Jeff Brandes Archives - Florida Politics

Calls for blue-ribbon hurricane panels abound in Capitol

In the wake of Hurricane Irma, and with Hurricane Maria now churning the Atlantic, Florida lawmakers are forming or calling for blue-ribbon panels to improve the state’s readiness to deal with monster storms.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran on Tuesday announced the creation of a “Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness” to “gather information, solicit ideas for improvement, and make recommendations.”

Separately, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, asked Gov. Rick Scott “to form a commission to review the disaster preparedness, response, and recovery of state and local entities involved in Hurricane Irma efforts, as well as critical infrastructure institutions such as public utilities and medical facilities.”

The calls come after Hurricane Irma ravaged the state last week, causing at least $2 billion in damage tallied so far. Evacuees were hampered by gasoline shortages, and eight South Florida nursing home residents died after their air conditioning went out.

Money will be tight this year as the Legislature’s chief economist already warned legislators that next year’s relatively tiny state budget surplus will be erased because of costs from Irma.

Corcoran

In the House, Corcoran wants members to set aside “business as usual,” suggesting that filing local spending projects will be frowned upon, at least officially, during the 2018 Legislative Session.

“We spend a significant portion of money”—more than $630 million this year—”on what are considered ‘pork’ projects,” he said at a Tuesday news conference in the Capitol. “If we took just some of those funds … you’re going to see us make tremendous (progress) toward hurricane hardening throughout our state.

“There is not one single (pork) project … that is worth the health and safety of Floridians,” he added.

But Senate President Joe Negron quickly shot down any self-imposed ban on hometown spending. He told the Tampa Bay Times that senators are “in the best position to know what projects are most important.”

“Let’s keep our constitutional roles straight,” he added. “The Legislature is the appropriating body. The Legislature should always have the prerogative and flexibility to write the budget.”

Among some of the ideas floated by Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican and possible 2018 candidate for governor: Creating a state gasoline reserve, looking at tree management policies, and better coordinating the flow of highway traffic before and after a storm. They would go into a “5- or 10-year plan.”

But when asked whether the panel would look hard at the possibility of human-caused climate change affecting hurricane severity or frequency, Corcoran punted.

“I think that what we should be doing is asking ourselves, ‘What can we do to protect the people of this state in the best way possible?’ ” he said, referring to conflicting government studies on global warming. “… The No. 1 function of government is to protect its citizens.”

Colin Hackley: TALLAHASSEE, FLA. 5/8/17-Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, responds to questions from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, about funding for Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida executives during what is expected to be the final day of the extended 2017 legislative session Monday at the Capitol in Tallahassee.<br />
Brandes

Brandes, in a press release, thanked Gov. Scott, “emergency management officials, and our first responders,” but said “it is important that we have the appropriate oversight in place to stretch every relief dollar to the maximum benefit of Floridians.”

The commission he suggests would “review after-action reports created by state and local emergency operations centers, utilities, state agencies, medical facilities, and other critical service providers in order to evaluate and oversee recovery projects.

“The commission would ensure that state and county needs are met in a manner that best leverages disaster relief dollars. Additionally, it would make certain that the assessments of the recovery actions taken by both public and private entities become best practices to prepare for future events,” referring to similar oversight commissions for 2010’s BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina.

Later Tuesday, the House released the membership list for the special panel, which will be chaired by Miami-Dade’s Jeanette Nuñez, the House’s Speaker pro tempore. House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues of Estero will be vice chair.

In alphabetical order: Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican; Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat; Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican; Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican; Bob Cortes, an Altamonte Springs Republican; Tracie Davis, a Jacksonville Democrat; Dane Eagle, a Cape Coral Republican; Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican; Kristin Jacobs, a Coconut Creek Democrat; Larry Lee Jr., a Port St. Lucie Democrat; Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat; Elizabeth Porter, a Lake City Republican; Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican; Paul Renner, a Palm Coast Republican; Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat; Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican; Richard Stark, a Weston Democrat; Cyndi Stevenson, a St. Johns Republican; and Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican.

