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Jack Latvala, Jeff Brandes will help control the purse strings in Tallahassee next year

When the dust cleared in Tallahassee on Tuesday, one thing was clear: Pinellas was on top when it comes to the state’s funds.

Republican Sens. Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes, who represent parts of Pinellas, landed some plum appointments. Latvala will be the chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and alt. chair of the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. Brandes will have a seat on the Appropriations Committee and be the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

The news was welcomed by local elected officials who expect to ask Tallahassee for money in 2017.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman’s office issued a statement, saying, “Their appointments are great news for the city of St. Petersburg, and the Tampa Bay Region.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who will chair the commission in 2017, agreed, saying, “I’d like to think it would be very good for Pinellas County.”

Long said the county has just begun work on its legislative package for the coming year.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has also begun work on its legislative package. St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice, the PSTA chair, said two projects high on the agenda are rapid transit from the Tampa airport to Clearwater and Clearwater Beach and a bus lane on the Clearwater causeway.

Both Latvala and Brandes are aware of the need for the projects, she said. And Brandes, in particular, has already been supportive of innovative PSTA programs that involve partnerships with companies like Uber and Lyft.

The PSTA, Rice said, “is very fortunate to have two such strong senators. I think this will be very helpful.”

That help, she said, can extend to other issues. One such is the sewer and infrastructure problems facing Pinellas. Although St. Petersburg has taken the brunt of criticism after dumping thousands of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage in the bay during two storms this year, the problem with infrastructure is countywide. Latvala has called two delegation meetings for fact finding.

“I think they had a very clear picture of St. Petersburg’s struggles,” Rice said. “We need help from the state to fix our fragile infrastructure.”

Rice said she’s not talking only about St. Petersburg’s infrastructure. It’s the entire county, she said. That’s another place that the senator’s appreciation for regional solutions will be helpful.

Rice noted that Latvala is known for fighting for what he believes in. That’s good for the county.

“He’s a bruiser,” Rice said. “He’s not afraid to go in and fight for what’s right.”

Richard Corcoran: In the House, “We are very, very conservative”

The Capitol Press Corps got its first scolding, albeit a gentle one, from Richard Corcoran last week.

The new House Speaker was repeatedly asked during a news conference about how Senate President Joe Negron‘s priorities during the coming legislative session might conflict with his own.

“You people are so conditioned and trained. But so are we — I don’t fault you,” he said after the House’s Organization Session.

“There are 160 legislators. We’ve got to move past, ‘this is a speaker’s priority; this is a Senate president’s priority.’ They ought to be corporate priorities of both chambers.”

The old way of doing things — powerful legislative leaders imposing their will on the Senate and House — is over as far as Corcoran is concerned.

And everybody — his members, the Senate, lobbyists, the press — is going to have to learn that.

When asked whether he could support Negron’s goal of boosting higher education funding, Corcoran objected: “We are trying to transform and move away from a top-down system in the House.”

Corcoran appointed committee chairs, but wants to let them chose committee members and subcommittee chairs, and let all of them decide upon priorities together.

Does even he know what this system will produce?

“You never do,” Corcoran replied. “There’s not a single person in the history of the Legislature who can predict what it’s going to look like come May, whatever it is, at this point in time.

“I’m encouraged, though. I think there is a vast difference between the House and the Senate. We are very, very conservative. You can see that just in the rules, and how it’s going to play out over the next two years.”

He did allow that “Sen. Negron … has always behaved, in my opinion, as a great statesman. He’s a great communicator. That’s why he’s Senate president.”

To Corcoran, there are “good” compromises, in which parties accept less than they’d hoped for in the normal run of governing.

“Bad compromise is when you’re violating your principles that you know — you know — will lead to a worse environment, a worse Legislature, a worse outcome in education, a worse outcome in health care,” he said.

