Jack Latvala Archives - Page 3 of 47 - Florida Politics

Budget panel sends schools, economic development, Medicaid bills to the floor

The Senate’s versions of legislation pumping money into public schools, hospitals, Enterprise Florida, and Visit Florida — and establishing a regulatory framework for medical marijuana — cleared the Appropriations Committee Thursday.

The votes — either unanimous or nearly so — sent the measures to the Senate floor. They also augured confrontations with the House involving oversight of economic development grants, and spending on Medicaid and public schools.

Chairman Jack Latvala appeared determined to hold his ground. For example, of a provision allowing use of local tourist tax dollars for Visit Florida projects in small counties — forbidden statewide in the House bill — he said: “I plan on sticking with that. If we have a bill, that ability is going to be in it.”

That bill — SB 2-A — includes more stringent review of the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund projects it would authorize.

For example, Enterprise and Visit Florida projects more than $750,000 would need approval by a special legislative committee. Those worth more than $500,000 would need to be posted on the organization’s website for 14 days before they take effect.

Legislation preferred by the House and Gov. Rick Scott would “vote a blank check with no accountability,” Latvala said. By contrast, in the Senate, “we’re not just talking the talk; we’re walking the walk.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran defended the House bill.

“The oversight already exists,” Corcoran told reporters.

“He (Scott) is elected. The Legislature is elected. We go in every single year. All those things can looked at,” he said. “But they’re broad-based benefits to the entire state.”

The full Senate began the special session Wednesday by voting to override Scott’s veto of the $11 billion budget for public schools, plus $75 million in the higher education budget.

SB 2500-A, approved by Latvala’s committee Thursday, adds another $215 to the schools budget.

Besides serving as an “insurance policy” to keep the schools open after the new fiscal year begins on July 1 — and against procedural tricks by the House — the Senate’s procedural posture “gives us flexibility on 72 hours.” That’s the three days legislators must wait before voting on budget bills — “at $70,000 a day for the taxpayers,” Latvala said.

For the record, the House doesn’t believe the cooling off period applies during the special session.

Sen. Dennis Simmons withdrew amendments that would have raided the House’s Schools of Hope program to provide $100 million in social services for students at underperforming schools. He indicated he might offer them on the Senate floor.

He argues the program can’t spend the money during its first year anyway, given the time needed to enlist charter operators.

Sen. Anatere Flores conceded SB 4-A, her bill to restore $100 million of the $200 million the Appropriations Act cut from Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals, has provoked indifference — even hostility — in the House.

Counting federal matching money, the cuts would be reduced by $260 million.

“Hope springs eternal,” Flores told reporters.

“It is completely within the Senate’s purview to say hospital cuts were a major issue. Forget about it being important to the Senate. It’s important to the state,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to get that right.”

Joe Henderson: When a quid pro quo turns into quid pro no, all bets are off

As the special session of the Legislature was set to begin Wednesday, everyone heard of how the compromise deal that appeared to be the framework for a budget agreement was close to collapse.

Humm.

It brought Senate President Joe Negron into sharp focus, since he seems to be the one leading the charge to turn the quid pro quo reached in secret last week with Speaker Richard Corcoran and Gov. Rick Scott into a quid pro no.

It makes for dandy political theater and all, but shouldn’t all of this have been worked out BEFORE the three amigos appeared on stage together last Friday to tout the budget agreement? The way it was presented made it sound like everyone had gotten something they wanted and all the other lawmakers had to do was see the brilliance of the compromise and pull out their rubber stamp.

Guess not.

Let’s try to make at least a little sense out of this, shall we?

Simply put, the way education will be funded in Florida appears to be at the center of this knockdown, drag-out.

Negron’s main interest appears to be increasing money for the state university system. He has long championed an effort to bring Florida’s institutions of higher learning into the same status as, say, those in Michigan and Virginia.

That’s not surprising. Negron is an educated man, holding a master’s degree from Harvard and a law degree from Emory University. He apparently wants to restore money to the university system that would otherwise be redirected to the K-12 public system.

