Florida Senate Archives - Page 6 of 29 - Florida Politics

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.”



Senate chamber

Senate to re-open next week after months of renovations

The newly renovated Florida Senate chamber will be ceremonially opened next Monday at 3 p.m.

And don’t expect another re-do for a very long time.

“We believe the historic components of the remodel have created a timeless design that will limit the need for future renovations,” outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner said in a statement.

The re-opening will take place the day before the new Legislature’s Organization Session. The project began minutes after last session’s Sine Die, with sergeants-at-arms hauling chairs and other furniture out of the chamber. 

The chamber features redone walls, new desks, and new carpet. Senators will stand under a new ceiling dome, modeled after one in the Historic Capitol.

Also as planned, the nearly 40-year-old mural that greeted visitors to the 5th floor gallery has been removed and stored in the old Capitol. It depicts a Confederate general and flag, which the Senate previously voted to remove from its official seal and insignia.

Gardiner had pulled the trigger on the upgrade, recognizing that the chamber “has received only minimal updates since its original construction in the 1970s,” he said in a memo.

Design elements echo the Historic Capitol’s exterior, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum and the words, “In God We Trust.”

The renovation project was budgeted for $5 million.

Darryl Rouson arrives in the Legislature’s ‘upper house’

Darryl Rouson went and said it. He referred to the Florida Senate as the Legislature’s “upper house.”

He did it Tuesday while introducing himself to new colleagues during an orientation session for freshman senators.

Members of the Florida House of Representatives, where Rouson served before winning the Senate seat for District 19, have been known to take umbrage at such talk. Was he joking?

Nope, Rouson said.

“The Senate is a more deliberative, collegial type body, where everything is not along partisan lines,” he said. “The Senate, I hope, will be that voice of reason.”

The House is subject to too many diverging priorities, he continued.

“There are a lot of members of the House, 120, and sometimes 119 of them have different views. Here, you have 40 people. Policy can be close and not so divergent.”

Another former House member turned senator, Gainesville Republican Keith Perry, played down any cross-rotunda rivalry.

“You’re going to have competition within the House, you’re going to have competition within the Senate, and you’re going to have it between the Senate and the House,” Perry said. “That’s a normal thing.”

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.”

Personnel note: Lynda Bell named to Florida Communities Trust

Lynda Bell, an anti-abortion former Miami-Dade county commissioner who fell short in a Florida House race this year, will serve instead on the Florida Communities Trust.

Gov. Rick Scott announced the appointment Thursday.

Bell finished third in a crowded race for the GOP nomination in House District 118.

Bell, president of Florida Right to Life, fills a vacant seat and will serve through 2019, subject to confirmation by the Florida Senate.

The trust administers state grant programs that help local government and nonprofit organizations develop “parks, open space, greenways and projects supporting Florida’s seafood harvesting and aquaculture industries,” according to its website.

She is a graduate of Miami Dade College.

Joe Negron picks Anitere Flores to serve as Senate President Pro Tempore

Senate President-designate Joe Negron has picked a longtime ally to be his right hand woman in the Senate.

The Stuart Republican announced Thursday he selected Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, to serve as Senate president pro tempore. The appointment is effective Nov. 22, when the Legislature convenes for its organizational session.

“The role of Senate president pro tempore is a significant position of trust and authority. Anitere is a loyal friend and trusted ally. She also has longstanding relationships with many new and returning senators,” said Negron in a statement. “She has a proven ability to work in a bipartisan manner without compromising her own unwavering principles. I have complete confidence in her ability to represent the Senate in this important leadership position.”

Flores was first elected to the Florida House in 2004, serving three terms before being elected to the Florida Senate in 2010. She handily won re-election Tuesday, defeating Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in the newly drawn Senate District 39.

Negron’s announcement comes one day after House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced his leadership team and committee chairs. Corcoran tapped Rep. Jeanette Nunez to serve as House speaker pro tempore.

Incoming Speaker Richard Corcoran to propose dramatic changes to House appropriations process

House members hoping to get money in the 2017-18 budget will be asked to file a bill for every appropriations request they make.

That change is one of several to be coming down the pike as part of new House rules, according to sources close to incoming Speaker Richard Corcoran, who will announce the new rules to members on Nov. 10. Corcoran has spent months re-writing the rules, which many expect will take a take a tough stance on special interests within the capital.

A change to the budgeting process wouldn’t be surprising. As chairman of the House appropriations committee, Corcoran, with the help of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, instituted a process requiring members to attach their names to budget items they were seeking.

During the 2016 Legislative Session, the House posted all of the member request forms to the House website. Those forms included the name of the member requesting the money, background about the project, and the contact information of who requested the money.

Additional changes are on the way, as the House will move to a system that requires members to file an individual bill for each budget request. In that scenario, members would like be required to file all of their requests by the bill filing deadline at the beginning of session.

It is unlikely the member request bills would count toward the limited number of bills members can file each year, according to those briefed on the Speaker’s plans.

The member requests would likely then have to go through the same process as any other bill, clearing several committees before being taken up by the full floor. The request would need likely to pass the full House to be included in its version of the budget.

If the House were to institute such a rule change, Florida would be the first state in the nation that requires members to file individual requests in the form of a bill. The change would also likely receive pushback from the Senate, particularly since there are rumblings House members will be asked to include a Senate sponsor on the request.

Corcoran has been tight-lipped about many of proposed changes, saying they are still hammering out the details. When asked about whether there will be changes to how members submit budget requests, Corcoran said the House has made transparency a priority.

“We have said for four years now, going back to our blueprint that we wrote, that we will have the most transparent House of Representatives in the entire nation,” he said Friday.

