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Trial lawyers must be very happy with Florida Senate committee assignments

It will come as no surprise that trial lawyers are looking to shoot the moon this Legislative Session.

They already made a power play during the 2016 election cycle. The Florida Justice Association, through its political committee Florida Justice PAC, spent $4.5 million since the beginning of 2015, much of which went to candidates or affiliated committees.

The group was also involved in two dozen state House and Senate primary races this year; and all but one of those candidates — Dwight Bullard, who lost his Senate District 40 race to Frank Artiles — were sworn into office last month.

But if you need more evidence of the clout plaintiffs’ attorneys are angling for, look no further than the make-up of the 2016-18 Senate committees.

While conventional wisdom tells us trial attorneys won’t get jilted under Senate President Joe Negron (an attorney) and House Speaker Richard Corcoran (ditto), the appointments to several key Senate committees appears to have already given trial attorneys — and their interests — a leg up.

Need an example? Take a look at the Banking and Insurance committee.

Chaired by Sen. Anitere Flores, the nine-person committee has four members for whom the Florida Justice PAC played Daddy Warbucks during the primaries. One of those members? Gary Farmer, the former president of the Florida Justice Association, which prides itself on “upholding the civil justice system and fighting for consumer rights,” which sounds like a tossed-off Morgan and Morgan slogan.

Farmer wears those trial lawyer credentials like a badge of honor. On the “About Gary” section of his campaign site, Farmer says he “spent almost his entire career fighting for the rights of consumers, fair and just compensation, and the protection of the civil justice system and full access to courts.” And as he points out, he’s made a career of representing patients and consumers that were “wronged by various corporations, hospitals and insurance companies’ deceptive trade practices.”

So, what the heck? Let’s put the guy who has made his bones suing insurance companies on the committee that is tasked with, in part, vetting legislation aimed at regulating the insurance industry. (Sounds like Negron is taking a page from the Donald Trump playbook.)

Also on the committee — Greg Steube, Randolph Bracy and Debbie Mayfield. All of which had the backing of the trial attorneys in their recent elections.

In a year where insurance issues rule the roost — assignment of benefits, workers’ compensation and PIP reform are just a few of the issues that could be on the table — you have to wonder, what message does having a Banking and Insurance committee that has four trial lawyer-friendly members really send to the business industry? (Hint: The courthouse is open for business.)

Steube — an attorney at Becker & Poliakoff, where he focuses on business litigation, public private partnerships, and government law & lobbying — also found himself at the helm of another powerful committee that could give trial attorneys a leg up.

Negron tapped the Senate freshman to head the Judiciary Committee. And while much has been said about what that means for gun legislation, the impact it could have on trial attorneys (and maybe their wallets) could be, as they say nowadays, “yuge.”

Case in point? On Dec. 5, Steube filed Senate Bill 100, which would repeal an entire section of law dealing with tobacco settlement agreements. Not amend a few lines here or there; no, we’re talking removing all of Section 569.23 from Florida Statutes.

So what exactly does that section of state law do? Well, among other things it drastically capped the bond amount tobacco companies have to pay to appeal court ruling. When the law was OK’d in 2009, industry officials said it was for the good of the state. If companies were bankrupted by endless Florida lawsuits, officials argued at the time, they couldn’t make the payments to the state as part of a 1999 tobacco settlement.

The Florida Justice Association threw a fit when it was OK’d, and repealing the law, even if it is eight years later, would most definitely be considered a win.

But to repeal it, supporters would need to have some friendly faces on key committees to even have a chance. And as luck – or a healthy campaign contribution plan — would have it, they do.

The nine-member Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill would surely find itself if it were to get a hearing has at least four Florida Justice PAC backed members on it (Steube, Bracy, Mayfield and Bobby Powell).

Bracy and Jeff Clemens, another FJA backed candidate, are both members of the five-person Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, where a bill like that might land if there is a fiscal impact.