Will Weatherford endorses Ed Hooper for state Senate

Former House Speaker Will Weatherford is backing Ed Hooper for the state senate seat being vacated by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who terms out in 2018.

“Ed Hooper was an important member of my leadership team when I was Speaker of the Florida House, I could always rely on him for good counsel,” Weatherford said, “I also relied on his ability to navigate the land mines of special interests in the Capitol to accomplish our conservative agenda. Ed Hooper will be an outstanding member of the Senate and that is why I endorse him.”

Weatherford joins Republican Sens. Jeff Brandes and Dana Young, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri and Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco in endorsing Hooper for the seat.

The Clearwater Republican spent eight years in the House representing District 67, which was taken over by Republican Rep. Chris Latvala in 2014.

Since exiting the Legislature, Hooper has been working as a consultant. Currently he is the only GOP candidate running for Senate District 16, which covers northwestern Pinellas and southwestern Pasco counties, including the communities of New Port Richey, Tarpon Springs, Dunedin, Oldsmar and Clearwater.

The only other candidate in the race is Democrat Bernie Fensterwald, who filed back in June. Through the end of July, Hooper had around $90,000 on hand in his campaign account compared to just $2,000 for Fensterwald.

SD 16 is a reliably Republican district. About 38 percent of the electorate are registered Republicans compared to a 35 percent share who are registered Democrats.

In 2016, Latvala was virtually unopposed for re-election and took over 99 percent of the vote against write-in candidate Katherine Perkins.

 

Draft investigation report: Tri-Rail did not follow rules in $511 million, one-bid deal

When the public agency that runs the Tri-Rail commuter trains in South Florida dumped five less-expensive proposals and awarded a ten-year, $511 million, operations and maintenance contract last winter, the agency followed rules spelled out in that particular proposal but they conflicted with the agency’s standing internal procurement rules, a draft state investigation report concludes.

The transportation authority’s action last January boiled into major controversy spilling into the 2017 Florida Legislature Session. Gov. Rick Scott and key lawmakers, notably Sen. Jeff Brandes, expressed outrage that the agency essentially awarded a one-bid, ten-year contract worth a half-billion dollars, while five other train companies were crying foul. Brandes called for the state investigation.

Six months later, Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General Robert Clift concluded, [according to a report that is only in a draft stage but has been shared with other agencies in Florida,] that the transportation authority’s actions may have followed rules set forth for that specific project, but did not follow the agency’s standing procurement rules, which were different from what was outlined in the request for proposals. The agency’s rules would have required all six proposals to be evaluated by a selection committee, and that did not happen, Clift observed.

Clift did not make any recommendations that would affect the Herzog contract, but he did recommend several more state controls, including a call for a new state law requiring all state transportation authorities to adhere more closely to state procedures for bid protests, requiring bidding procedures to be stopped, and for disputes to go to the Florida Department of Administrative Hearings for final orders.

POLITICO Florida first reported on the inspector general’s draft report and Clift’s observations earlier Wednesday.

In his draft report, Clift also observed that the authority’s own rules would have required it to follow a “competitive negotiated procurement process,” but that never happened either.

Clift also cited Gerry O’Reilly, the FDOT District Four secretary who is a member of the SFRTA Board who voted against the contract in January, as saying that the new ten-year contract for Tri-Rail operating and maintenance appeared to be almost $10 million a year more than the transportation authority previously had been paying for the same services. O’Reilly raised concerns with Clift that the authority could not afford to pay that much more without seeking more revenue, though SFRTA officials told Clift they saw efficiency opportunities to make ends meet.

Clift sent a copy of the draft report to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority on Aug. 8, and FloridaPolitics.com obtained a copy as a public record Wednesday. The final report, which would include the SFRTA’s response and other addenda, is not set to be completed until October.

A spokeswoman for the transportation authority said the agency would not comment on the inspector general’s observations and recommendations until the final report is out.