“If you’re just going to capitulate to the special interests and the mainstream media and all the powers that be because you’re afraid or somehow it’s not worth the fight, there’s nothing honorable about that. And there’s nothing dogmatic about that.”

Corcoran intends his ethics reforms as a cudgel to enforce good behavior. He hopes they will provide data points with which to embarrass wayward lobbyists and public officials.

“Hopefully, coming soon is the Top 10 list of everything you can imagine,” he said. “Top 10 biggest spenders. Top 10 lobbyists who got taxpayer money. Top 10 county commissioners who let lobbyists do their jobs because they stink. All of that’s coming soon.”

Consider what he said about the Florida Education Association over its legal challenge to the state’s tax-credit scholarships, which steer poor kids into private schools: “evil,” “disgusting,” “repugnant,” and yes, even “crazy-ass.”

The teachers union later tweeted from its official account “we invite @richardcorcoran to have a serious & civil discussion about all of our students’ needs.” FEA president Joanne McCall also personally tweeted, “Slamming us in a speech is one thing, solving problems is another.”

“Feel free to call me,” she added, even listing her phone number.

At the press conference, Corcoran said that “any way we can force more innovating, more risk taking, more competition in our education environment, all the studies suggest that’s what gives you a better outcome with students.”

He added: “If you guys have studies that suggest that kind of competition produces worse results, then we’ll certainly evaluate those studies. But they don’t exist.”

Yet he insisted his “rhetoric is not against anybody.”

“My rhetoric is not against lobbyists; my rhetoric is not against members; my rhetoric is not against the union,” he said. “My rhetoric is for the truth. And that’s a knowable thing. That’s an objective thing. And then you fight for the truth.

“If you don’t, why are you even in the process?”

Tampa International Airport

Guns-in-airports bill resurfaces for 2017 Legislative Session

A Florida House member has reintroduced legislation that would allow people to carry firearms inside airport terminals.

State Rep. Jake Raburn, a Lithia Republican, filed HB 6001 on Wednesday.

The measure would eliminate the words “passenger terminal” of airports from a list of places where state law forbids people to carry guns.

The measure also would eliminate language requiring that guns be “encased for shipment” in aircraft baggage holds.

Raburn submitted his proposal for the 2017 legislative session. He proposed similar legislation during the 2016 session, but no committee ever debated the measure.

The Senate Criminal Justice Committee approved a version of the bill introduced by Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican.

This year’s bill would take effect July 1.

People still would be barred from carrying guns in “any place where the carrying of firearms is prohibited by federal law” — generally defined as the “sterile area” beyond security checkpoints, according to Florida Carry, the gun rights organization.

The organization says that 44 states allow guns inside other areas in airport terminals, but Florida is not one of them.

Florida House Democratic caucus elects first Latina leader

Florida House Democrats formally elected Janet Cruz of Tampa as their leader Monday, but the vote hadn’t even happened before she faced her first setback — reportedly placing Minority Staff Director Joe McCann on leave for unspecified reasons.

Cruz is the first Hispanic leader of the caucus and will serve through 2018. The Democrats elected Rep. Bobby Dubose of Broward County as minority leader pro tempore.

Anders Croy, a spokesman for Cruz, said following the ceremony that she would have no comment about a report by POLITICO Florida that McCann had been disciplined or explain why.

“Tonight is about her family,” Croy said, adding that Cruz might have more to say on Tuesday.

Several caucus members said they knew nothing about the situation.

“I don’t know anything about that,” said Larry Lee, from Fort Pierce. “You’ve got my curiosity now.”

Cruz announced on Aug. 10 that she had hired McCann after letting go 17-year House veteran Durward Brewer and communications director Paul Flemming. McCann was a lobbyist and former senior VP at the Ballard Partners lobbying firm and a campaign manager for past Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

“It looks good from up here,” Cruz said following the caucus vote from behind the podium at the front of the chamber that’s normally occupied by the speaker of the House, which long has been dominated by Republicans.