With committee assignments like these, you have to wonder: Whatever happened to the business friendly Republican Senate?

Randolph Bracy intends to be aggressive toward reform as Senate Criminal Justice Committee chair

With his potentially-groundbreaking appointment to chair the Florida Senate Criminal Justice Committee, state Sen. Randolph Bracy is pledging to take an aggressive approach to criminal justice reform in Florida.

The Orlando-area Democrat’s chairmanship, announced last week by Republican Senate President Joe Negron, is highly unusual for three reasons: because Bracy is a Democrat, a freshman senator, and an African-American. The appointment signaled Negron’s desire to reach across the aisle, and to take concerns about criminal justice seriously, finding a black lawmaker with deep interest and experience in the subject.

The appointment came after Negron and Bracy had several conversations about how the Democrat might fit into the president’s senate.

“I don’t think it’s every happened, especially on the Criminal Justice Committee,” Bracy said of his chairmanship. “It’s a really big deal, not only as an African-American but as a Democrat. I’m honored and humbled.”

Senate Democrats say Bracy is just the second African-American chairman of a full committee. The first was Jim Hargrett of Tampa who chaired the Transportation Committee and the Tourism, Trade and Economic Development Committee in the 1990s. Hargrett also chaired a select committee on juvenile justice reform.

Race had nothing to do with the appointment, Negron said. He said he followed Bracy’s work in the house and had high regard for him based on his reputation, and their interactions, and spoke several times with Bracy this fall about how he could fit into the senate. Bracy expressed strong interest in criminal justice. While the Criminal Justice Committee leadership was a highly sought-after post, Negron found he had confidence in Bracy.

“I thought Sen. Bracy made a strong case based on his interest in that policy area. And as you can see from his committee assignments [which also include appropriations, banking and insurance, judiciary and regulated industries] he has a wide range of committee assignments which reflect my confidence in capabilities,” Negron said.

Bracy’s Senate District 11 includes some of the biggest and most-challenged African-American communities in Central Florida, on Orlando’s west side and in west Orange County. He had served on the House Criminal Justice Sub-committee all four years he spent in that chamber prior to being elected to the senate in November. He was ranking member last year.

He’s not the only Democrat to get appointed to chair a committee; he’s one of four this year, and the last couple of senate presidents also have included Democrats among committee appointments. But criminal justice creates a unique opportunity, in a time when the issue has sparked almost universal high interest and controversy.

“I’d like to be very aggressive in tackling criminal justice reform,” Bracy said. “I know I have to work under the senate president’s direction, but my hope is we can tackle some issues aggressively that are wrong in the criminal justice system. I hope I’m up to the challenge.”

Negron also has vowed a high priority for criminal justice reform, particularly relating to juvenile justice. He said he and Bracy share the commitment.

“That’s one of the areas that we talked about in person. We both share a commitment to not criminalize adolescents,” Negron said. “Obviously we can and should and will punish serious wrongdoing by young people. But at the same time let’s not criminalize adolescence. And we talked about policies going forward that give young people the opportunity to recover from mistakes in judgment.

Rob Bradley revives bill shifting Stand Your Ground burden to prosecutors

Sen. Rob Bradley reintroduced legislation Thursday clarifying that prosecutors have the burden of proving that shootings are unjustified under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

The Republican from Fleming Island said the measure would overturn the Florida Supreme Court ruling in Bretherick v. Florida. In that 2015 opinion, a 5-2 court said people charged in shootings must prove during pretrial proceedings that they are entitled to immunity from prosecution.

“The government has the burden of proof in a criminal case from the beginning of a case until the end,” Bradley said in a written statement. “This fundamental premise is guaranteed in our Constitution and understood intuitively by all Floridians.”

Bradley’s proposed SB 218 provides:

“In a criminal prosecution, once a prima facie claim of self-defense immunity from criminal prosecution has been raised by the defendant at a pretrial immunity hearing, the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is on the party seeking to overcome the immunity from criminal prosecution.”