He also wants to use some of the state’s reserve fund to restore $260 million in cuts to hospitals

Why he didn’t make that point during the now-infamous secret meeting last week with Scott and Corcoran isn’t clear. Then again, maybe he did and the other two weren’t paying attention.

I’ll bet they’re paying attention now, though.

In a pre-session memo to senators, Negron said, “I have made no agreement that would dictate an outcome for this special session. Nor have I made any agreement to limit the subject matter.”

State Senator Jack Latvala tossed in a grenade of his own with this tweet: “Just 3 months ago @richardcorcoran wanted to abolish EFI and Visit FL. Now he wants to give them $150 million plus. What changed?”

For the acronym-challenged, EFI stands for Scott’s beloved Enterprise Florida jobs incentive program. Visit Florida is the tourism promotion arm. Corcoran used his opposition to both programs (CORPORATE WELFARE, he screamed) as a kind of Trojan horse so he could push forward with what appears to be his real agenda — an expansion of charter schools.

With the possibility of a Scott veto looming over Corcoran’s signature piece of legislation, they thought they reached the compromise that was unveiled last Friday. Scott seemed satisfied with the funding for his programs, and Corcoran threw in a few requirements in the name of accountability about how the money will be spent.

I guess they didn’t count on Negron’s last-minute gambit.

Corcoran responded to Negron’s memo with a lengthy statement that accused him of wanting “a massive property tax increase, wants to weaken accountability provisions for VISIT FL and EFI, and wants to raid reserves to give to hospital CFOs. Needless to say, the House is not raising taxes, not softening accountability rules, and not borrowing against reserves to pay for corporate giveaways.”

Whew!

There is no way to know how this is going to end or how long it will take, so I won’t hazard a guess. The last time I tried to do that, I got whiplash. I don’t want to make it any worse.

Jack Latvala: ‘Cooling-off’ period applies to Special Session bills

Sen. Jack Latvala is telling fellow senators that funding bills planned for this week’s Special Session will be subject to the state’s constitutionally-mandated “cooling off” period.

That potentially means, if the bills are changed, that lawmakers could be stuck in Tallahassee past Friday, when the session is scheduled to end.

The Clearwater Republican, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a Tuesday memo that he and Senate President Joe Negron, an attorney, had “reviewed relevant legal precedent and accepted the advice of our professional staff regarding the application of the 72-hour cooling off period.”

A House spokesman wasn’t immediately available for comment.

The Florida Constitution requires that “all general appropriation bills shall be furnished to each member of the legislature, each member of the cabinet, the governor, and the chief justice of the supreme court at least seventy-two hours before final passage by either house of the legislature of the bill in the form that will be presented to the governor.”

“Out of an abundance of caution,” the Senate will allow its bills funding public education, tourism marketing agency and economic development “to rest in final form for 72 hours prior to a vote,” Latvala wrote.

“For this reason, the Secretary (of the Senate) has distributed the filed versions to each member of the Legislature, the Governor, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and each member of the Cabinet,” he said.

More significantly, he said that “if amendments are adopted in Committee or on the Floor, the Secretary will issue a new distribution indicating the start of a new 72-hour cooling off period.”

“Thank you for your time and consideration of these important matters,” Latvala added.

The full memo is below:

Joe Negron: Senate will consider veto overrides

Senate President Joe Negron, in advance of the Legislature’s 3-day Special Session this week, told members in a Tuesday memo he expects “a proposal to override the veto of some university and higher education funding.”

The Stuart Republican also left the door open for medical marijuana implementation to be added to the call, saying he had made no deal “limit(ing) the subject matter to the issues listed in the Governor’s proclamation.” They are education, tourism marketing and economic development funding.

Legislative negotiators are reportedly close to striking a deal regarding marijuana dispensary caps, limiting the number of retail locations, that hamstrung lawmakers during this year’s regular session that ended in May. Introducing marijuana legislation would require a two-thirds vote.

The state’s medical cannabis amendment was passed in 2016 by just over 71 percent of statewide voters. An implementing bill gives guidance and instructions to state agencies on how to enforce state law.

In the memo, Negron tells senators the House “has indicated a willingness to move toward the Senate position on a number of issues, including the level of public school per-student funding and the amount of state investment in tourism marketing and economic development” and added he “made no agreement that would dictate an outcome for this Special Session.”

