Jeff Brandes Archives - Florida Politics

Business leaders lobby Tampa Bay-area lawmakers on regional transit

As for discussion over a proposed Senate regional transit bill for the Tampa Bay region, it’s all about timing.

A group of a dozen local business executives arrived for a lobbying trip to Tallahassee just one day after a contentious Senate committee meeting where three Tampa Bay lawmakers clashed over a bill seeking to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). The nonprofit Tampa Bay partnership arranged the trip.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that in a heated meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee, Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala watched in frustration as Republican colleagues Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended the bill.

The bill, originally approved April 17, was changed to require legislative approval for any local spending proposal that would include a light rail system and also prohibit TBARTA from financing a voter referendum on light rail.

Many saw the amendments as a significant blow to the TBARTA’s independence.

“The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point,” Tampa Bay partnership president Rick Homans told the Times.

Among those in the business delegation were Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik; University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft; Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes; Ron Wanek, founder of Ashley Furniture; Tampa attorney Rhea Law, as well as Tampa executives of TECO Energy, BlueGrace Logistics, the BayCare Health System, PNC Bank, Vology and Florida Blue.

While the group’s agenda included supporting Latvala’s transit bill, ride-sharing legislation, and a creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Times noted that TBARTA received special emphasis.

“It’s not dead,” Homans said. “It’s very much alive.”

The amended bill now includes a feasibility study ahead of any forward movement of a light rail system; at least three of the five Tampa Bay region counties must agree a plan for light rail, and that any rail project must get preapproval by the Legislature – since Tallahassee would be fronting much of the money anyway.

“They were not poison pills,” Brandes explained. “They were logical, reasonable steps that would largely have to be followed.”

Senate votes to allow beer ads in theme parks, ‘merlot to go’

Florida senators passed a bill Wednesday that would allow advertising by beer companies in the state’s theme parks.

The measure (SB 388), sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, received only one ‘no’ vote from Sen. Kelli Stargel, a Lakeland Republican.

It eases the state’s “tied house evil” law by allowing ads, which could include a beer company sponsoring a concert or festival within a park. Universal Orlando has supported the bill.

Some beer industry representatives had privately complained. However, they “fear being extorted by the theme parks.”

“We do a lot of business (with them), and we kind of see a situation where they say, ‘We do such-and-such theme night, but now we’d like you to pay for it,’ by sponsoring it,” said one. “(W)e all feel like we’ll be put over a barrel.”

The bill also repeals a state law to permit wine bottles of all sizes to be sold.

That includes the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

Further, it would repeal another state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal — “consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread” — before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

It extends the “merlot to go” legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

The bill now heads to the House. Its version (HB 423) still has not been heard by the Commerce Committee, its last panel of reference.

After four years of debate, bill regulating ride-sharing companies will go to Rick Scott’s desk

After years of intense debate, the Florida Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to create statewide regulations for transportation network companies.

The measure (HB 221) cleared the upper chamber on a 36-1 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Scott for his consideration.

“Today we sent a strong message that Florida embraces transportation innovation. The future of transportation options includes a focus on shared mobility, and as we move closer to autonomous vehicles on our roadways, the future of ride-sharing is very bright,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the bill (SB 340). “With this legislation, Florida will have a uniform set of standards for the services our businesses demand, our tourists have come to expect, and our residents deserve.”

The bill, among other things, requires ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft, to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury of death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app, but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a passenger, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill requires companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and rules on transportation network companies.

The proposal received the backing from Uber and Lyft.

“We’re grateful to Sen. Brandes, Rep. Chris Sprowls, and Rep. Jamie Grant for their commitment to carrying ridesharing legislation over the finish line, and for the consistent leadership shown by Gov. Scott, President Negron, and Speaker Corcoran,” said Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs. “The most exciting opportunities are yet to come, as millions of Florida residents and visitors, from Pensacola to Key West, will have permanent access to Uber.”

The vote came after years of debate and discussions on the issue. While proposals have cleared the House in the past, they have gotten hung up in the Senate in recent years. This year, the proposal sailed through all of its committee stops in the Senate, and passed with no debate Wednesday.

“We applaud the Florida Senate, and especially Sen. Brandes, for passing a statewide framework for ridesharing. This legislation will provide certainty for the many Floridians who use the convenient and affordable transportation services offered by Lyft, and we encourage the Governor to sign this bill into law,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We want to thank the Lyft community throughout Florida for standing up in support of ridesharing. We look forward to continuing to provide Florida’s residents and visitors with innovative transportation options that boost economic growth in communities across the Sunshine State.”

The House voted 115-0 on April 5 to approve the measure.