Bradley introduced similar legislation last year, and it passed the Senate but died at the House committee level.

“We have an obligation to zealously guard the protections granted us all in the Constitution,” Bradley. “It was uplifting last session to have the support of fellow conservatives around the state on this important issue.”

Jeff Brandes files computer coding as foreign language bill

Florida lawmakers could once again consider whether computer coding classes should be counted as a foreign language credit.

Sen. Jeff Brandes filed legislation Monday to allow Florida high schools to offer computer coding classes that “along with the earning of a related industry certification satisfies two credits of sequential foreign language instruction.”

Senate Bill 104 also requires the state college and university system to recognize the credits as foreign language credits.

“Software development and coding is one of the largest skill gaps we have in Florida, said Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican. “We believe there is now, and will continue to be, an incredible demand for coders. My goal is to ensure that Florida students have the skills employers value.

When it comes to computer coding, Brandes is picking up where former Sen. Jeremy Ring left off. Ring, a Margate Democrat and former Yahoo executive, filed a bill during the 2016 legislative session that would have allowed computer coding courses to satisfy two credits in sequential foreign language instruction beginning in 2018-19 school year.

Brandes was listed as a co-introducer on the 2016 bill.

The Senate overwhelmingly supported the bill, voting 35-5 to approve it. But the bill died when the Florida House decided not to take up the issue.

According to the Miami Herald, critics said they were worried the bill would place additional burdens on schools that are already struggling with sufficient technology resources. Sen. Anitere Flores, the current Senate President pro tempore, and Sen. Jeff Clemens were among the lawmakers who voted against the bill.

Under Brandes’ measure, the schools may begin offering the courses beginning in the 2019-20 school year. According to the bill, “high schools may, but will not be required to,” provide students the opportunity to take the course.

The 2017 measure also requires students and parents to sign a statement acknowledging and accepting that “a computer coding course taken as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements.”

It also allows the Florida Virtual School to offer computer coding courses, and says districts that don’t offer courses “may provide students with access to the courses through the Florida virtual school or through other means.”

As of Monday afternoon, no House companion to Brandes’ 2017 measure had been filed.

Former Maria Sachs aide sues for discrimination, retaliation

An aide to then-Florida state Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs has sued his former employer, saying she “exposed (him) to unwelcome sexual conduct” by frequently undressing in front of him.

Matthew Damsky sued the Florida Senate in Leon County Circuit Civil court this week on gender discrimination and retaliation charges. The 68-year-old Sachs, elected to the Senate in 2010, declined to run for re-election this year.

The Palm Beach County Democrat was known for her frequent wardrobe changes, particularly on long days of the legislative session.

The case, reported by the Tallahassee Democrat on Thursday, says the 28-year-old Damsky was fired this February when he objected to Sachs’s demands of doing her “grocery shopping, walking her dog, maintaining her relatives’ homes, and traveling cross country to assist” them.

He says he also was “ordered” to perform work for her legal practice on Senate time, including “drafting legal pleadings.”

Damsky seeks “all legally-available general and compensatory damages and economic loss,” his suit says.

“The Senate has not yet been served, so the Senate attorneys have not yet received a copy of, or had the opportunity to review the complaint,” spokeswoman Katie Betta said Thursday.

Sachs previously has denied the accusations. She said Damsky, of Boca Raton, resigned after admitting to charging nearly $50,000 in plane tickets on Sachs’ credit card without her knowledge, among other things.

Damsky is represented by Marie Mattox, a longtime employment discrimination attorney in Tallahassee.

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.”

Joe Negron announces Senate committee leadership, membership

Florida Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday released leadership posts, including four Democrats, and committee assignments for the 2017 and 2018 Legislative Sessions.

Wilton Simpson of Trilby is now Senate Republican Leader and Kelli Stargel of Lakeland is the deputy leader.

