Jeff Brandes Archives - Florida Politics

Eight-hour shoes and a whirlwind of press conferences

People don’t come to Florida’s Capitol without an agenda, and when they want to share it with the world, you can bet they’ll plan a news conference/media availability to share it via the Fourth Estate.

Wednesday was particularly rich with such events; I was assigned to go to ‘em all. As a babe in these particular woods, it was quite an adventure, navigating the hallways, rotundas, and meeting rooms of the Capitol complex for a full day during a busy committee week, the last one before the Session begins in earnest at noon March 7.

Gearing up for the task, I put on my decidedly unstylish eight-hour shoes, fascinated by the majority of women who navigate brick pavers of the Capitol Courtyard and stand on the building’s marble floors in pointy-toed stilettoes. The ladies know how to dress in Halls of Power. So do the men.

Pretty much everybody looks like they’re Somebody, which can make it difficult to sort out who’s the legislator and who’s the underling.

Many of the folks who cozied up to the lecterns throughout the day thought they needed no introduction. The House and Senate member directories came in very handy. Nametags, please. Nametags.

Crossing the plaza between the old and new Capitol buildings, I found a display of solar energy panels sponsored by the Florida affiliate of SEIA — the Solar Energy Industries Association. It was, unfortunately, a decidedly dreary day and the black panels — and their minders — looked a bit forlorn. But FlaSEIA President Patrick Altier assured me that while each was capable of producing 15 amps on a sunny day, it was still putting out only five amps of power.

Across the way — and garnering significantly more interest — were a pair of all-electric Teslas, available throughout the day for gawking and test drives. Interested parties could geek out over an interior display as big as a laptop computer screen and thrill at the cars’ power, which can go 0-to-60 in two seconds. The sedans aren’t solar powered, but Elon Musk gets a pass after Tesla acquired SolarCity, which recently unveiled a solar roof.

The solar lobby was in the house that day to promote SB 90, Sen. Jeff Brandes’ bill implementing Amendment 4, approved by voters in the August primary to give tax exemptions for solar power equipment.

I arrived early for the 12:15 p.m. news conference unveiling the United Way’s 2017 ALICE Report. Unfortunately, I was waiting in the ground-floor rotunda while the event was taking place on the fourth-floor rotunda, missing the first few minutes while getting my logistics right. ALICE, FYI, stands for people who are Asset Limited, Income-Constrained and Employed — basically, people working paycheck-to-paycheck and constantly on the brink of financial disaster. You can link to the whole report here. The microphone didn’t even get a chance to cool down before Reps. Shevrin Jones and Ramon Alexander stepped up at 12:30 to speak about their bills to “Ban the Box.” Alexander, a freshman legislator from Tallahassee, said his version would bar public employers and colleges from asking about criminal history in initial applications.

The day was broken up with a visit to the salad bar at Sharkey’s Capital Grill, on the subterranean LL level (not to be confused with Sharkey’s Capital Café on the 10th floor, both owned by lobbyist Jeff Sharkey). One of the items that could be picked up in the checkout line was mini-packs of Alka-Seltzer. Committee week will do that to you.

Seeking a press pass, I had to drop off paperwork at the Capitol Police/FDLE office on the way-bottom floor (L) of the Capitol. No marble down here; it’s all business in the basement. There were doors with discouraging “Do Not Enter” signs but windows allowing a view of the precious few parking spots filled with nice cars. I wonder whose they are?

All of my to-ings and fro-ings made for a lot of elevator rides with a confusing collection of level designations. But I was informed that the “main” floor with the door to the outside was PL, which one wag assured me didn’t mean Plaza Level, but “Please Leave.” A young woman told of an elevator hack that involved holding down the “close door” key allowing one to skip all the middling floors and take it straight to the fourth or fifth floors. And darned if an elevator didn’t go whisking past us to “Please Leave” as she was describing the trick.