“The overwhelmingly bi-partisan passage of ridesharing legislation in both the House and Senate shows a strong desire for this innovative and free-market service. It not only provides convenient travel options for anyone in our state, it will allow many Floridians an extra source of income to help make ends meet,” said Rep. Sprowls, who sponsored the bill in the House, in statement Wednesday. “I appreciate the hard work that Senator Brandes put into passing this bill in the Senate and look forward to Floridians having this travel option should they choose it.”

 

House Democrats wake up on weed

Perhaps they’ve been reading the rash of vitriolic emails and op-eds from Florida for Care, or the equally brutal reporting and editorializing from the Tampa Bay Times this past weekend.

Maybe it was the litany of emotional public comment at Tuesday’s hearing.

Whatever it was, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee – led by the always entertaining, snarky and whip-smart Jared Moskowitz – suddenly woke up on medical marijuana.

It was a huge turnaround from just a few weeks ago.

When HB 1397 – the House’s medical marijuana implementing legislation, filed by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues – had the first hearing a few weeks ago in the Health Quality Subcommittee, it sailed through with nary a word from Democrats on the committee.

Only first year Rep. Amy Mercado voted “nay.”

This was somewhat surprising, given medical marijuana’s political history in Florida. The issue has always enjoyed a significant degree of bipartisan support with voters, while divided along sharply partisan lines in Tallahassee.

Florida’s Democratic Party executive committee twice endorsed Amendment 2, in 2014 and 2016; Republicans in the Legislature and the Cabinet were unanimous in opposition to the same in 2014, and while more muted in 2016, only Sen. Jeff Brandes and then-Rep. Dana Young broke party ranks to endorse medical marijuana last fall.

While 118 of 120 House districts gave Amendment 2 north of 60 percent support in the November elections, Democratic districts were much more likely to offer support – in the mid-to-high 70s.

In opening the debate on HB 1397, Moskowitz acknowledged as much, noting that he’d previously not been particularly engaged in the issue, but received nearly 76 percent support in his district.

In the first Senate hearing on implementation in December, Sen. Darryl Rouson, a longtime opponent of medical marijuana, publicly switched his position, citing the close to 80 percent support in his district (the highest of any Senate district statewide).

Moskowitz then began to pick apart the House bill’s overly restrictive nature, while also bringing up certain areas where he felt the bill could use additional tightening – most notably with
proximity to schools, and limiting the number of retail facilities an operator can open.

Per usual, Moskowitz’s shining moment arrived at the nexus of policy debate and humor, when he compared the requirement in HB 1397 that doctors submit justification of marijuana certifications to the Board of Medicine to Sarah Palin‘s famed Obamacare “death panels” comment in 2009.

Moskowitz wasn’t alone on the committee. Buttressing his snark was Rep. Lori Berman, who peppered tough questions throughout, and the stark, passionate, remarks of Rep. Katie Edwards.

Edwards had co-sponsored – along with now-Congressman Matt Gaetz – the original low-THC cannabis law the legislature passed in 2014 but has remained somewhat mute on the issue since. She attributed her relative silence to the emotional toll the issue can take, the burden of responsibility toward suffering patients and families, who pleaded with her to do more for their relief.

Edwards pledged she would apologize no more for legislation that did not go far enough toward bringing that relief and voted down HB 1397.

In voting down HB 1397, Moskowitz, Berman and Edwards were joined by all their fellow Democrats. The decks of the House being stacked as they are, the measure nevertheless moved forward handily.

Given the current disparity between the implementation proposals of the House and Senate, as well as Rodrigues’ acknowledgment of negotiations already occurring between the chambers, Democrats might necessarily have a degree of input on this legislation, as they have carved out for themselves on gaming.

It should then be noticed that the Democrats’ point person on gaming in the House – Moskowitz – was also carrying their banner on medical marijuana.

Ridesharing bill advances to final vote in Senate

Legislation creating a statewide regulatory framework for ridesharing companies was debated Tuesday on the Senate floor.

Sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, SB 340 would require ride-sharing companies to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a rider, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

It also requires transportation network companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers.

Brandes substituted the House version of the bill (HB 221) sponsored by Republicans Jamie Grant of Tampa and Chris Sprowls of Safety Harbor, which had already passed the lower chamber.

Brandon Republican Tom Lee and Miami Democrat Julio Rodriguez introduced amendments, but then withdrawn.

Lee’s amendment would address what he said was an oversight in the legislation involving local governments cutting a deal with a particular transportation network company while cutting out others.

“What I fear what’s going to happen is that the extractions that are going to occur for that exclusivity are going to cost those transportation network companies a lot of money,” said Lee. “And then they’re going to have to drive their costs back through the rates paid by consumers, and yet those consumers wouldn’t have any choice.”

Lee didn’t want to jam up the legislation, he said. However, he would try to add his proposal to a different bill.

The next amendment, offered by Rodriguez, would address what he said was unnecessary language on standards in the bill if a ride-sharing driver is an employee or independent contractor.