The Democrats picked up a seat this year, when Robert Ascencio was finally declared the winner Sunday night over Republican David Rivera in Miami-Dade County’s HD 118. That made the breakdown 79-41, and costs the GOP its veto-proof majority.

Still, caucus members acknowledged being dispirited at the results of the recent elections, in which Republicans retained their dominance in Tallahassee and Congress, and with Donald Trump headed to the White House in part on the strength of white working class disaffection.

Cruz spoke of her upbringing as the daughter of a single mother within an extended family of immigrants.

Her grandmother, she said, “wore a hard hat and steel-toed shoes” to her job at a gypsum plant. Cruz herself relied on her family for support as a teenaged mother while working and attending college.

Cruz praised Richard Corcoran, elected leader of the House Republicans, and therefore speaker, earlier in the evening, for listening to Democratic ideas.

“I take him at his word that good ideas — not just Republican or Democratic — will continue to be what we debate here in this room.”

She listed her priorities — helping working families get ahead; public education; safe drinking water; environmental protection; legal protections for LGBT people.

“Rest assured. On these values we will stand and fight for the hardworking families of this state,” Cruz said.

The caucus observed 49 seconds of silence in memory of the 49 people killed in the Pulse nightclub shooting on June 12.

For Ben Diamond, Wengay Newton, a time of learning and outreach

Tuesday is an important day for freshman members of the Florida Legislature.

They’ll be sworn in and have to start making good on those campaign promises. However, there’s a lot to do before they start filing bills.

Wengay Newton
Wengay Newton

“It’s going to be a learning session for me,” said Wengay Newton, who represents House District 70, which covers portions of Pinellas, Hillsborough, Sarasota, and Manatee counties.

Ben Diamond, who won the race for House District 68, which covers a portion of Pinellas County, agreed.

“I’m still taking it all in,” Diamond said. But that doesn’t mean Diamond isn’t busy.

As a Democrat, he’s in the minority party, and that’s going to make it harder to get his proposals passed. The way to do that, he said, is to build relationships. And that’s what he’s started doing already.

“I’m spending today reaching out,” Diamond said. He’s meeting other legislators, talking with them and asking questions. It’s all part of the learning process.

Ben Diamond
Ben Diamond

“I think the more time I can spend getting to know the other members,” the better, he said.

He said he hopes that will help when it comes to getting good committee assignments.

Fellow Democrat Newton said he’s also hoping for good committee assignments.

He’s also concerned about Tuesday’s vote on the rules, especially a proposed rule that would impose a six-year ban on lobbying once House members leave the chamber.

“I thought that’s kind of extreme,” Newton said.

For Darren Soto, it’s still all about a stronger, fairer economy

Of the three new members of Congress elected from Orlando this month, Democrat Darren Soto is the one who’s no mystery to constituents, and still committed to the same agenda he’s pursued for nearly 10 years in the Florida Legislature: a stronger, fairer economy.

Soto, 38, an Orlando lawyer, defeated Republican businessman Wayne Liebnitzky for the open seat to represent Florida’s 9th Congressional District, covering south Orlando, southern Orange County, Osceola County, and eastern Polk County. He heads for Congress as the veteran rookie of Orlando’s congressional delegation, someone with a clear track record of lawmaking who’s not talking about wavering from it.

Soto becomes the first member of Congress with Puerto Rican roots to be elected from Florida and the first Hispanic member from Central Florida. That’s important considering the makeup of CD 9, where the Puerto Rican-dominated Hispanic community is nearly a majority and growing. And it’s important to Soto, who grew up constantly interacting with family coming and going from the island. But it doesn’t change Soto’s approach.

His first task, seeking committee appointments to reflect what he’d been pursuing in Tallahassee: growth in high-tech jobs and protection of the environment.