On Jan. 27 the SFRTA Board voted 6-2 to award a contract based on the only bid presented to the board, from Herzog Transit Services. Five other proposals, from Amtrak, Bombardier, First Transit, Inc., SNC-Lavalin, and Transdev Services, Inc., all had been rejected by staff weeks earlier for what staff had said were “qualified” pricing proposals, which the companies later denied. All the other bids reportedly were lower, as low as $396 million, but those proposals were never reviewed. Three of those companies went to court to try to force the board to consider their proposals, but lost in court, based on the requirements spelled out in the request for proposals.

Scott; Brandes, who chairs of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development; state Sen. George Gainer, who chairs of the Senate Transportation Committee; and the Florida Department of Transportation all raised strong criticisms of the deal and threatening to cut Tri-Rail’s $42.1 million in state money if the agency did not rescind the Herzog deal and rebid the contract. However, they backed down in favor of a new law, House Bill 695, which tightened state control over the agency.

 

 

Fundraisers set for three GOP special election candidates

Florida’s top Republican lawmakers are lending a helping hand to the GOP nominees in three special elections going down this fall, according to fundraising invitations sent out Friday.

A fundraiser benefitting Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz’s Senate bid is set for Sept. 14. Senate President Joe Negron and the two Senators in line to succeed him in that role, Bill Galvano and Wilton Simpson, will host the event in Tampa at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse.

Joining them for the 6 p.m. fundraiser are Sens. Jeff Brandes, Tom Lee and Dana Young. In addition giving Diaz a boost, the fundraiser is also being put on for Senate Majority 2018.

Diaz is running to take over for disgraced former Sen. Frank Artiles in SD 40. He beat Alex Diaz de la Portilla in the special Republican Primary for the seat, and now faces Democrat Annette Taddeo, who scored her first win at the polls in five tries – once for Miami-Dade County Commission, then as Charlie Crist’s lieutenant governor pick, and twice for Congress.

The general election is set for Sept. 26.

Danny Perez, who won the GOP nomination to succeed Diaz in HD 116, and Robert “Bobby O” Olzewski, the Republican nominee to replace former Rep. Eric Eisnaugle in HD 44, have a joint fundraiser set for Sept. 13 in Tallahassee.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran is top billed on the host committee, and like Negron his successors will be in tow: Jose OlivaChris Sprowls, and Paul Renner.

The fundraiser kicks off at 5 p.m. at the Florida Realtors building on South Monroe Street.

Perez is running against Democrat Gabriela Mayudon who has less than $100 in her campaign account, while Bobby O is facing Democrat Paul Chandler, who is near open warfare with the Florida Democratic Party.

The invitations to the events are below:

 

Is Tampa airport expansion ‘betting big’ on old tech over distuptors like ridesharing?

Tampa International Airport is preparing for the future, moving ahead with a multibillion-dollar expansion project while setting new passenger records in 2017.

However, Noah Pransky of WTSP found that TIA appears hesitant to embrace the latest transportation disruptor: ridesharing technology companies Uber and Lyft.

With significant ridership increases, Uber and Lyft have impacted airport revenues from parking and rental cars – two conventional ground transportation options that are a key element in the planned Phase 1 of the airport’s expansion.

“We’ve made this huge bet on rental cars that I don’t know if it’s going to pay off,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes told WTSP. During the 2017 Legislative Session, the St. Petersburg Republican helped jump-start an audit of the airport’s multi phase construction project. “I would love to see them move faster (on emerging technology).”

WTSP 10Investigates reported in July that the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority is setting new fees on Uber, Lyft, and taxicab fares from TIA came after the agency failed to meet projected benchmarks in parking and rental car revenues.

What’s more, the airport waited until just this summer to adjust its long-term master plan to accommodate the tech disruptors, by adding new curbsides at each terminal in downscaling Phase 2 of its expansion, despite Uber entering the Tampa market five years ago, and has been impacting airport revenues for at least two years.

Business management firm Certify estimates ridesharing accounts 63 percent of U.S. business travelers’ ground transportation expenses, a number far outpacing both rental cars (29 percent) and taxicabs (8 percent).

Nowhere is this difficulty in embracing the future more obvious than with airport’s construction project that adds “people movers” two shuttle travelers to a new rental car facility. TIA CEO Joe Lopano hailed the addition as one that will “give our guests access to twice as many rental car choices,” removing as many as 8,000 cars per day from wrote surrounding the airport.