Brandes considered it an unfriendly amendment; Rodriguez quickly withdrew it.

The bill now advances to the Senate for a third and final hearing Wednesday. Passage there would bring the bill to Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk to become state law.

BOOZE BILL

Booze bill ready for vote in Senate

A bill that would allow advertising by beer companies in the state’s theme parks is ready for a final vote in the Senate.

The measure (SB 388), carried by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson of Elkton, was heard on the floor Tuesday and placed on the third reading calendar.

It eases the state’s “tied house evil” law by allowing ads, which could include a beer company sponsoring a concert or festival within a park. Universal Orlando has supported the bill.

Some beer industry representatives had privately complained, however, they “fear being extorted by the theme parks.”

“We do a lot of business (with them), and we kind of see a situation where they say, ‘We do such-and-such theme night but now we’d like you to pay for it,’ by sponsoring it,” said one. “(W)e all feel like we’ll be put over a barrel.”

The bill also repeals a state law to permit wine bottles of all sizes to be sold.

That includes the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

Further, it would repeal another state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal — “consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread” — before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

It continues the legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

Senate advances plan for new Tampa Bay-area transit agency

Legislation to reconfigure the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) was approved Monday by the Florida Senate Commerce Committee.

However, the bill passed with changes taking some power from the agency and giving it to the state.

Sponsored by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, SB 1672 would change TBARTA to a transit agency (no longer transportation) and would encompass just four counties — Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco and Pinellas Counties. It’s been a top priority of the Tampa Bay Partnership this Session.

However, two other Bay-area Republicans — St. Petersburg’s Jeff Brandes and Brandon’s Tom Lee, neither of whom as considered enthusiasts of light rail — added an amendment that would create additional obstacles if the newly configured TBARTA ever opted to pursue a light rail project.

The amendment calls for a majority vote by the MPOs of each county impacted by any proposed rail projects before the authority can pursue any real related contract. It would also require the authority to conduct a feasibility from an independent third party before pursuing any rail-related project, and require the authority to receive approval of the entire Florida Legislature before pursuing any rail project.

The amendment does restore more local control in one aspect; it removes the appointment of authority members by the Speaker and Senate President. Instead, those appointees will be named by representatives from the four counties.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson is sponsoring the companion bill in the House.

Bigger wine bottles could be coming to Florida

Thanks to state Sen. Jeff Brandes, Nebuchadnezzar may come to Florida — the wine bottle size, not the king of ancient Babylon.

Current law generally makes it illegal to sell wine “in an individual container holding more than 1 gallon.” A typical bottle is 750 milliliters, roughly a fifth of a gallon.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, last week offered an amendment to a booze-advertising bill (SB 388). The amendment, adopted without objection, repeals the bottle-size law.

It would allow wine bottles of all sizes, including the “Nebuchadnezzar,” which hold 15 liters, or the volume of 20 standard wine bottles.

The bill would even allow the mammoth 50-liter “Sovereign” — the equivalent of a whopping 67 standard wine bottles.

“This bottle is quite probably only produced by Taittinger, who in 1988 created (it) for the baptism of the largest cruise ship in the world, named the ‘Sovereign of the Seas,’ ” according to the BigBottles website.

“This is about individual liberty,” Brandes said in a text message. And 50 liters is a lot of liberty.

His language also would place “the regulation of cider-bottle size on equal footing with beer,” he said.

And it would repeal a state law that requires diners to order and consume a full meal — “consisting of a salad or vegetable, entree, a beverage, and bread” — before they can take home an opened bottle of wine.

Call that one the “Pinot to go” provision. (“Merlot to go”? “Take-away Chardonnay”?) It’s the continuing legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

“Ultimately, in Florida, we trust adults to be adults and we don’t need laws that force us to eat our vegetables before enjoying a glass of wine,” Brandes said.

The Senate bill is now ready for the floor. A House companion (HB 423) doesn’t have provisions similar to Brandes’.

Jeff Brandes wants to keep renewable energy bill clean

A Senate panel approved a bill by St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes that would implement solar tax breaks approved by Florida voters in last year.

More than 70 percent of Florida voters backed Amendment 4 in August, which makes it so the increased value of a home due to renewable energy improvements such as solar panels can’t be included when assessing a property’s value for tax purposes.

SB 90, which is supported by environmental groups and solar panel installers, doesn’t include the same safety standards and disclosure requirements found in the House version, HB 1351.

House bill sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues worked with solar experts, including Florida Power & Light, SolarCity and local solar installers to develop consumer protection language, much of which mirrors the recommendation of the Solar Energy Installers Association. The Energy & Policy Institute, a secretive group that does not disclose its funding sources, has claimed that the House bill would put a damper on solar panel sales, however, former Arizona regulator Bob Stump countered that solar sales increased after similar consumer protection legislation passed in his state.