Overheard: Newbie television reporter getting directions on how to get from Point A to Point B in the Capitol before the Matt Gaetz presser: “I just got here a week ago. I’m so lost.” I’m feelin’ ya, sir.

The House Press Room was rearranged for a pair of news conferences later in the afternoon, with blue drapes and a lectern adorned with the Official Seal flanked by a pair of flags. (If you want to feel smart and superior, a lectern is that thing people stand behind to give speeches. A podium is a raised platform so that you can see the speaker. People get it wrong ALL THE TIME.)

Gaetz swanned in, greeted as a conquering hero by the assembled Republicans who were there to support Florida House Memorials. These “memorials” are not statues or plinths or golden calves, but messages sent to Congress, urging the federal government to take action — in this case, to send federal money back to Florida in the form of block grants where it will be spent much more wisely and judiciously.

Veteran AP Reporter Gary Fineout assured me these memorials aren’t worth (insert your favorite pejorative here).

While memorials on limiting federal power, highway funding, and child welfare funding were available for perusal, the freshman congressman and House Speaker Richard Corcoran spent their time explaining why block grants made sense for Medicaid funding.

Ever the firebrand, Gaetz kicked off his remarks saying, “After six years of service in the Florida Legislature and six weeks of service in Congress, it has become exceedingly clear to me that Washington screws everything up.”

Both Gaetz and Corcoran made a case for giving more power and resources to Florida to redesign Medicaid by funding “patient-centered” health care for the “truly needy” without “overutilization” by those who don’t.

But the real fun started after the formal remarks when reporters clustered around Gaetz in the back of the room (Corcoran had ghosted), peppering him with questions about exactly how what he suggests would be implemented, and how it would improve health care for the poor.

And then off he went to make his case for the Memorial, but only after inviting the assembled press to join him the next day for his “Open Gaetz” town hall meeting in his district in Milton.

Another freshman congressman, Rep. Francis Rooney, spoke to the press at 4:30, after testifying at the House Natural Resources and Public Land subcommittee. Much of the convo about dikes, the Army Corps of Engineers, and funding went way over my head. So we’ll let Politico Reporter Bruce Ritchie spell it out in his story.

And the day was done. The YMCA Youth in Government high schoolers and oodles of schoolkids were gone. The occupational therapists were packing up their display, which included goggles that give you a look at how people with eye afflictions see the world. (Trust me; you do NOT want to get Diabetic Retinopathy). Ditto for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network.

Taking the elevator to “Please Leave” took infinitely less time than it did earlier in the day. All was quiet — until it started all over again Thursday.

George Gainer’s bill would strip Tri-Rail of funding, contracting authority

A new bill from state Sen. George Gainer would strip Tri-Rail of state funding unless its board rescinds a controversial $511 million contract, and it require state approval of future contracts.

The Bay County Republican’s Senate Bill 1118, introduced Tuesday, would force the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority to decide between the ten-year, $511 million operations and maintenance contract it is awarding to a sole qualified bidder, or the $42 million in state funding it expects each year.

The bill also would require state approval for any future SFRTA contracts for the South Florida commuter rail system that would be paid for with state money. Tri-Rail provides commuter rail service through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority provisions are buried in what is a much broader transportation bill from Gainer that covers everything from bridge inspections to natural gas vehicle regulations.

A companion bill, House Bill 865, from Republican state Rep. Jayer Williamson of Pace, does the same thing.

The bills continue an onslaught from Tallahassee that has included deep criticism of the SFRTA contact from Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Transportation and state Sen. Jeff Brandes, chair of theAppropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development. Brandes has called for an investigation. Scott did not include SFRTA money in his proposed budget.

They’re all criticizing the deal because the SFRTA first threw out five other proposals, all for less money, after concluding every one of the competitors violated bidding requirements.

SFRTA officials have steadfastly defended their actions and the final contract offer to Herzog Transit Services, including during a hearing before Brandes’s committee last week. Gainer is on that committee.