The “additional spending of approximately $350 million for K-12 funding, Visit Florida, and EFI (Enterprise Florida) would largely originate from the funds made available from vetoed projects originally funded with non-recurring general revenue,” Negron said.

“This use of non-recurring revenue to fund next year’s recurring needs negatively impacts our budget, and potentially our bond rating, in future years,” he added. “Here are some early ideas that have emerged in the Senate:

“Our Appropriations Chair, Sen. (Jack) Latvala, will file legislation this afternoon that will provide an additional $215 million to the (state’s) student funding formula. This funding will originate from $72 million in state funds ($66 million recurring; $6 million non-recurring) and $143 million (required local effort) increase (new construction only).

“Chair Latvala will also file legislation to address policy changes with regard to Visit Florida and EFI. This legislation will include a requirement that (the Department of Economic Opportunity) return to the state funds (approximately $107 million) held in escrow outside the state treasury to the SEED Trust Fund, which has been a bipartisan priority of the Senate for many years.

“In addition, Sen. (Anitere) Flores will file a bill today that will reduce the general revenue cut to Florida’s hospitals by $100 million, down from the $200 million cut passed in the 2017-18 (budget). This $100 million will come from reserves.

“This is consistent with the Senate’s earlier action during 2017 Regular Session to reduce the anticipated $250 million general revenue cut to $200 million. Once approved, our Working Capital Reserve Account would remain over $1.2 billion and our total reserves would exceed $3.2 billion.

“I also expect that the Senate will consider a proposal to override the veto of some university and higher education funding that represent major priorities of senators.”

Joe Henderson: Tallahassee gets special session, the public gets the bill

After the budget compromise reached by Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Joe Negron, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the biggest question hanging over the Legislature’s three-day special session this week is whether there is enough time for some lawmakers to grow a backbone.

Only one of two things can happen.

There will either be a full-blown party revolt at how this was handled, followed by points, counterpoints, then fire and pestilence raining down on the state capital as rank-and-file members stand up to their leaders. I’m not betting on that one, by the way.

Or … party leaders will tell members how to vote because this compromise is the greatest thing since craft beer was invented.  After some serious harrumphing in private, those legislators will fall into line, lest their future committee assignments reflect the cost of rebellion.

The latter is the smart wager.

Democrats might as well send their “nay” votes in by Skype because Florida’s one-party system of Republican control has rendered them irrelevant.

In the musical Hamilton, there is a scene that could have doubled for what happened in Tallahassee. Corcoran, Scott and Negron were three key figures in the room where it happened. Decisions were happening, and other leaders need not apply. On Friday, they were kind enough to share news of the deal they reached.

Scott got what he wanted. Corcoran got what he wanted.

What everyone else got was a take-it-or-leave-it deal that smacked of smoke-filled rooms and quid pro quos. Even Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs the Senate’s budget panel on tourism and economic development, was left out of the conversation.

That led to this cynical tweet from Republican state Senator and possible gubernatorial candidate Jack Latvala: “It’s a shame the House wouldn’t negotiate during the regular session. Now we have to spend $60-70k a day on a special session.”

Write that on the tombstone for this Legislative Session.

Scott salvaged his priorities — more money for tourism promotion and incentives (read: taxpayer cash) for businesses to create jobs here. In the wake of the statewide backlash against the controversial HB 7069, which diverts millions from public schools to charters, Scott got a little more cash for public schools. I sense that will be coming to a U.S. Senate campaign ad next year.

Educators were not impressed.

“The gaping flaws in HB 7069 haven’t changed with this suggested increase in funding,” Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a written statement.

“It doesn’t even pay for the massive giveaway to charter schools included in the bill. The governor and the legislative leaders who cooked up these changes and called for a special session are not addressing the needs of the parents and students in this state.”

This is probably a good time to recall that Corcoran called the union “downright evil” last because it opposed his plan for charter schools.

He added that the union’s stance was tantamount to “attempting to destroy the lives of almost 100,000 children, mostly minority, and all of them poor.”