Simpson, a Pasco County farmer, is on track to assume the Senate presidency himself in 2020-22 as long as the GOP maintains its controlling majority.

As previously announced, Jack Latvala of Clearwater takes the reins of the Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in the Legislature.

His eight budget subcommittee heads will be:

Aaron Bean, Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

Rob Bradley, Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources.

Stargel, Appropriations Subcommittee on Finance and Tax.

Denise Grimsley, Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government.

Anitere Flores, Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services. She is also Senate president pro tempore.

Bill Galvano, Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education.

David Simmons, Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre-K – 12 Education.

Jeff Brandes, Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.

The rest of the leadership picks for committees are:

Keith Perry chairs Agriculture. Perry recently was elected to the Senate after serving in the House since 2010.

Flores chairs Banking and Insurance. Flores is an ally and confidante of Negron; the Miami-Dade resident officially nominated him for president at his December designation ceremony.

Rene Garcia chairs Children, Families, and Elder Affairs. Garcia has been in the Senate since 2010.   

Bill Montford chairs Commerce and Tourism. The Tallahassee Democrat was Leon County superintendent of schools before being elected to the Senate. 

Frank Artiles chairs Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities. He’s another new senator elected this year after serving in the House.   

Tom Lee chairs Community Affairs. The Brandon Republican, who was Senate President in 2004-06, was most recently the Senate’s budget chief.   

Randolph Bracy chairs Criminal Justice. He’s another Democrat in leadership, and another new member, also coming from the House. 

Dorothy Hukill chairs Education. The Port Orange lawyer recently announced she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, is undergoing treatment, and is expected to fully recover. She previously chaired the Finance and Tax panel.

Lauren Book chairs Environmental Preservation and Conservation. She’s still another Democrat in leadership, a new member from South Florida, and daughter of legendary lobbyist Ron Book.   

Kathleen Passidomo chairs Ethics and Elections. She joined the Senate from the House this year, beating out former Speaker pro tem Matt Hudson to replace term-limited Sen. Garrett Richter in her GOP-heavy Southwest Florida district.   

Dennis Baxley chairs Governmental Oversight and Accountability. He’s yet another new crossover from the House to the Senate.   

Dana Young chairs Health Policy. The Tampa Republican won her seat after serving as House Republican Leader the last two years.   

Greg Steube chairs Judiciary. The Sarasota Republican was in the House before his election to the Senate in November. He’s a lawyer and Army veteran, having served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps

Audrey Gibson chairs Military and Veterans Affairs, Space, and Domestic Security. The Jacksonville Democrat was elected in 2011 after serving in the House.

Travis Hutson chairs Regulated Industries. Hutson has been in the Senate since 2015, winning a special election after former Sen. John Thrasher stepped down to become president of Florida State University. The committee usually takes the lead on gambling issues, including the Seminole Compact.   

Lizbeth Benacquisto chairs Rules. She’s another ally of Negron’s and seconded his nomination as president at the designation ceremony.   

George Gainer chairs Transportation. He’s another brand new senator, filling the Panhandle seat vacated by term-limited Sen. Don Gaetz.  

A full list of committee membership is here.

Wilton Simpson appointed Senate Majority Leader for 2016-18 term

Sen. Wilton Simpson has been appointed Senate Majority Leader for the 2016-18 legislative term, marking the second term in a row a likely Senate President has held the role.

Senate President Joe Negron appointed Simpson to the position Tuesday. The announcement came as the Stuart Republican announced committee chair assignments for the two-year legislative term.

“Wilton is a conservative leader whose tremendous success in the private sector serves as a foundation for his belief in limited government and the supremacy of the individual, values many Senators on both sides of the political aisle share,” said Negron in a statement. “Over the last four years, Wilton has gained the confidence of his colleagues in matters both large and small.”

First elected to the Senate in 2012, Simpson was re-elected earlier this year when no one else filed to run for the seat. The Trilby Republican represents Senate District 10, and is the owner of Simpson Environmental Services and Simpson Farms.