They’ve argued that the agency’s procurement director, with input from the authority’s lawyers and an advisory committee, ruled that the other five proposals all were made conditional, based on language the companies had included in their bids. That meant that the authority could trust none of their bottom-line prices, and was a direct violation of explicit rules the authority had spelled out before the bidding process began.

But their arguments did not allay the concerns Brandes and the others had raised, particularly since the authority’s final choice cost $115 million more than the lowest proposal, which had been rejected before it could be fully considered.

Jeff Brandes bills keep Enterprise Florida, but with tight leash

State Sen. Jeff Brandes‘s new economic development proposal would continue operations of the embattled Enterprise Florida and state Department of Economic Opportunity, but on tight leashes.

Senate Bills 1110 and 1112 spell out a new way of doing business for two of Florida’s major economic development programs that have been under fire for accountability, particularly through their spending and penchants for luring out-of-state business with incentives in cases that go awry.

Brandes’s bills focus more on fostering small businesses and startups already in Florida, with tighter controls on EFI’s spending and salaries. That includes creating a grant program for new business incubators and accelerators.

The plan behind the bills calls for full funding for Gov. Rick Scott‘s budget recommendations for Enterprise Florida and protection for current incentive programs. After that, though the rules will change.

Brandes’s bills could become the counter offer to what may come out of the House of Representatives, where Speaker Richard Corcoran is targeting Enterprise Florida for elimination due to concerns over its lack of accountability. House Bill 7005, introduced Tuesday, would abolish Enterprise Florida and strip to bare-bones another state-chartered economic development corporation, VISIT Florida.

Brandes is calling for redirection for Enterprise Florida. It does not address VISIT Florida.

“The focus of economic development should be on Florida’s small businesses,” Brandes stated in a news release. “Fostering a startup culture in our state and encouraging small business development will create a better ecosystem where opportunity can thrive. This legislation provides greater oversight and safeguards over our current economic development programs. This bill recasts our focus on new businesses that breathe the entrepreneurial spirit and diversify Florida’s economy.”

Among the proposals, Brandes’s bills would:

— Require the return of $117 million currently held in escrow for the Quick Action Closing (QAC) Fund to the State Economic Enhancement and Development (SEED) to increase the rate of return on those funds.

— Sanction businesses that relocate from the state within three years of receiving final incentive payments, and prohibit the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) from making material amendments to incentive contracts.

— Restructure Enterprise Florida Inc.’s board to be broader based, including reserving seats for the president of CareerSource Florida and someone from the Small Business Development Network, and requiring it to include at least one member with expertise in rural economic development.

— Prohibit any employees at Enterprise Florida from being paid more than the governor, and restricting bonuses, while requiring Senate confirmation for the president of Enterprise Florida.

— Establish a “Startup Florida Grant Program” within DEO, providing $50 million per year for the development and operation of small business incubators and accelerators throughout the state. The grants would be limited to $5 million a year.

— Establish the Small Business Information Center (SBIC) within the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Network Lead Center of the University of West Florida. It would serve as a clearinghouse for small businesses seeking help from DEO.

— Require the DOE to provide, to the governor and the Florida Legislature, annual reports on the estimated contractual obligations of the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund.

— Require two-thirds board votes for any contracts involving any board members who might have conflicts of interest with the companies involved.

— Limiting new incentive contracts to ten years.

 

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition pushes for statewide bill to get passed this year

Last year in the Florida Legislature, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create statewide regulations regarding ridesharing, but the bill died ignominiously in the state Senate.

Similar bills are winding their way through committees in both chambers already in 2017, and on Wednesday, the group Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition announced their support for that legislation, being sponsored in the House by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes.

“We fully support legislation that embraces innovation, and legislation that creates predictable regulatory climate across the entire state for ridesharing companies,” said Frank Walker, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce on a conference call.

Florida is one of only 12 states in the nation that has yet to create a statewide law regarding ridesharing, or transportation network companies (TNC’s) as they are also known.