That also includes seeking to replace some of the clout that his predecessor, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, and Orlando’s other former representatives, U.S. Reps. Corrine Brown, John Mica, and Dan Webster exerted, particularly in addressing the roads, highways, railways, and other needs of the growing area. Now, Orlando will be represented by Democratic freshmen Soto, Val Demings, and Stephanie Murphy.

“We hope to get on committees that can help with high-tech jobs in our economy in Central Florida,” Soto said in an interview with FloridaPolitics.com. “I hope to also continue our good work on the environment. And in addition we are hopeful I can help with the growing infrastructure needs that we have here in Central Florida.”

Getting I-4 finished. Expanding SunRail. Upgrading the Kissimmee and Lake Wales airports with air traffic control towers. Pursuing the Kissimmee River restoration plans.

“Certainly, I’ve sought out committees that would help in those three areas,” Soto added. “As well as, the Democrats pushing for our version of an infrastructure package, which potentially all parties can agree upon.”

Except for his views on social and environmental issues, Soto has largely been a more moderate member of the Florida Democratic Party. While he led a Democratic insurrection to seek gun law reforms after the June 12 Pulse massacre in Orlando, in Tallahassee he sided with gun lobby proposals often enough that his Democratic primary opponents threw that in his face.

He defeated two prominent progressives in the election, former ally Susannah Randolph, and Dina Grayson, wife of the outgoing incumbent.

Soto’s been around. He came up as part of a new, younger generation of Democrats that came together 12 years ago in Orange and Osceola counties, in an environment that saw the area’s base of low-wage, hospitality-industry economics as a top concern. With his future chief of staff and campaign manager Christine Alkenavich Biron, Tracy Sumner Brooks, Vivian Rodriguez, Susannah’s husband Scott Randolph, and a handful of others they began to transform the Young Democrats from a small, depressing group into a force.

At age 28, Soto first tried to run against Republican state Rep. Andy Gardiner in House District 40, knowing all along, he said, he could not possibly win. But the experience helped and the following year he won a six-way Democratic primary and a close general election to be elected in House District 49, to replace Republican state Rep. John Quinones who had resigned mid-term to become a county commissioner. Two re-elections later, Soto coasted into the Florida Senate in District 14 in 2012.

And as soon as congressional redistricting made CD 9 a near-majority Hispanic district in 2011, Soto was seen as a likely future candidate, presumably as soon as Alan Grayson stepped aside, which he did this year, seeking to run for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat.

Besides Brooks, Rodriguez, and Biron, his trusted political advisors include Iza Montalvo, his law partner Nicole McLaren, and Democratic party leaders Jimmy Auffant and Doug Head. He’s also had close ties with Lonnie Thompson, Linda Stewart, Bill Segal, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer.

“Buddy has shown that an independent-minded, pro-growth Democrat can be very successful in our region,” he said.

Soto grew up on in small-town New Jersey and watched his father, who was Puerto Rican, work to support his family and go to night school to get a college education. That dedication stuck, and he did much the same thing, going to Rutgers University, and then on to law school at George Washington University.

Many of his Puerto Rico family members moved from the island to Central Florida in the 1990s. Darren joined them when a distant relative offered him his first job out of law school.

“I fell in love with the place. It changed my life,” he said.

He met his wife Amanda, a teacher, through a blind date set up by Osceola County School Board member Jay Wheeler. The two plan to split their time between Washington D.C. and a new home they intend to move into in Celebration.

When he’s not legislating, you might find Soto making music, as a singer-guitarist in a folk-rock band called the Orange Creek Riders.

Soto said he quickly came to terms with the election of Republican Donald Trump as president. As a state lawmaker, he’s dealt with Republican governors Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

“Now,” he said, “I’m ready to help lead the resistances, as need be.”

 

 

John Thrasher finally free to lobby for FSU

John Thrasher has registered to lobby for Florida State University, two years after his installation as the university’s president.

Under state law, former legislators must wait two years before becoming eligible to seek to influence their former colleagues. Thrasher’s registration took effect on Monday, according to state records.