Pransky reports that those 8,000 cars make up only short trips on the airport’s main and back roads – not terminal curbsides themselves – most susceptible to congestion, particularly with increased ridesharing. In addition, those estimates came from a 2011 study, using numbers from peak season, which predated ridesharing in Tampa.

The airport has not yet plan for increased congestion from Uber and Lyft vehicles using curbsides.

“Were we too late? Maybe,” Lopano said when asked about how quickly the airport has responded ridesharing. “But I think we have the right solution.”

 

Jeremy Ring raised $45K in July for CFO bid, spent $60K

Former state Sen. Jeremy Ring headed into August with about $130,000 on hand after spending more than he raised in July for his Chief Financial Officer bid.

The Margate Democrat brought in a total of $45,396 between his campaign account and his political committee, “Florida Action Fund PC.” Combined, the two entities spent $60,515, including a $20,000 payment to the Florida Democratic Party.

Among the other $40,000 in spending was more than $10,000 in payments to D.C.-based MDW Communications for a website, $4,800 to NGP VAN, Inc., based in Washington, D.C. and Somerville, Massachusetts, for IT work and a slew of $1,000-plus payments to various consulting groups across the Sunshine State.

Contributions to the committee included $10,000 from the Firefighter FactPAC, $5,000 from the Pelican Bay political committee in Naples and $2,500 from the Jacksonville Association of Firefighters. The campaign account took in $26,000 in July across 38 contributions, including $3,000 a piece from Robert Greenberg, Eric Becker, Adam Stein, James Stork and Nadezda Usina.

Ring is currently the only declared candidate for Florida CFO, is now held by Republican Jimmy Patronis, who was appointed to the position after Jeff Atwater left the job earlier this year to become the CFO of Florida Atlantic University.

Patronis, a former lawmaker himself, hasn’t said whether he would run for CFO, but several of his former colleagues in the Legislature have hinted they might take a stab at the Cabinet seat in 2018.

Possible Republican entrants include state Sen. Tom Lee and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera.

A couple of Democrats have been floated as candidates as well, including former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy.

Report: Florida’s imprisonment rate is 23 percent higher than the national average

The national crime rate in the U.S. has been steadily declining since for two decades and is currently at its lowest rate since 1968.

Likewise, Florida’s crime rate has dropped over the past few decades, but it is still 15 percent higher than the national average. And its imprisonment rate is 23 percent higher than the national average.

Those are just two findings included in a recently released report on Florida’s prison population trends that was published last month to little public notice, but was referenced by St. Petersburg state Senate Senator Jeff Brandes at an appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club last Friday.

“Our system is broken,” said the Republican lawmaker, who failed to pass several bills addressing criminal justice reform in Florida.

The report from the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute of Community Resources for Justices also found that prison admissions had declined by 28 percent of the last decade, driven by the declines in crime. However in that same time period, average sentences have increased by 22 percent, balancing out the admissions decline and leading to a mostly stable prison population.

The study (which goes up to the end of 2015) also shows that, generally, it helps to get arrested in the southern and eastern parts of the state. Counties in those parts of Florida tend to send people to prison at a lower rate than northern, central and western counties.

“These patterns hold when looking at admissions per reported crime or admissions per arrest, which means that the disparity is not driven by underlying crime rates,” write the authors, who are Felicity Rose, Colbey Dawley, Yamanda Wright and Len Engel of the Crime and Justice Institute.

Although there has been a decline in prison admissions in the last ten years, that’s certainly not universally felt across the state.

Overall, 47 of 67 counties have experienced a decline in prison admissions since 2007,  while 20 counties saw an increase. Within these groups there was significant variation, with some counties cutting their prison admissions by half, while others tripled theirs over the same period.

Enhancements and mandatory minimum sentences have a significant effect on the Florida prison population. Almost 36,000 current Florida prisoners were sentenced with an enhancement or mandatory minimum, up 19 percent from 2007. These enhancements primarily impact length of stay in prison, leading to a stacking effect where offenders come in to prison but do not leave at the same rate.