In 2016, the drama was in the Florida Senate, where Uber blamed Senate President Andy Gardiner for the inability for the ridesharing legislation to advance. He’s been succeeded by Palm City Republican Joe Negron, who has praised the current legislation.

“I think you’ve got two different bodies then you had last year,” said Walker, when asked why he’s more optimistic that the bill will pass this year. He also said that there is simply more demand for Uber and Lyft. “Environment plays a big role, and so does demand,” he said.

No region of the state has more interest in seeing a ridesharing bill passed than in the Tampa Bay area. That’s because of the large unpopularity with the body charged in Hillsborough County to regulate Uber and Lyft, the Public Transportation Commission.

Over the years, PTC officers have cited numerous Lyft and Uber drivers for operating illegally. Those actions ceased after the PTC finally passed a bill last fall bringing the two companies into compliance.

“Local regulations at best have been problematic and dysfunctional, and have not been helping to foster and grow the local economy, and that’s why we need a statewide regulation,” said Bob Rohrlack, President/CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Rohrlack blamed “the status quo,” meaning the taxicab industry predominantly, for putting up roadblocks to protect, and not grow markets. “The local regulations penalize entrepreneurs. That’s something that none of us should be accepting,” he said.

In previous years, there has been criticism that the ridesharing companies have not been accommodating towards the disabled. But Kim Galban-Countryman, Executive Director of Lighthouse of the Big Bend, says the TNC’s are helping people with disabilities, especially those living with vision loss.

“Convenient transportation options are an absolute necessity for people with vision loss, and ridesharing introduces a simple affordable means to get around,” Galban-Countryman says.”Through various voice activated systems and services, individuals with visual impairments who otherwise would not have access to convenient transportation options can maintain their independence, and call a Lyft or Uber driver to take them where they need to go.”

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition was formed before the 2016 Legislative Session.

 

 

Economic incentives

Bill to kill business incentives, Enterprise Florida cleared for House floor

A House bill that would abolish the Enterprise Florida economic development organization, eliminate a throng of business incentive programs, and strip the VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing agency down to a barebones $25 million budget cleared its second and final panel Tuesday.

That means the measure (HB 7005), OK’d by the House Appropriations Committee on an 18-12 vote, is ready to be considered by the full House when the 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7. 

The vote was another hit to Gov. Rick Scott, an advocate of both agencies and economic incentives, which he says create jobs for Floridians. In a statement, he again responded to the House with the “P” word.

“Today’s vote by politicians in the Florida House is a job killer,” the governor said. “I know some politicians … say they don’t necessarily want to abolish these programs but instead want to advance a ‘conversation.’

“This is completely hypocritical and the kind of games I came to Tallahassee to change,” he added. “Perhaps if these politicians would listen to their constituents, instead of playing politics, they would understand how hurtful this legislation will be to Florida families.”

Even if the House passes its bill as currently is, however, it could well be dead on arrival in the Senate. The House originally aimed to kill VISIT FLORIDA, then offered to keep it but with far less money.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, on Tuesday filed his own economic development legislation. It would leave VISIT FLORIDA alone, and overhaul but not get rid of Enterprise Florida and incentive programs.

“The focus of economic development should be on Florida’s small businesses,” Brandes said. “Fostering a start-up culture in our state and encouraging small business development will create a better ecosystem where opportunity can thrive.”

But the House legislation is the star of GOP House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s push for more government transparency and better stewardship of the public’s money.

Corcoran had threatened to sue VISIT FLORIDA after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism, later revealed to be worth up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

That’s what got the measure support from House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz of Tampa: “We need to see (VISIT FLORIDA) on the front page when they’re helping us, not embarrassing us.”

She also noted that singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett has promoted the state for years. “He’s the loser here because he never earned a dime for that,” Cruz said.

As state Rep. Paul Renner, the Palm Coast Republican behind the 190-page bill, told the committee: “No more Pitbull contracts in secret …  no more money going to a privileged few.”