Corcoran really, really wanted more money for those “Schools of Hope” charters that would otherwise have gone to public schools. Assuming lawmakers go along to get along, Corcoran wins.

Scott wins.

And what do we, the people, receive?

As always, we get the bill.

Welcome to Tallahassee.

15 big questions facing Florida politics heading into summer

Summer is here — well, unofficially at least. And with it comes cookouts, summer vacations, and the start of the 2018 election cycle (again, unofficially). With a tumultuous legislative session in our rearview mirror and a jam-packed election cycle on the horizon, the answers to these 14 questions (plus a fill-in-the-blank) could shape the future of the state.

Does Gov. Rick Scott veto the budget? The Naples Republican isn’t saying whether he plans to veto the $83 billion spending plan; but really when it comes down it, he isn’t saying much of anything about his plans. Scott has repeatedly taken swipes at lawmakers for slashing funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, as well as raising concerns about transparency. But when asked whether he’ll veto it, Scott has noted he could veto all or part of it.

If Scott were to veto the 2017-18 budget, it would trigger a special session to get a new spending plan in place before the end of the fiscal year. And after a year of legislative defeats, vetoing the entire budget could be a risky move: The House and Senate could overturn a veto with a two-third vote of members present and voting.

The budget passed the House on a 98-14 vote; while the Senate voted 34-4 to approve it, effectively giving it a veto-proof majority in both chambers, assuming no member changes his or her vote.

Will there be a special session? Forget a special session to tackle the budget. Let’s talk about medical marijuana.

Lawmakers failed to pass a bill to implement the medical marijuana constitutional amendment, which passed with 71 percent support in 2016. And almost as soon as the 2017 Legislative Session ended, calls for a Special Session began to pour in.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran said he supported one, as did Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Chris Sprowls, among others. Senate President Joe Negron didn’t close the door on it, although he asked for input from his membership; and more than a dozen lawmakers have sent letters to the Department of State in hopes of triggering a special session that way. A special session to tackle medical marijuana is also backed by John Morgan, who bankrolled the 2014 and 2016 constitutional amendments, and the Drug Free America Foundation, which opposed it.

But with about a month until the Department of Health is required to have its rules in place, it’s not entirely clear whether lawmakers will call a special session this summer or wait until committee meetings begin in the fall.

How will the House Speaker’s race play out? Republicans in the House approved a rule that said Speaker candidates can only officially begin accepting pledges of support after June 30. But the shadow campaign, well that’s been ongoing.

The freshman class is expected to hold a vote June 30, with Rep. Larry Metz counting ballots, on June 30 to determine their caucus leader and the future House Speaker, if Republicans hold the majority in the House.

The race appears to be between Reps. Paul Renner, Jamie Grant and Randy Fine. Renner is believed to have a number of votes lined up behind him, including Rep. Joe Gruters who said he planned to back Renner. Grant is pulling in a significant number of anti-Renner votes, while Fine could play the role of spoiler if neither Grant nor Renner wins outright.

But Renner, Grant and Fine aren’t the only names in the pot. Naples Republican Byron Donalds is also a contender, and Erin Grall is said to be considering a run.

Who will be the next Chief Financial Officer? When CFO Jeff Atwater announced earlier this year he was leaving his post to take a job at Florida Atlantic University, he said his departure would come at the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

While Atwater is sticking around until the 2017-18 budget is resolved, speculation of who Scott will pick to replace him have been swirling about for weeks now. Former Sen. Pat Neal is believed to be a top contender, and Sen. Aaron Bean has said he is interested in the position. Other names that have been floated include Gruters, a longtime ally of Scott’s, and former Rep. Jimmy Patronis.

Republicans will be watching who Scott selects, since it’s likely that person will run for the seat in 2018. And speaking of the upcoming election: Democrat Jeremy Ring filed to run for the seat in 2018, becoming the first person to officially throw their hat in the race.

What impact do the special elections have on the Legislature? Sen. Frank Artiles resignation from the Florida Senate has created a domino effect in the South Florida legislative delegation, with special elections scheduled in Senate District 40 and House District 116 this summer.