There were proposals to address the state’s mandatory minimum terms in the Legislature this past session, but no significant policy changes were enacted. The report says that in 2016, staff from Florida’s Senate Committee on Criminal Justice conducted an inventory of mandatory minimum terms in Florida and identified 108 offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence.

Demographically, Florida has always been home to some of the nation’s oldest citizens, and that includes those who are incarcerated.

The report shows that the number of prisoners 50 years old and over grew by 65 percent in the last decade, with that growth generated by prisoners who extremely long sentences aging into the “elderly prisoner” demographic.

 

Jeff Brandes, Dana Young endorse Ed Hooper

Republican state Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Dana Young of Tampa on Friday endorsed former state Rep. Ed Hooper in his quest to replace Clearwater Sen. Jack Latvala, who is term-limited in 2018.

Brandes called Hooper “a true advocate for his community … thoughtful, collaborative, and trusted.”

“These are some of the best qualities in a Senator and I’m happy to endorse him in his campaign for the State Senate,” he said. “He will help make Florida a more prosperous state for generations to come.”

Added Young, who left the House for the Senate last year: “As a former colleague of Ed’s, I can tell you from firsthand experience that he is a true leader and highly respected. I know he will make an excellent Senator and represent the people of Pinellas and Pasco counties with dignity and honor.”

Hooper said he was “honored” by the endorsements. Senate District 16 includes northern Pinellas and part of southwestern Pasco.

“They’ve set an example of how to work together to seek common sense and innovative solutions to Florida’s challenges,” he said. “Their continued leadership will make Florida a better place to live, work, visit, and retire.”

Hooper, a retired fire Lieutenant, served on the Clearwater City Council before spending eight years in the Florida House. He was term-limited in 2014. His only declared opposition is Democrat Bernie Fensterwald.

Florida’s bizarre fireworks law still in place

It’s almost Independence Day, which in Florida means: Time to scare some birds.

Although you can buy fireworks in the state, they’re not actually legal here.

Indeed, The Tampa Tribune in 2014 called fireworks sales in Florida an “institutionalized charade,” leading one lawmaker to call for “more freedom (and) less fraud.”

Retail sales are allowed only because of a 62-year-old loophole in the law, the only known one of its kind in the country.

That allows “fireworks … to be used solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries.”

Indeed, anyone who’s bought fireworks from a roadside tent over the years may remember signing a form acknowledging the buyer falls under an agricultural, fisheries or other exemption.

For the record, fireworks can also be used for “signal purposes or illumination” of a railroad or quarry, “for signal or ceremonial purposes in athletics or sports, or for use by military organizations.”

Enforcement is up to local police and fire agencies, and case law says fireworks vendors aren’t responsible for verifying buyers actually intend to chase off egrets or light up a track meet.

Every so often, lawmakers file bills either to remove or tighten certain exemptions, or to just legalize retail sales of fireworks. None have made it into law.

Three states have outright bans on consumer fireworks: Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, according to the American Pyrotechnic Association.

In Florida, former state Rep. Matt Gaetz once tried to legalize Roman candles, bottle rockets and other fireworks for recreational use. The Fort Walton Beach Republican is now a congressman.

And state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, pushed a similar bill prohibiting sales of fireworks and sparklers only to children under 16 and requiring other buyers to sign a disclaimer saying they know fireworks are dangerous.

“Florida law on fireworks is absurd,” he told FloridaPolitics.com last year. “Current law forces law-abiding parents to commit fraud by signing forms declaring the fireworks they buy won’t be used as fireworks to celebrate freedom with their kids, but to scare birds off crops.”

Current law “does not promote public safety and should be repealed to simply allow fireworks to be sold,” he added. “More freedom, less fraud.”

Most recently, state Sen. Greg Steube, the Sarasota Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, this year filed legislation to legalize consumer fireworks in Florida.

His bill (SB 324), which would have repealed the prohibition on selling fireworks to the general public, died in committee.

Editor’s Note: This story, which first ran last year, has been updated and re-published as a service to our readers.

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