An array of local economic development interests, regional tourism groups, small business advocates and small business owners themselves opposed the bill, including hoteliers, restaurateurs, and even a co-operative of Panhandle oyster farmers. 

Chris Hart, Enterprise Florida’s CEO, told lawmakers his group is “fiscally responsible. We have integrity, we are stewards of public dollars … and we take the job very seriously.”

But state Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who voted against the bill because of the VISIT FLORIDA reduction, said he had “nothing good to say about Enterprise Florida … I have grave concerns about the incentives paid and the return on investment.”

Give him a bill only on that organization, he added, “and I’ll kill that for you.”


After the hearing, committee chair Carlos Trujillo held a brief media availability, which can be seen in the Periscope video below:

Ridesharing bill advances 21-1 in House committee

A bill to create statewide regulations for ridesharing companies easily advanced in its last committee stop Tuesday in the Florida House, but not without some dissent from a handful of Democrats on the panel.

The bill (HB 221) is sponsored by Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls, and officials with Uber and Lyft are hoping that this is finally the year that such legislation is finally passed.

The bill would require transportation network companies to have third-parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. People would be prohibited from becoming rideshare drivers if they have three moving violations in the prior 3-year period; have been convicted of a felony within the previous five years; or have been convicted of a misdemeanor charge of sexual assault, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, hit and run, or attempting to flee a law enforcement officer within the past five years.

It also calls for drivers to carry insurance coverage worth $50,000 for death and bodily injury per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident and $25,000 for property damage when picking up passengers. Coverage would jump to a minimum of $1 million in coverage in the case of death, bodily injury and property damage while a passenger is in the vehicle.

The bill also tells local governments they cannot set their own conflicting regulations, which is why the Florida League of Cities opposes it.

All told, 21 of the 22 members of the House Committee on Government Accountability supported the bill. The lone dissenter was Miami Gardens Democrat Barbara Watson, who said she has severe concerns about safety, specifically taking issue with the fact that background checks on ride-sharing drivers will only take place every three years.

“This bill is lacking in so many ways,” she said. “So many public safety issues are brought to bear.”

Democrat Kristen Diane Jacobs said she continues to consider the fact that the bill does not mandate signage on rideshare vehicles to be “problematic.”  She stated that the problem is now acute at the Fort Lauderdale airport and seaport.

“Somewhere along the line I hope we realize that signage is not only good for the company, the company’s already doing it, it’s good for those who are calling for the service, and I also think it’s really important for those governments that are having to do with so many drivers on governmental property,” Jacobs said.

“It’s been a cluster,” Orlando Democrat Carlos Guillermo Smith cracked regarding the lack of uniformity of ridesharing from city to city in Florida. “The reality is when tourists come to our state, they’re coming from around the country, they arrive in airports in our state, and they’re confused because they’re able to request Uber and Lyft rides at certain airports, but they’re not able to request them in other airports.”

Like Watson, he also expressed concerns about the safety standards on ridesharing vehicles. The Sprowls-Grant bill (sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes) does not require mandatory vehicle inspections, as happens in most local jurisdictions regarding taxicabs and limousines.

“Our work on this bill, I think is far from done,” Guillermo Smith said, blasting the notion that the Ubers and Airbnb’s of the world are the future of the workforce in America. “I hope not, because most Uber drivers are driving for supplemental income,” he said.

The taxicab industry remains unsatisfied as well with the progress of the bill.

Louis Minardi, the owner of Yellow Cab Company of Tampa, feared that the bill allows for very limited oversight of ridesharing vehicles, “because most cities and counties will quit doing what they were doing before,” regarding regulations.

Other critics, like Dwight Mattingly from Palm Beach County, said that with more public transit agencies partnering up with Uber and Lyft, TNC drivers “must conform” to the same regulations that public for hire vehicles have had to adapt to.