The South Florida Senate seat is seen as a must-win for Democrats, who lost the seat last year when Artiles defeated longtime Democratic Sen. Dwight Bullard. Three Democrats — Ana Rivas Logan, Steve Smith and Annette Taddeo — have already qualified for the race.

Rivas Logan ran for the seat in 2016, but lost the primary to Bullard. She previously served in the Florida House as a Republican. Taddeo, meanwhile, ran for Congress in 2016 and was Charlie Crist’s pick for lieutenant governor when he ran for governor as a Democrat in 2014.

The Republican race pits former Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla against Rep. Jose Felix Diaz. Republican Lorenzo Palomares also filed to run.

Diaz resigned his seat to run for Senate District 40, triggering a special election in House District 40.  Republicans Jose Miguel Mallea and Daniel Anthony Perez have filed to run, as has Democrat Ross Hancock. Mallea has received the backing of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Not to be outdone, Central Florida voters will also head to the polls this summer to replace Rep. Eric Eisnaugle in House District 44. Several legislative hopefuls have already thrown their hat in the race.

Can Democrats recruit? The special elections this summer could the first test of the Democrats power going into the 2018 election cycle.

With a new chair at its helm and a host of new staffers, the state party says its confident it will “build the strongest, most effective grassroots infrastructure in the entire country as we turn Florida back to blue in 2018.”

At the state level, Democratic House Victory announced it was bringing on Reggie Cardozo, who worked with the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns in Florida, as its general consultant; as well as Janee Murphy, a Tampa political consultant and an ally of incoming Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee.

With several vulnerable congressional seats up this election, including the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Democrats are going to need to be able to recruit good candidates across all levels of government. And that could mean pulling from robbing from one level — as could happen in the case of Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Democrat running for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat — to help another.

How long before Rick Scott announces U.S. Senate bid? It seems like more and more the discussions about whether Scott will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018 are turning into not if, but when conversations.

The Naples Republican is already starting to sound like he’s running for something, calling members of the House and Senate “politicians in Tallahassee.” His frequent trips to Washington, D.C. haven’t gone unnoticed; neither has the $3.26 million his state political committee, Let’s Get to Work, has raised since January, despite the fact Scott can’t run for re-election again in 2018.

And he seems to be laying the groundwork for a political operation. He recently announced he would chair the New Republican, a federal super PAC headed up by Melissa Stone, his former chief of staff and campaign manager for his 2014 re-election bid.

Scott has been coy about whether he’ll run, saying it’s an option before going on to say he’s focused on his current job. With an early session in 2018, he might hold off making any formal announcements until after next year’s Legislative Session.

What can Bill Nelson do to hold off Scott? The Orlando Democrat has already said he’s running for re-election in 2018, and several polls earlier this year showed Nelson leading Scott. But with millions upon millions of dollars expected to be spent on the race, Nelson might have to ramp up his efforts if he wants to guarantee another win in his column.

As the only statewide elected Democrat in Florida, look for a lot of pressure on Nelson to perform. The National Republican Senatorial Committee is already attacking him, and it’s expected millions upon millions of dollars will be poured into the race to try to defeat the 74-year-old.

Nelson has already raised nearly $2.1 million for his re-election campaign, and had $3.6 million cash on hand at the end of the first quarter of 2017. Look for Nelson to take a more outspoken stance against President Donald Trump, an ally of Scott’s, in the coming months as he begins to ramp up his campaign.

What will Jack Latvala do? The Clearwater Republican is one of the big question marks when it comes to the 2018 race to replace Scott.

Latvala has made no secret of the fact that he’s considering a gubernatorial run. He’s been making the rounds across the state, and his fundraising committee has raised nearly $1.5 million since the beginning of the year.

In May, he told the Panhandle Tiger Bay Club if he runs it would keep career politicians from taking over Tallahassee like they’ve done in Washington, saying the state needs “a business perspective. We need experience in the real world. I just don’t see that on my side of the aisle in the governor’s race.”

But Latvala is hardly an outsider. He served in the Florida Senate from 1994 until 2002, and was elected again in 2010. He currently serves as the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and arguably one of the most powerful state lawmakers in the House and Senate.