“Today I am both humbled and honored to have the trust of Senate President Joe Negron and my colleagues in the Republican Caucus. Leading the Senate Republicans comes with a responsibility to continue our caucus tradition of advocating for the success of this great state, and the people who call Florida home,” said Simpson in a statement. “During the next two years, we will continue job growth and economic development by instituting more common sense instead of more government regulation, inspire and provide the means for a world-class education system, and protect our water and other natural treasures that God has bestowed upon Florida.”

Rachel Perrin Rogers, Simpson’s chief legislative aide, will stay on as Simpson’s top staffer and spokeswoman. Brian Hughes, her husband, is an outside political advisor to Simpson.

Simpson is on track to assume the Senate presidency in 2020-22, as long as the GOP maintains its controlling majority in the upper chamber. Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, served as Majority Leader for the 2014-16 role. Galvano is line to be Senate President for the 2019 legislative session, assuming the GOP maintains its majority.

Negron also announced Tuesday that Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican, will serve as the Deputy Majority Leader. Stargel will also serve as the chairwoman of the Senate finance and tax appropriations subcommittee.

“Kelli is a fighter who is not afraid to take on difficult issues,” said Negron. “She is a dedicated conservative with a wealth of legislative experience. Together, Senator Simpson and Senator Stargel will be strong leaders for our Republican Caucus.”

Anitere Flores to push for mandatory recess during 2017 session

A push for mandatory play time at Florida’s elementary schools will once again be on the agenda during the 2017 legislative session.

Sen. Anitere Flores filed legislation Tuesday that would require school to provide “at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free play recess” each week. The mandatory recess would apply to students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and would break down to at least 20 minutes each school day.

The bill, Senate Bill 78, is similar to a bill that moved through the Legislature during the 2016 legislative session. That bill received overwhelming support in the Florida House, passing 112-2. But it failed to gain traction in the Senate, despite calls from parents and lawmakers to consider the proposal.

Former Sen. John Legg, who chaired the Senate’s education policy committee at the time, declined to hear the bill. The Tampa Bay Times in February reported Legg considered the issue a local one, and said at the time it didn’t “merit a Tallahassee solution.”

A House companion bill to the 2017 proposal has not yet been filed.

David Simmons buys TV time to thank voters

State Sen. David Simmons, re-elected in June when no one filed to run against him in Seminole County’s Senate District 9, is airing TV commercials in Orlando for three weeks thanking voters and urging people to put aside political differences and come together during the holidays.

Simmons spent $150,000 on the effort, having Southern Campaign Resources of Tallahassee produce and place the 30-second spot on Orlando’s four major broadcast stations, WESH, WFTV, WKMG and WOFL. The ads started Monday.

Otherwise Simmons, entering his final term in the Senate after eight years in the Florida House and six in the Florida Senate, spent very little of the $257,000 he raised for his campaign actually on campaigning. Lately, he’s closed out the account balance by buying the TV time, making some donations to the Florida Senatorial Campaign and several charities and kept a barebones staff and list of consultants on board.
Simmons said he’s grateful for the opportunity.

“The reason I’m doing it is because it’s been a very divisive year, 2016,” Simmons said. “I thought it was appropriate to, number one, say thank you; and in the way of saying thank you to say this is the time to get together and put differences aside, and get to solving the myriad of problems we have, with the opportunities we have to work together.”

In the commercial Simmons begins sitting in his office, saying he was humbled by his unopposed re-election. Then he says, “Let’s put political differences behind us. And as we come together for the holidays let’s reflect on what we, as Americans, have in common, rather than what divides us.”

As he says that the images change to a woman and toddler eyeing a Christmas tree, a family laughing at a dinner table and another family playing in a park.

He then wishes everyone happy holidays.

SCR President Rockie Pennington noted it’s not unusual for his clients to buy time to say thank you, noting that new House Speaker Richard Corcoran has done so in two previous cycles.

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