Sprowls disagreed, saying those transit agencies can place those regulations in contracts with those companies. “If they want to add more onerous regulation than we have in our bill because they feel that they want to…they are able to do that,” he said.

A former prosecutor, Sprowls disputed the notion that a Level II background check is more rigorous than the ones that ridesharing drivers will be subjected to. “The FBI database has 95 million records. These multistage databases that we specifically outline in the bill, have 500 million records,” he said.

After passage of the bill, Uber and Lyft representatives were ecstatic.

“Today’s bipartisan vote is an encouraging indication that lawmakers recognize the safety and economic value of statewide access to ridesharing,” said Javi Correoso, public affairs manager with Uber Florida. “At Uber, our highest priority is the well-being of riders and drivers alike. Our commitment to innovation has created a layered system using the latest technology to protect all involved.

“Today’s approval of the ridesharing bill by the House Government Accountability Committee clears the way for this important legislation to be voted on by the full House,” said Chelsea Harrison, senior policy communications manager for Lyft. “We are grateful for the advocacy of Reps. Sprowls and Grant on behalf of the millions of passengers and drivers who benefit from ridesharing in Florida. We look forward to continuing to advocate for consistent statewide rules for ridesharing that expand economic activity, prioritize public safety, and encourage innovation across the state.”

Task force would seek to remake Florida’s criminal justice system

Florida’s state lawmakers increasingly are embracing criminal justice reform policies that break with the state’s “tough on crime” past. But a sea change could be in the works.

But a sea change could be in the works.

Last year, Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and the GOP-controlled legislature approved one of the most far-reaching civil asset forfeiture reforms in the country, repealed a 10-20-life mandatory minimum sentencing law, and expanded health care delivery for mentally ill inmates. Mental health advocates say as much as 40 percent of Florida’s prison population needs treatment.

Dozens of reform-related bills already have been filed ahead this year’s state legislative session.

Now, it’s time to go big.

Seizing on momentum, Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg wants to remake the entire system.

“If you look around the country, many other states are leading on criminal justice reform. It’s a wave that’s just starting to hit Florida,” Brandes told Watchdog.org.

“It’s time to look at a holistic view about how to transform the system,” he said.

Brandes is seeking legislative approval to form a task force to conduct a comprehensive review of Florida’s criminal justice, court and corrections systems.

Ultimately, the task force would submit a report with findings, conclusions and recommendations to be molded into legislation for the 2018 state session.

Overhauling state prisons may be the first priority.

“We have prisons that are in a kind of crisis mode right now. We’re having a tough time hiring guards. Contraband rates are through the roof. Our education of prisoners is at rock bottom, and recidivism is a struggle for the state,” Brandes said.

Membership must reflect the racial, gender, geographic and economic diversity of the state, as well as the diversity and demographics of the state’s prison population, according to the proposal. The 28-member group would include members of the House and Senate, judges, academics, faith leaders, victims’ advocates, public defenders, law enforcement officials and even prison inmates in good standing.

Brandes said he has been in contact with groups such as the Crime and Justice Institute and Pew Research Center to discuss how to approach the issue and what possible outcomes might look like.

The task force would use a data-driven approach to arrive at sentencing and corrections recommendations for the purpose of:

— Reducing the state prison population.

— Decreasing spending by focusing on serious offenses and violent criminals.

— Holding offenders accountable through research-based supervision and sentencing practices.

— Reinvesting savings into strategies known to decrease recidivism, including reentry outcomes.

“We think states like Texas are thought leaders in criminal justice reform. It’s time for Florida to follow Texas’s lead on the criminal justice issue and to get serious about criminal justice reform,” Brandes said.

Florida is often compared to Texas both economically and demographically. In 2007, Texas instituted a nationally recognized reform package, and has added to it ever since.

When asked to describe possible obstacles, Brandes said, “Most arguments in the Legislature are fortress versus frontier arguments. I’m, almost to a fault, with the frontiers.”