Thrasher is a former House speaker who turned lobbyist with Southern Strategy Group before beginning service in the Senate in 2009.

He became FSU president in November 2014.

Also lobbying for the university is Kathy Mears, whose registration took effect Sept. 27. She had served as chief of staff to House Speakers Will Weatherford (2012-14) and Steve Crisafulli (2014-16).

The two-year lobbying ban extends to such key state employees “unless employed by another agency of state government,” according to state law.

Freshman state senators learn the ropes in Tallahassee

Newcomers to the Florida Senate were met with a dose of reality Tuesday, in the form of a warning about the state’s iffy revenue forecasts.

They also got a dose of optimism from Jeff Atwater, the state’s chief financial officer, who told them Florida is in relatively good shape compared to other big states like California, New York, and Illinois.

Between 2009 and 2014, 31 states raised taxes by more than $100 per capita, 26 raised debt, and 18 did both, Atwater said. “Only one state did not raise its taxes $100 on a per capita basis and did not raise debt, and that’s the state of Florida,” he said.

“That means the state’s credit is sound and state leaders have options,” he continued. “It sets you up for the future. You have the capacity to do things that no one else does. You have choices. You have a growing economy.”

The freshman senators convened in a committee room to be briefed on finances and protocol — and to take possession of their official Senate laptop computers. The incoming House class met later in the day.

The new Senate class comprises 20 members — a record, according to Senate President Joe Negron, for the 40-member body. He sees the arrival of so many newcomers — many of whom have served in the House — less as a challenge than “an opportunity and a blessing,” he said.

“When the voters instituted term limits, this is exactly what they intended to happen,” Negron said. “I see only an upside.”

Still, the Legislature will have just $7.5 million in unallocated money to spend next session, and faces shortfalls worth $1.3 billion the year after and $1.9 billion the year after that.

Negron, who favors spending $1.2 billion in state money on land south of Lake Okeechobee to absorb fertilizer runoff from sugar producers and septic tanks, sought to put the situation in the perspective of an $82 billion state budget.

“Budgets are all about competing priorities,” Negron said. “I think that, within the budget that we have and the revenue that we have, there’s no reason why we can’t undertake some old and some new opportunities based on what’s happening today.”

Linda Stewart, a Democratic freshman senator from Orange County, said the budget situation did not alarm her.

“I’m not scared. I think it’s helpful of them to lay out what our challenges are,” Stewart said of legislative staff who briefed the newcomers.

“But it’s going to come down to the needs of the people of Florida. We’ve got to get in there and fix a few things,” she said.

“There’s obviously some challenges with the budget,” said Dana Young, a Republican from Hillsborough County. “But with some fiscal restraint, we can deal with those challenges, like we have in the past.”

Florida budget forecasters sweating housing starts, ‘Trump effect’

State officials trying to nail down how much money Florida government will have to spend next year confronted two major uncertainties Monday:

Whether and when a long-expected surge in housing construction will arrive.

And whether Donald Trump will govern as he campaigned.

“It’s really too early to build in anything that’s unique to the Trump administration,” Amy Baker, the Legislature’s chief economist, said following a meeting of the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference.

“We don’t know the timing, how, or what it will look like yet,” she said of Trump’s economic plan. “A lot of unknowns.”

Don Langston, representing the House, concurred during the panel’s discussion.

“Who knows what this looks like in the next two to three months?” he said.

The state’s general revenue fund is expected to run on razor-thin margins next year and into the red in subsequent years.

A panel comprising Baker and representatives of Gov. Rick Scott and the House and Senate pored over national economic projections prepared by an outside consultancy; the officials will look at Florida-specific numbers Friday.

The report arrived around the same time Trump won the presidency — too early to account for his policies as president, Baker said. Conference staff called it the “Trump effect.”

“They relied heavily on things looking in the future just like they have in the past, until they know better,” Baker said.