Brandes told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Finance and Tax that he is in talks with the House on an implementing bill for the tax break, but said he hasn’t agreed to the extra regulations in their bill.

The Republican lawmaker said, “all the options are on the table” when asked if he would be willing to let his bill die if he can’t reach an agreement with the House on the so-called consumer protections.

“Clearly we’d prefer a clean bill,” he said.

The committee approved SB 90 with a unanimous vote and it now moves on to the full Senate Appropriations Committee, its last stop before its ready for the chamber floor.

The House’s preferred bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Ray Rodrigues, is awaiting action from the Commerce Committee.

A House bill filed by Democrat Lori Berman that is identical to Brandes’ solution has yet to be heard in committee.

 

George Gainer, Jeff Brandes reverse positions on Tri-Rail, push bill to let controversial contract stand

Tri-Rail’s controversial, one-source, half-billion, operations contract could go forward under an amended bill pushed Thursday by the Gov. Rick Scott administration and state Sens. George Gainer and Jeff Brandes.

Just a few weeks ago, both Gainer and Brandes were hostile critics of the contract and Tri-Rail.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, sponsored an amendment Thursday that strips away language that he and Scott had pushed for earlier that would have forced Tri-Rail to rebid the $511 million, 10-year contract.

Tri-Rail’s operating agency, the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority, awarded that contract in January after rejecting five lower bids for technical issues that the companies are contesting. The award brought, from Scott, Brandes and Gainer, harsh rebukes, demands for investigations, vows of new state control, as well as demands to rebid the contract.

Gainer, a Panama City Republican, introduced Senate Bill 1118 to require those things.

Yet Brandes’ new amendment, introduced Thursday at the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, which he chairs, reverses the demand for the rebid. The amendment was adopted it unanimously, then Gainer’s amended Committee Substitute for SB 1118 was approved unanimously, Thursday.

The amendment and the bill drew strong objections from representatives of the companies that lost the Tri-Rail contract, which runs commuter rail trains through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Several argued that their companies had agreed to continue current operations contracts until a new one could be rebid, so that there would be no disruption in services for passengers. The new contract, switching operations management to Herzog, is set to begin July 1.

There was little explanation or defense of the change of position from Brandes, or Gainer, or anyone else during Thursday’s committee meeting.

Brandes’ office said the state got assurances it needed through language in the amendment.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority Executive Director Jack Stephens said it was a good day for Tri-Rail and its riders in South Florida. He said the bills’ amendments were the results of negotiations between the authority, the governor’s office, and the FDOT secretary’s office. The key was working out a state financing model that could give the state more control yet allow the authority to keep paying its bills.

The state financing model was spelled out in the amendments to SB 1118 and to a related bill, Senate Bill 842, which also eased up on a threatened crackdowns on Tri-Rail. Amendment sponsor Frank Artiles said it was at the behest of Scott’s administration, after the negotiations with the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

The amendments require the transportation authority to receive FDOT approval for any new, extended or renewed contracts that use state money, and to submit monthly invoices to FDOT for reimbursements, rather than just receive lump-sum quarterly transfers totaling $42 million a year in taxpayer money. There also are other new accounting requirements. “I believe the principal concerns have been addressed, and they have been addressed to the benefits of all involved, in regards to the governor’s office, the secretary’s office and ourselves, and the citizens of South Florida, of course,” Stephens said.

Tri-Rail still faces a budget proviso in the House of Representatives that would require the transportation authority to rebid the contract if it wants to receive state money. Stephens said he was hopeful that, too, could be dropped, though he cautioned he did not want to predict.

Tri-Rail also faces the prospect of court challenges to the bid, from any or all the five companies that offered lower bids that got thrown out by the transportation authority’s procurements director. All of that happened before the single remaining bid, from Herzog Transportation Services, was brought to the authority’s board for consideration and approval in late January.

There also is a Florida Department of Transportation Inspector General investigation of the contract underway.

“We’re disappointed in the outcome,” said Tom Martin, head of Business Development for Bombardier Americas, which had submitted an operations bid that was $115 million less expensive than Herzog’s.

He said all the companies wanted was the state to assure a fair contract competition.

Asked about the prospect that Bombardier might take the Tri-Rail contract to court, he added, “I think we will keep all of our options open.”

Committee Substitute to SB 842 drew less outrage from Herzog’s competitors, but also cut Tri-Rail some slack.

A budget proviso had required that the state Department of Transportation would from now on review and approve all the transportation authorities’ contracts if it were to continue to receive about $42 million in state subsidies.

However, SB 842 draws a tight distinction between funding the transportation authority gets from the state and from other sources, including the federal government and fares, and allows that any contracts paid for with those non-state monies could be exercised without state approval.

 

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