According to the proposal, task force members would receive no taxpayer compensation for their work.

Impressive roster of GOP leaders line up for Ed Hooper fundraiser

Clearwater Republican Ed Hooper is assembling an impressive number of high-profile state lawmakers for a Tallahassee reception next month. Hooper, a former state representative, is seeking the open Senate District 16 seat currently held by Jack Latvala.

Hooper’s campaign fundraiser will be Monday, March 6, from 2:30 p.m. – 4 p.m. at the Governors Club, 202 South Adams Street.

The host committee reads like a Who’s Who of GOP state leaders, including Senate President Joe Negron and nearly all the Pinellas County/Hillsborough delegation: Sens. Latvala, Bill GalvanoWilton SimpsonDana Young and Jeff Brandes.

Republican senators from beyond the Tampa Bay area will be there, too: Lizbeth BenacquistoGeorge GainerDenise GrimsleyFrank ArtilesDennis BaxleyAaron BeanTravis HutsonDebbie MayfieldKathleen PassidomoKeith PerryRobert BradleyDoug BroxsonDavid SimmonsKelli Stargel and Greg Steube.

The House will also be well represented, with Larry AhernBen AlbrittonChris Latvala and Kathleen Peters.

A former Clearwater firefighter who served four terms in the House before term limits forced him out, Hooper ran for Pinellas County Commission in 2014, losing to Democrat Pat Gerard after a contentious campaign.

Jeff Brandes calls for investigation of Tri-Rail contract

Saying that testimony before his committee convinced him that inadequate time was set aside to decide what is now a controversial $511 million contract award, state Sen. Jeff Brandes Thursday called for an investigation of Tri-Rail.

Brandes asked Interim Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Rachel Cone to have the department’s investigator general look into how the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority handled its selection process that ultimately disqualified five companies and awarded Tri-Rail’s 10-year operations and maintenance contract to the bidder with the highest price, Herzog Transportation Services, in late January.

Officials of the authority were not immediately available Thursday to comment in response. The authority operates the Tri-Rail commuter trains through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Earlier Thursday, authority Executive Director Jack Stephens testified before Brandes’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development and defended the award as proper and appropriate. The process began with a request for proposals in September, the proposals came in December and the decision to reject five bids was made in late December. The board awarded the contract in late January, which Stephens acknowledged gave little time for a transition from current contractors before the July 1 turnover.

However, Stephens said the rules of the proposals were clear, and it was clear to the authority’s staff and lawyers that only Herzog followed the rules.

But Brandes peppered Stephens with questions about the length of the process and the apparent rush to award and administer the contract.

And Brandes apparently was unconvinced that the authority handled it as it should. Brandes expressed particular concern that the process gave no time for appeals or considerations for unusual circumstances, such as five of six bids being rejected before they were even compared.

“The awarding of a contract in excess of $500 million in public funds after such a short bidding process is disturbing,” he wrote in his letter to Cone. “The procurement policies appear to lack adequate time for disqualified applicants to appeal administrative actions taken by the authority. I am concerned that appropriate competition did not take place during the procurement process for this contract.”

There also were concerns raised abut Stephens contention that if Herzog’s contract was not awarded, that company had grounds to challenge, just as four of the rejected companies now are doing, and that could lead to more delays.

Yet the contract itself includes language that allows the authority to terminate it “without cause upon thirty (30) calendar days written notice to the contractor.”

Brandes suggested the authority’s procurement policies may be flawed.

“The authority maintains their actions are defensible because they complied with their internal procurement policies. However, the taxpayers deserve a higher scrutiny of this process,” he write.

“Therefore, I am requesting the Department initiate an official investigation by the Investigator General into this matter. I further request the investigation review both the facts of this particular procurement in question, as well as the entire procurement policy of the authority.”

Tri-Rail defends its $500M contract before Senate committee

The South Florida Regional Transportation Authority took its best shot Thursday at defending its decisions to throw out five proposals and accept the remaining one for a $511 million contract, a move that has drawn stern criticism from several state leaders including Gov. Rick Scott.