While he isn’t a household name, Latvala could spice up the Republican race to replace Scott. And his support for Scott’s top priorities this session — namely Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida — could earn him some Brownie points from Scott.

Latvala said he plans to announce his intentions in August. If he gets in, watch for a heated primary between him and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who many consider the front-runner. Latvala’s son, Rep. Chris Latvala, is already taking jabs at Putnam on social media, using the hashtag #PutnamIsStale when tweeting about Putnam.

Does Phil Levine really want to run for governor (and as a Democrat)? Earlier this year, the Miami Beach Democrat seemed to be on track to announce a 2018 run.

He started a political committee, All About Florida, and hired Matthew Van Name to coordinate efforts. State records show he poured $2 million of his own money into the committee, but hasn’t raised any coin beyond that.

With three Democrats — Andrew Gillum, Gwen Graham and Chris King — already vying for their party’s nomination, Levine’s entry would make a crowded field even more crowded. And that appears to be something he’s cognizant of, even opening the door to an independent run during a Tampa Tiger Bay Club event in May.

A big Democratic fundraiser, Levine would have put raise lots of cash — and put plenty of his own on the line — in order to boost name recognition. And with a wedding and baby on the way, one has to wonder if Levine wants to invest the time (and money) to get his name out there.

How much money will races pull in? We’re already seeing big numbers when it comes to the 2018 governor’s race, and with more than 400 days until the Aug. 28 primary that number will surely be on the rise.

But it isn’t just the governor’s race we’re watching. With all the Cabinet positions, several competitive state House and Senate races, a U.S. Senate race, and a couple of congressional districts in play, the 2018 election cycle could be one of the most expensive cycles to date.

It isn’t just candidates (and their political committees) we’ll be watching, though. Already you’re seeing outside groups, like the American Action Network, pour money into Florida, and it will be interesting to see how much groups are willing to pay to play in the Sunshine State.

Which Rick will come out on top in St. Pete? The race between Rick Baker and Rick Kriseman for St. Petersburg mayor is shaping up to be one of the must-watch local races this election cycle.

Baker, the former Republican mayor, is hoping to make a comeback, and polls show he has a wide margin over Kriseman, the city’s current Democratic mayor. A recent poll from St. Pete Polls showed 46 percent of registered St. Petersburg voters saying they would pick him in a head-to-head matchup, while 33 percent are with Kriseman. Twenty percent of voters polled said they were unsure.

You can expect the city’s recent sewage issue to be a big factor when voters head to the polls in the upcoming mayoral race. According to the recent St. Pete Polls survey 44 percent of respondents said the city’s recent sewage issues will be a “major factor” in their decision for who they vote for in the upcoming mayoral race; while 36 percent said it will be a “minor factor.”

What will the CRC do? It’s been 20 years since the Constitution Revision Commission last met, and this uniquely Florida board seems to be off to a rough start.

The commission still hasn’t adopted rules, something that has drawn the ire of several organizations, including the Florida League of Women Voters. And with Republicans controlling the Governor’s Mansion, the House and the Senate, the 37-member panel has a distinctly Republican lean, leaving some Floridians to worry about what will end up on the ballot come 2018.

The commission has held a series of meetings across the state, giving Floridians a chance to weigh in on what they think should be changed. And voters have sure sounded off, suggesting the Florida Constitution be amended to address abortion, privacy, voting rights and even secede from the United States. But since committee members have remained mostly silent during the meetings, it’s hard to say where they stand on any of the proposals.

Will a hurricane sweep through Florida? We are talking about a political storm, although if you ask Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, a weather event can turn into a political one in the blink of an eye.

No, we’re talking about the weather. Florida got hit with two hurricanes last year, after a decade-long dry spell. The weather woes put the Sunshine State in the spotlight, and forced everyone — including politicians in impacted communities — to make sure they were ready for the storm.

The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is predicting 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of which could become hurricanes. Of those hurricanes, NOAA’s forecast calls for two to four to become major hurricanes.

While it’s impossible to say whether a storm will hit Florida’s shores, one thing is clear: Another storm season like 2016’s could have a major impact on the state this year — and could have a ripple effect on politics in the year to come.

