Florida Legislature Archives - Page 7 of 43 - Florida Politics

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

 

Personnel note: Doug Holder to serve on Sarasota Manatee airport board

Former Florida House member Doug Holder fell short in a Senate bid this year, but his consolation prize is a seat on the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority’s board.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment to a vacant position Thursday.

Holder served in the state House between 2006 and 2014, but finished second in a crowded race for the GOP nomination in Senate District 23.

He also serves on the board of directors of The Florida Center for Early Childhood and the Historic Spanish Point, a museum in Osprey.

The Middle Tennessee State University graduate will serve through Nov. 17, 2018.

State agencies outline spending hopes with tight budget looming

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation is having trouble retaining actuaries, aides to Gov. Rick Scott learned Thursday, as a raft of state agencies presented their budget requests for the next fiscal year.

The office is asking for $31.6 million for FY 16-17, including $488,651 to boost its actuarial firepower, agency budget director Richard Fox said. This would pay for a new analyst in its property and casualty insurance actuary unit, and reclassify eight staff actuaries as senior analysts in that and the life and health unit.

Additional promotions would bring the total to around $1.2 million, but the office would save in the long run by reducing a high turnover, Fox said.

“We’re trying to get these people promoted to senior actuary so they can remain with the department and create a career path,” he said, and “hopefully reduce the costs of training for these positions.”

Saving money would be a good thing. The requests come at a time when the state’s general revenue fund is expected to run on razor-thin margins next year and into the red in subsequent years.

The public hearing “gives the public an opportunity if they want to come and ask questions,” said Laurie Grasel, a senior budget aide to the governor. The agencies will make similar presentations to Florida House and Senate leaders.

The Florida Fiscal Portal contains links to the agency budget requests.

The Department of Financial Services wants $42.5 million to continue work on its financial and cash management systems upgrade. The agency seeks $325.8 million overall, a 21 percent increase over existing spending.

One key item for the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, was $141,000 to boost training for alcohol and tobacco enforcement agents. The department’s request totaled $152.9 million.

The Florida Lottery wants $761,000 to create a sales incentives program that agency budget director Travis Ervin said would generate revenue, and $837,000 to “streamline primary business functions.”

The Department of Revenue’s $552.6 million budget request includes $1.3 million in a federal grant that will allow its child support program to install technology to make sure people seeking information through its telephone and web chat systems are who they say they are.

The Agency for State Technology — state government’s IT department, in other words — hopes to spend $3 million to store more data on the cloud, and $343,000 to study the feasibility of leasing instead of buying desktop computers for state workers.

In other legislative budget requests, the Department of Corrections is asking for $147.3 million for increased staffing, to replace old buildings, and for new vehicles, including transport vans.

The Department of Juvenile Justice has a request in for $577.9 million, with no additional new full-time employees. That includes $5.3 million in funding for intervention programs.

The Department of Law Enforcement seeks $20.9 million, a 7 percent increase from the current year.

Commissioner Rick Swearingen has said he wants 46 new positions to create counterterrorism squads across the state.

Swearingen also wants to increase the base pay for FDLE agents from $46,000 a year to $56,000, he said in September.

2nd try at medical pot amendment gains support in Florida

A proposed amendment to the state constitution to legalize medical marijuana has gained widespread support in Florida two years after falling just shy of passing.

Most state polls have support for Amendment 2 above the 60 percent threshold needed for approval. A similar measure was on the 2014 general election ballot and received 58 percent.

Supporters say they have listened to concerns from two years ago and changed the amendment’s wording to tighten oversight over the industry and protect children from harm.

In the meantime, the Florida Legislature has passed two measures allowing limited use of medical marijuana, though delays in implementing them have fed support for an amendment that would make it more broadly available.

Opponents say there still isn’t enough research proving the benefits in medical treatment. They also warn that the state will be overrun with pot shops and that children could illegally gain access to the drug.

If approved, Florida would be the 26th state along with the District of Columbia to legalize the marijuana plant for medical use. Florida is one of 16 states where only part of the marijuana plant is used.

“The legislature has failed to expand and open up the entire plant to use and only a narrow scope,” said Dennis Deckerhoff of Tallahassee, who says he will vote yes. “If the Legislature doesn’t want to do it, now it will be up to the voters.”

CURRENT STATUTE

The Florida Legislature approved the use of medical marijuana for patients suffering from cancer, epilepsy, chronic seizures and chronic muscle spasms in 2014 along with five distributing organizations. It was expanded earlier this year to include patients with terminal conditions under the Right to Try Act, and three more licenses were authorized once the patient registry reaches 125,000.

The amendment would widen the list of illnesses eligible for marijuana prescriptions, adding such ailments as post-traumatic stress disorder, AIDS and glaucoma.

So far, only three organizations have received distribution authorization. Two dispensaries are open in Tallahassee and Clearwater but home delivery is available statewide. Some counties and cities have passed zoning moratoriums on allowing dispensaries to open until they can do further research.