When the conference last met in July, the projection was for a 9.5 percent rise in housing starts during 2017. Now they expect 1.9 percent, with a 9.1 percent surge pushed into 2018.

“Instead of it being a two-year recovery” in that sector, “they’re looking at a three-year recovery,” Baker said.

Construction — especially housing starts — is a big piece of the state economy, fueling collection of sales and real estate taxes, among others.

“We’re real dependent on housing construction coming back,” Baker said. “That’s probably our biggest worry.”

Martin Dyckman: Richard Corcoran brings wisdom to reign in Tallahassee lobbyists

On one of my earliest days covering the Florida Legislature, I was walking along the main hall a few feet behind Jack Lee, the lobbyist for Associated Industries, when a document dropped out of his portfolio. He didn’t seem to notice, so I picked it up, intending to return it to him.

I barely had time to realize that it was an amendment form for a Senate bill, neatly typed in the proper places, when he turned and snatched it from my hands with an unprintable curse.

I had assumed that legislators wrote their own bills and amendments. How naive.

Note, though, that I have identified him as the lobbyist for Associated Industries. Although it was the most muscular business lobby in Tallahassee, it made do with just Lee. So did nearly all the heavy hitters.

They worked together, of course, whenever something came along, like Gov. Reubin Askew‘s proposed corporate income tax in 1971, to threaten their common interests. They were all watching from the galleries as it passed one house and then the other. They were confident that they wouldn’t lose.

“They lied to us!” one of them shouted out as the Senate’s tote board signaled they were wrong about that.

Much has changed about lobbying, rarely for the better, in the ensuing 45 years. On the positive side, lobbyists now must report what they are paid and spend. Gift-taking restrictions put at least one restaurant out of business. But the worst of it is that the lobbyists now routinely work in teams — often very large teams.

Where there only a few hundred in the 1960s and 1970s, there were 1,914 registered during the 2016 session. That’s nearly 12 for each legislator. They represented 3,893 principals ranging from charities, cities, and trade associations to America’s largest corporations.

AT&T, for example, boasted 71 lobbyists last spring. Associated Industries, host to a lavish party before every session, hired 45.

Each lobbyist, in turn, had other clients. Ronald L. Book, whose influence is legendary, had 101.

How do the various teams keep from stumbling over one another? How do they keep from crushing legislators under a press of bodies? Considering how the Legislature is often a multi-ring circus, with simultaneous action in multiple committees or on both House and Senate floors, how does one person represent 101 interests?

To ask those questions is to see the wisdom of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s proposal to ban lobbyists from sending text messages to representatives while they are in committee or in session.

The smartphone is another of those negative developments since the 1960s. The lobbyists don’t use theirs just to coordinate with other members of their teams and flash warnings when something unfriendly pops up. Each team has a designated leader to watch what’s coming up. There are services that monitor all the bills and amendments for them. Then the team members assigned to their respective lawmakers can use their iPhones, Androids, or BlackBerrys to pull their strings without ever being seen.

If Corcoran prevails, as he surely will, the lobbyists will have to go back to doing that the old way — by sending written notes into the chamber or sitting in the gallery to wag hand signals. It works, but not as effortlessly, efficiently, or secretly. We reporters loved to scan the gallery for those signals or stand by the chamber doors to see who was handing notes to the sergeants at arms.

There’s a lot else to like in the reforms that Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, is expected to propose. One of the most significant would require a lobbyist to report each bill, amendment, or appropriation that he or she is trying to influence.

So when some turkey appears as if by magic in an appropriations committee conference report, it will be evident who put it there.

Corcoran is not so likely to get approval for a constitutional amendment requiring ex-legislators to wait six years, rather than only two as now, before lobbying their former colleagues.

For one thing, nearly everyone in the term-limited Florida Legislature is either thinking about becoming a lobbyist later or has at least thought about it.

For another, a constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each house, and that is a bridge very, very far.

But it will be fun to see who votes how.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina

 

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