— Any list of questions facing Florida politics has to include a fill-in-the-blank section because you truly never know what event will occur to reset the axis. Will it be another tragedy, like last year’s shooting at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub? Or will a prominent Florida pol take their act from the Sunshine State to the Donald Trump administration? You never really know because, as we like to say about trying to predict Florida politics: “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.”

Pinellas GOP heavyweights raising money for Rick Baker on Wednesday in Clearwater Beach

Former Mayor Rick Baker continues building momentum in his quest to return for a third term as St. Petersburg Mayor.

Coming off a successful campaign kickoff event last week, Baker, who served two terms from 2001-2010, is following with another high-profile reception Wednesday in Clearwater Beach.

Co-chairs of the event – with the tagline “Proven Leadership” – include renowned attorney Brian Aungst Jr., former Pinellas GOP Chair Jay Beyrouti and restaurateur (and one-time “Mr. Clearwater”) Frank Chivas.

According to the invite, the blockbuster bipartisan host committee includes more than four dozen prominent Pinellas County state and municipal leaders such as State Sens. Jeff Brandes and Jack Latvala, state Reps. Kathleen Peters, Wengay Newton, Chris Latvala and Chris Sprowls, former state Rep. (and Senate candidate) Ed Hooper, Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County Property Appraiser Mike Twitty, Seminole Mayor Leslie Waters, North Redington Beach Mayor Bill Queen, Treasure Island Mayor Robert Minning, Oldsmar Vice Mayor Dan Saracki and more.

In last week’s kickoff at the Morean Arts Center, Baker pushed his vision of “A Seamless City,” and the slogan “I’m ready to serve.” Wednesday’s event – attended by much of the Pinellas County political elite – will sure to continue that theme. Baker is facing incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The reception begins 5:30 p.m. at the Island Way Grill, 20 Island Way in Clearwater. Those interested in attending can RSVP with Rick Porter at (407) 849-1112 or rick@politicalcapitalflorida.com.

Fate of program for disabled children rests with Rick Scott

Debby Dawson, who lives in southwest Florida, has a simple message to Gov. Rick Scott: The state’s existing scholarship program for disabled children is “life changing” and has helped her 7-year-old autistic son “develop by leaps and bounds.”

Dawson is part of a chorus of parents from around the state who have mounted a campaign through letters, emails and phone calls urging the Republican governor to sign a sweeping education bill that will soon come to his desk.

But that same bill has sparked an outpouring of an even larger negative reaction to Scott both directly and on social media.

School superintendents, the state’s teacher union, parent-teacher groups and Democrats have called on the governor to veto the bill. Even Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, the leading Republican candidate for governor in 2018, called the legislation a “train wreck” on Tuesday and said Scott should take a “hard look” at vetoing the bill.

That’s because GOP legislators crafted the 300-page bill largely in secret, and included in it portions that would steer more state and local money to privately-run charter schools. The legislation (HB 7069) also mandates recess in elementary schools, expands virtual education courses to private and home schooled students, and tweaks Florida’s testing system.

Scott, who supported the creation of the scholarship program, has not yet said what he plans to do.

But if he vetoes the bill, however, he will wipe out an extra $30 million for the Gardiner Scholarship program that provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students. Legislators included $73 million in the state budget for scholarships, but those who operate the program say it is growing and they may not have enough money to serve everyone without the extra money. Additionally, legislators passed a separate bill that would expand those eligible for the program.

That’s why Dawson wrote Scott asking him to sign the bill. She said without the extra money her other son – who is about to turn 3-years-old – may not get a scholarship in the coming year.

“As a parent who has seen how life changing this grant is, and knowing my second child may not have the same opportunities as my oldest, it is heartbreaking, to say the least,” Dawson wrote in an email to a reporter. “This grant opens up doors for our children where the doors were once shut and locked tight.”

Legislative leaders have not given a detailed explanation on why they put the extra money for the scholarship program in the bill, which was not released publicly until two days before a final vote. Initially, the state Senate had more than $100 million in its budget for the program but then agreed to lower it during budget negotiations.