Among the biggest critics has been state Sen. Jeff Brandes, and on Thursday the authority Executive Director Jack Stephens came before Brandes’ Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development to argue that his agency did exactly what it was legally and ethically supposed to do.

Stephens spent 45 minutes walking the committee through his agency’s procurement process for the operations and maintenance contract of the commuter rail system that serves Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

His bottom line: the process left SFRTA with just one qualified proposal to consider; and the proposal was deemed acceptable; and the contract was awarded; even though the five rejected proposals all appeared to be for less money, as much as $115 million less over ten years. The key is the rejected proposals’ bottom lines did not appear solid.

“These five proposals were not rejected for technicalities, but for substantive changes to contract provisions in violation of the RFP’s instructions,” Stephens told the subcommittee.

“We were extremely careful, extremely careful, to lay out a level playing field, set rules. And the proposers have to live by those rules, just like a football game,” Stephens added.

Whether or not Stephens’ defense allays critics remains unclear. After the situation came to light, and even before the SFRTA board voted 6-2 on Jan. 27 to award the contract to Herzog Transit Services, Brandes had raised serious suspicions and had vaguely threatened to cut Tri-Rail’s $42 million state subsidy. The Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold did likewise. Scott zeroed out $156 million in state money for Tri-Rail infrastructure projects in his proposed budget.

Neither Brandes nor anyone else on the committee suggested Thursday that anything had changed as a result of Stephens’ testimony. Stephens took questions from Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, and from state Sen. Frank Artiles a Miami-Dade Republican who had defended the authority’s actions in a column Wednesday on FlordiaPolitics.com.

Artiles also defended the authority’s decision Thursday, saying it was based on clear process.

“Once you start peeling back the onion on what has transpired here, the process is the process,” Artiles said.

No one raised any overt or even inferred suspicions Thursday that the contract may have been somehow steered to Herzog, and Stephens did not have to respond to any such accusations.

However, Stephens did note there was an “optics” problems with the half-billion contract going to what essentially was the highest bidder. Instead of responding to the image question, he offered his own optics perspective.

He noted that Donald Trump was elected president in part because of his “America First” slogan and promises. And then Stephens pointed out that the five failed proposers included four with international ownership: two Canadian, one French and one British. Herzog, by contrast, is a private American company, he said.

Brandes questioned whether that “America First” notion impacted the decision process, but Stephens said no.

Price was only 20 percent of the consideration, with the rest of the decision based on scoring of the companies’ technical and reliability characteristics. However, only Herzog was thus scored on those matters.

While Stephens said there were several issues with the rejected proposals, the fundamental one had to do with their discussions of liability insurance. Four of the companies wanted the authority to extend it’s base policy to the companies’ potential subcontractors, and the fifth, Amtrak, had other liability insurance concerns.

“We said, ‘No. That risk has to lie with the proposer and it has to be included in your price,’ Stephens said. “And they failed to do it. It makes no sense to me. Why they did that, I don’t know.”

Brandes questioned how five experienced companies could get through an entire procurement process without reaching that understanding, if the process was as clear as Stephens said.

“Clearly there was some concern or some confusion about this issue of insurance, since every single group – these are multinational firms as you described – all of them had some issues specifically related to the insurance, that ultimately disqualified at least four of them,” Brandes said. “Why was that not then clarified? Why was there not belts and suspenders to clarify this issue?”

“That was absolutely clarified,” Stephens responded.

Four of the rejected companies are appealing, but the authority is moving forward in contracting with Herzog, Stephens said. He raised strong concerns about being able to mobilize a transition from four companies now providing operations and maintenance services to Herzog in time for a seamless transition on July 1. He said any delays in the transition now could be detrimental to riders, and could also disrupt the authority’s plans for additional services, including establishment of a ground transportation system to downtown Orlando.

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