaigns and related political committees. Spano had $59,860 as of the end of November, the last filing period.

Joe Negron backs aid for agriculture industry

Florida lawmakers should provide financial help to the agriculture industry to aid its recovery from Hurricane Irma, the Senate president said Friday.

Without putting a price tag on the state’s contribution, Senate President Joe Negron appeared to favor tax cuts and mitigation measures rather than loans. He pointed to major damage sustained by citrus growers but also said assistance should go to other parts of the agriculture industry.

“I do think the effect of the hurricane was so catastrophic to the citrus industry that it merits the government, the state government, partnering with the industry to make sure that they can continue to thrive,” Negron said during an interview with The News Service of Florida.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, and Senate Agriculture Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, a Sebring Republican, are expected to work on the issue.

Some lawmakers have already started to advance their own hurricane-recovery proposals for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in early October released an estimate that the agriculture industry had sustained $2.5 billion in damage from Hurricane Irma, with $761 million in citrus-industry losses.

But many lawmakers think the losses will be much higher than the October projection.

Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, has outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the industry as part of recommendations submitted to the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

Albritton’s proposals include tax exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency. He also called for a reduction in the tangible personal property tax for farm equipment affected by the storm.

Meanwhile, Port Charlotte Republican Rep. Michael Grant has suggested a tax exemption for the purchase of generators used on farms.

Negron said he doesn’t anticipate that hurricane-relief spending will displace other legislative priorities in the upcoming 60-day Session.

“I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities,” Negron said. “I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done.”

Gov. Rick Scott has asked for $21 million to help citrus growers as part of his budget requests for the 2018 Legislative Session.

Scott wants the money to include $10 million for citrus research, $4 million for marketing and $7 million for post-storm relief.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in the Keys and in Collier County before plowing up the state, including causing extensive damage in agricultural areas.

Along with the projected $761 million in citrus-industry losses, the October report from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services estimated nursery-industry losses from Irma at almost $624 million. The cattle industry damage assessment was $237.5 million, while the dairy industry was estimated to have $11.8 million in losses.

The sugar industry appeared to have $383 million in damage, with an estimated 534,324 acres affected. Vegetable and fruit growers — excluding citrus — were projected to have $180 million in damage, with an estimated 163,679 acres impacted by the storm.

The storm damages compounded misery for the citrus industry, which has struggled for a decade with citrus greening, an incurable bacterial disease.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has projected that Florida’s citrus industry is on pace to grow 27 percent fewer oranges and 40 percent fewer grapefruit than in the past growing season.

State leaders, such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, have been disappointed that Florida’s farmers and ranchers haven’t been addressed in a series of congressional disaster-relief package put together in response to Irma, Hurricane Harvey in Texas, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and California wildfires.

Focus areas doled out for hurricane committee

A select group of lawmakers will be focused on specific, hurricane-related policy recommendations over the next two weeks.

Each member of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness on Friday was assigned a specific area of focus. Chair Jeanette Nuñez, a Miami Republican, grouped the issues into categories following the five educational meetings held by the committee.

“To ensure that we cover all the issue areas, I am asking that you work with staff over the next two weeks to develop possible recommendations for the specific issue categories indicated below,” Nuñez wrote in an email to committee members.

Here are the assignments:

Evacuation: Reps. Robert Asencio, Michael Grant, and Holly Raschein. 

Energy: Reps. Tracie DavisDane Eagle, and Jay Trumbull

Shelters and Vulnerable Populations: Reps. Danny Burgess, Cord Byrd, and Sean Shaw

Health Care Facilities and Medical Care: Vice Chair Ray Rodrigues and Reps. Chris Sprowls and Richard Stark

Agriculture: Reps. Ben Albritton, Kristin Jacobs, and Elizabeth Porter

Future Hurricane Expenditures and Tax Relief: Reps. Grant, Jared Moskowitz, and Paul Renner

Housing: Reps. Bob Cortes, Davis, and Raschein

Beaches, Sanitary Sewers, Stormwater, Flooding, and Debris Removal: Reps. Eagle, Jacobs, and Cyndi Stevenson

Education: Reps. Asencio , Cortes, and Porter

The committee next convenes on Monday, Dec. 4.

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