Sen. Jack Latvala, the budget chairman, said the decision to include the money in the bill and not the budget was at the urging of House Speaker Richard Corcoran. When asked Corcoran called it a “compromise” since the House did not include the higher amount in its initial budget.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat opposed to the bill, argued that legislative leaders crafted the legislation this way in order to make it harder for Scott to veto the bill.

“I was deeply disturbed that (the families of disabled children) were hijacked and used as pawns to mollify opposition to an otherwise bad bill,” Farmer said.

School choice advocates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush, are asking Scott to sign the bill. Former Senate President Andy Gardiner, who has a son with Down syndrome and helped create the program, said he hopes the “governor is mindful” that the bill isn’t just about charter schools and that many families will be affected by his decision.

Barbara Beasley, whose 9-year-old daughter receives a Gardiner scholarship, says it has dramatically improved her daughter’s life, but she said that “lawmakers sold us down the river with their backroom dealing on the education bill.” She said other parts of the legislation are detrimental to public schools and should be stopped.

“I beg Governor Scott to order lawmakers back to session to fix their mistakes, separate these items from the bad and push them through,” Beasley said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Senate Democrats could help block budget veto override – with caveats

Senate Democrats are ready to work with Gov. Rick Scott should he veto the massive education reform bill pushed by House leaders in the final days of the 2017 Session.

Mary Ellen Klas of the Miami Herald reports that Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon is prepared to help prevent an override of Scott’s veto, under the right circumstances.

A chorus of voices are calling Scott to veto HB 7069 — as well as the entire K-12 budget.

If that happens, the 15-member Senate Democratic caucus will be crucial to preventing the Republican-controlled Legislature from overriding a veto.

“We have to have a reason to override,” Braynon told the Herald about his Democratic colleagues. “It would depend on what the veto message looks like and if his vetoes include a bunch of things that matter to Democrats, then we’re not going to override. We’re willing to come back and work.”

Twenty-Six Senate votes are needed to override the governor’s veto, and as Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala publicly saying he would support a veto — and the three Republican senators who voted against HB 7069 — Senate Democrats could very well prevent an override if the voting bloc holds firm.

“We’re not against funding VISIT Florida,” Braynon said. “If the Republicans ask for an override of 7069, we’re not going to do it. If they want an override of the whole budget, we will withhold our judgment on overriding until we see what happens.”

Ron DeSantis for Governor? Don’t rule it out

Adam Putnam may have some competition for the Republican nomination for Florida Governor after all.

Sources very familiar with the thinking of U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis note that he is looking at a run for the state’s top job, with a decision to be made late in the summer.

Were he to run, he would be a very serious candidate for the job — posing an existential threat to Putnam, as DeSantis could very quickly own the space to Putnam’s right.

DeSantis, who was far and away the strongest fundraiser in the GOP primary race for Senate in 2016 (ended when Marco Rubio decided to run for re-election), has some advantages that others lack.

Among them: name identification, as Team DeSantis asserts that the nationally-known Northeast Florida Congressman has better name id than either Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran or State Sen. Jack Latvala.

As well, DeSantis has $3M at his disposal already; were he to enter the race, that war chest would grow quickly.

However, no decision is imminent — yet. DeSantis is still working on the federal level, with a number of issues he wants to push forward ahead of the August recess.

DeSantis, unlike presumptive GOP Senate nominee Rick Scott, has not secured or even asked for the blessing of President Donald Trump. However, given DeSantis’ national profile, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Trump does not support the nationally-known conservative.

Conversations DeSantis is having about the race are the kind of stakeholder talks one would expect in the pre-candidacy phase — “open” conversations with local, state, and national figures.

Those conversations reveal a “real hesitation about Putnam,” we are told.

Meanwhile, any support that Corcoran may be interested in securing from Americans for Prosperity may be blunted, effectively, by the vast majority of members of the board of directors having given to DeSantis for Senate already.

DeSantis is going to be worth watching in the next few months, as he has the biggest national profile of any potential gubernatorial candidate, with hits on Fox News Channel a few times a week.

While Attorney General may be another option, the reality is that for DeSantis, the time to make a move for the top job in the state is likely now.

For Northeast Florida conservatives, meanwhile, DeSantis may be the best shot in decades to take the governor’s office.

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