Another change to the rules will include requiring lobbyists disclose more information. Gary Fineout reported this week that lobbyists could be required to not just name their clients, but disclose the bills, amendments and appropriation items on which they are lobbying House members.

Corcoran alluded to that during his designation speech in September. In prepared remarks, the Land O’Lakes Republican said the House must “change the lobbyist registration rules by requiring every lobbyist to disclose which bills, which amendments and which appropriations they are trying to influence.”

The Tampa Bay Times reported this week that Corcoran was looking to end the practice of local governments — like counties, cities and school boards — hiring outside lobbyists. He told the newspaper he considered it a “disgrace that taxpayer dollars are used to hire lobbyists when we elect people to represent them.”

Corcoran has also signaled he plans to push to end the so-called revolving door between the Legislature and lobbying industry through a constitutional amendment barring legislators from lobbying the legislative or executive branch for six years. Currently, they can begin lobbying after two.

The House is expected to make the 2016-18 Rules of the Florida House available by Nov. 10. The House will be tasked with adopting the new rules during the organizational meeting on Nov. 22.

Florida Chamber: ‘Every vote counts and makes a difference’

The Florida Chamber has a message for its members: Go vote.

The statewide business advocacy organization’s employer-to-employee news and information program launched its “Let’s Get Local” campaign this week. The get-out-the-vote program is meant to encourage employees to vote in the general election.

“There’s more to this election than just the top of the ticket,” said Mark Wilson, the president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said in a memo to the Florida Chamber’s board of directors, local chambers, and the business community. “In fact, there are important state House and Senate races taking place all across Florida, and voters will be asked if they support amendments to the state constitution.”

The Florida Chamber invested heavily in several state House and Senate races during the primary, and is continuing that push ahead of the general election. The Florida Chamber has developed a website — FloridaWins.org — to help Floridians learn about state House and Senate candidates, as well as the four proposed constitutional amendments.

The Chamber also rolled out a video highlighting the importance of voting. The 60-second spot, called “Help Protect American Opportunity — Vote,” calls on Floridians to “protect American opportunity with the most powerful tool you have — your vote.”

“At the Florida Chamber, we’re working hard to secure Florida’s future, and want to ensure Florida’s job creators, and the employees that fill those jobs, have their voices heard,” said Wilson in his memo. “Vote early, vote by mail or vote on Election Day. Every vote counts and makes a difference.”

Florida Senate

Florida Senate renovations near completion

The Florida Senate’s chamber renovations should be done by early-to-mid November.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta tweeted back on Oct. 5: “Chamber Reno Update — About one month to left to go.”

She posted photos showing the chamber with redone walls, new desks, and new carpet going down.

As planned, the nearly 40-year-old mural that greeted visitors to the 5th floor gallery has been removed.

Departing Senate President Andy Gardiner has said the mural will be preserved for viewing elsewhere and stored until then.

The 10-foot-by-16 foot “Five Flags Mural” greeted visitors to the Senate since the Capitol opened in 1978.

The work also happens to depict a Confederate general and flag. The Senate previously voted to remove that symbol from its official seal and insignia.

When the chamber is reopened, senators will stand under a new ceiling dome, modeled after one in the Historic Capitol.

Gardiner pulled the trigger on the upgrade, recognizing that the chamber “has received only minimal updates since its original construction in the 1970s,” he said in a memo.

The final product in the Senate will be similar to an artists’ rendering released earlier this year.

It shows the new dome and other design elements that echo the Historic Capitol’s exterior, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum and the words, “In God We Trust.”

The renovation project was budgeted for $5 million. The chamber should be open for the Nov. 22 Organization Session.

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At candidate forum, Bill Montford seeks to allay confusion about his opponent

Bill Montford wanted to make one thing clear right away during a candidates’ forum Thursday night in Tallahassee.

“I want to make sure you know that the Nancy Miller who is opposing me is not our City Commissioner Nancy Miller,” he said. “My good friend City Commissioner Miller will be doing some advertising for me to make sure that everybody knows they are two entirely different people.”

The Nancy Miller challenging Montford, the incumbent Democratic candidate for Florida Senate District 3, is a Taylor County Republican who advocates lower taxes, smaller government, and “Florida History and Heritage.”

The city commissioner of the same name has taken pains to point out that she’s not the one on the Senate District 3 ballot. Montfort has acknowledged he is taking “very seriously” the chances for voter confusion.

Montford’s opponent did not appear in person during the forum organized by the League of Women Voters of Tallahassee. On her campaign webpage, she says, “I am a faithful supporter of the Second Amendment. I strongly believe in the right to bear arms, pro-life, and pro-veteran.”

Montford took a more moderate approach to gun rights. He opposed guns on college campuses and open carry laws.

“I believe in the Second Amendment,” he said. “But we’ve got to use a little bit of common sense. If you’re on the watch list of terrorists, you shouldn’t be able to buy a gun.”

He supports the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. A former Leon County school superintendent, he opposes letting the state dictate to local school boards that they must accept charter schools not approved locally.

And he’s dubious of privatized prisons and doesn’t like the way the state is running its corrections department.

In his 11-county district, “I have nine prisons, and we’ve had 30 assaults in my nine prisons since the first of the year — assaults of prisoners on to corrections officers.”

As for global warming, “We have to have the courage to admit what is happening. There are still some legislators who do not think that global warming is an issue. The first step is we’ve got to get that across that, yes indeed, there is an issue with global warming, and then we need to talk about how we will address it.”

And one way to do that is to restrict where Florida lets people build homes and businesses.

“We know where the water will be 50 years from now. Why are we today allowing construction to occur in these areas?”

Montford has served in the Senate since 2010 and has raised nearly $312,000 for his campaign, against exactly $8,541.39 for his opponent.

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