The state registry now has authorized 129 doctors and 470 patients, Department of Health spokesman Brad Dalton said.

SUPPORTERS SAY LOOPHOLES HAVE BEEN CLOSED

John Morgan, who leads United for Care, notes that the latest amendment allows marijuana to be prescribed only for debilitating medical conditions. It also adds provisions that require parental written consent for patients who are minors, and requires caregivers to register with the Department of Health.

The measure mandates identification cards for caregivers and patients and puts the department in charge of regulating medical marijuana – as the state law also has done.

A lot of the rules and regulations – from how the marijuana is grown to regulations on how it can be transported for in-home delivery – were passed by the Legislature this past March would also apply under the constitutional amendment.

Ben Pollara, campaign manager for United for Care, said that the state’s two-year delay in getting low-THC cannabis to consumers has pushed support for the amendment.

“If anything the benefit of the past two years is that public opinion has moved forward a lot,” he said.

OPPONENTS: “THIS IS A LEGISLATIVE MATTER”

Dr. Jessica Spencer, who is the Policy Director for No on 2, says there is no evidence that marijuana works as medicine and that the industry would be more difficult to manage if it is endorsed under the Florida Constitution.

“We need to be careful when we’re looking at constitutional amendments that they are perfect. This is not perfect,” Spencer said during a recent debate in Orlando.

Anti-amendment literature by opponents depict medical marijuana as candy and note that pot shops could be set up near schools.

Kenneth Bell, a former Florida Supreme Court justice, said he is not opposed to medical marijuana but that it should be handled by the legislative branch.

“The Legislature has already acted a couple times and this does not take into account some unintended consequences that could take place,” he said.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Will ‘fair districts’ in Florida lead to a fairer outcome?

Six years ago, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments with the catchy title of “Fair Districts” that promised to end the political games that surrounded drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Due to expensive court battles and standoffs in the Florida Legislature, this year’s election will mark the first time the full effort to end gerrymandering will be in place.

As Election Day nears, however, it’s becoming apparent that the changes have not caused any major disruptions politically. Republicans are expected to retain control of the state Legislature. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation will probably shrink, but the GOP will likely remain in the majority.

“We never expected this to be a revolutionary change, it was an evolutionary change,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida State League of Women Voters, whose organization challenged in court how legislators enacted the standards.

There have been some shake-ups as a result of the amendments finally kicking in: Two incumbent members of Congress, both Democrats, will be leaving office this year due in part to their reshaped districts. And several Republican members are also in tight battles that could result in their defeat Tuesday.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was once a Republican but is now running as a Democrat, may revive his political career if he wins a redrawn Democratic-leaning seat in Pinellas County.

Florida has long been divided politically, and has emerged again as a key battleground in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, carried the state in 2004, but President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won the next two elections. Critics have long complained that the districts don’t reflect the close divide of the electorate.

Florida voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved the “Fair Districts” amendments which mandated that legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. The group that backed the amendment was financed largely by unions and donors aligned with Democrats.

Legislators adopted new maps in 2012 that they said followed the guidelines, but a coalition of groups sued. The legal battles resulted in several key rulings, including one where the state Supreme Court ruled that GOP operatives had “tainted” efforts to draw up congressional districts.

Legislators deadlocked over how to respond, leaving the final map put in place by the court. A separate battle over state senate districts also resulted in a circuit court judge saying that legislators had acted with “partisan intent.”

The final result, which came after the Legislature spent more than $12 million in taxpayer money fighting the lawsuits, means that congressional and state senate districts were put in place by judges not legislators. State House seats adopted by legislators were not challenged.

Matthew Isbell, a data consultant who tracked redistricting and has worked for Democratic-leaning organizations, said while the changes “have put more seats in play” it will not result in Democrats taking back either chamber in the Legislature. Currently the GOP holds a 26-14 edge in the 40-member state Senate that could narrow some. Isbell predicts the 17-10 split in the congressional delegation will also shrink, but Republicans will still be in the majority. Part of it, he said, is due to the GOP’s fundraising advantage in the state.

“It’s a long game for Democrats,” Isbell said.

Ellen Freidin, a South Florida attorney and one of the main architects of Fair Districts, said she is satisfied with the outcome. She said because of the power of incumbents “you can’t judge the merits on one cycle.” But Freidin maintains there has been more competition for legislative and congressional seats this year and more people have chosen to run for office.

“This idea has always been about the rights of people of the state of Florida to choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing voters,” Freidin said.

Top Republicans, however, don’t share the enthusiasm.

State Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who led House redistricting efforts last year, says that the “Fair Districts” amendments are nearly impossible to implement and that all it has done has shifted power over to judges who can also act in a partisan manner.

“Anytime something has ‘fair’ in it, it’s anything but fair,” said Oliva, who is line to become House speaker in 2018. “The only thing we did with Fair Districts is we diluted one branch of government.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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