Jeff Brandes Archives - Florida Politics

Jeff Brandes returns from China with new adopted daughter

While sexual harassment allegations and rumors continued to swirl around Tallahassee, one legislator watched the show while completing a personal international deal.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, his wife Natalie and their eldest daughter Charlotte, whom they call “Lottie,” spent the past week in the sprawling port city of Guangzhou – outside Hong Kong – wrapping up the year-long adoption of a new daughter.

The trip was their first time in China since they began the adoption process.

“You meet them on a Monday, you go back to the consulate on a Tuesday, they ask if you still want this child,” Brandes said, back in the Capitol Wednesday. “You promise not to abandon her and everything else. Then it’s about a week-long process.”

Elizabeth, “Lizzie,” is the fourth child for the couple married just over a decade. Elizabeth, 8, is the first they’ve adopted.

The couple has two sons, Colin and Conor, ages 6 and 4.

Brandes, known for pushing legislation about new technologies, said he was able to follow the latest Capitol intrigue via tweets and admitted: “it was a good week to be away.”

“I walked in the lunchroom today, I said, `Sorry guys I’ve been gone a week. Anything happen while I was gone?’,” Brandes joked Wednesday before an Appropriations Committee.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers champion efforts to reform criminal justice system

Some Florida lawmakers say that seeing the positive impact of criminal justice reform efforts in other states has given them new impetus to push for measures that aim to reduce the state’s prison population by giving sentences that “fit a just result.”

The early bipartisan undertaking to reform the state’s criminal justice system — an endeavor that has hit legislative roadblocks in past years — is starting with two main proposals. One seeks to give judge’s discretion over mandatory minimum sentences in certain drug cases and the other would increase the felony property theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond, both of St. Petersburg, are both championing bills that would revise the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws by relying on a “judicial safety valve” in cases involving non-violent, low-level offenders.

A separate Senate bill filed by Sen. Randolph Bracy would also allow judges to depart from the 3-year mandatory minimum in certain drug trafficking cases, but would not apply to those caught with opioids and opiates. Under Brandes’ bill, judges would still have discretion over certain offenders found in possession of opioids.

“We have to stop treating addict like king pins and unfortunately, Florida’s drug laws all too often treat addicts like king pins,” Brandes said.

Bracy said his decision to not include those caught with opioids is in wake of the epidemic hitting the state and a stricter opioid penalty bill being signed into law last Session.

Brandes, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said there may be a change of heart in the Senate on this topic.

Bracy and state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Naples, filed legislation on Wednesday that looks to amend the “outdated” property theft threshold, which was last raised in 1986.

A bill that would have changed the state’s felony theft threshold passed three House committees last Session, but died in the Senate.

In response to these reform efforts, Diamond said lawmakers have an obligation to be “smart” in how they spend taxpayers’ money, adding that the state spends about $2.5 billion every year to incarcerate nearly 100,000 inmates.

Florida has the 10th highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to data from the Sentencing Project published in 2016. And it has the highest rate for felony disenfranchisement in the country.

Brandes, who believes in rehabilitating inmates and having educational and vocational programs in prison, said more measures dealing with this topic will be unveiled in the upcoming weeks.

Ridesharing legislation is bringing us to the future, so why are airports still stuck in the past?

There’s nothing more aggravating than seeing the Legislature finally do the right thing, only to see local authorities attempt to undermine that progress. Take, for instance, the maddening example of Florida airports and the extra fees they tack on when travelers try to leave the airport property.

Since the Legislature passed uniform regulations for ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, you might think the state’s airports would have consistent fees for tourists who want to get a ride to their destinations — but you’d be wrong.

I suppose I can understand different airports across the state charging different fees – within reason. But an egregious exception is Orlando’s airport, where arriving travelers who want to use Lyft or Uber to get to their final destination see a charge – some would call it a tax – of $5.80 added onto the fare for each ride.

Not only is this $5.80 fee among one of the highest charged by any airport in the country, it’s also a huge leap above the $3.30 fee for travelers who choose to take a taxi. The $2.50 difference is tangible evidence of the leadership at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority attempting to pick winners and losers in the transportation space.

This needs to stop.

Orlando is a major tourist attraction for the state. The airport alone receives 40+ million passengers every year and is one of the busiest airports in the nation – both with tourists and local residents. Coupled with the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, which has brought a significant influx of refugees to Central Florida, and it becomes even clearer that we need to ensure a reasonable and consistent level of fees for passengers regardless of which mode of transportation they choose.

Whether this substantial price difference is a result of Mears Transportation’s powerful influence in Central Florida, or just some airport execs trying to maximize profits on the backs of an emerging transportation option, remains to be seen. They claim it has to do with a subtle difference between a pre-arranged ride and one that is requested on the spot, but consumers don’t see that difference. Neither do I – sounds like a distinction without a difference. People just want to get where they need to go in the quickest, safest and cheapest way.

And airports don’t have a monopoly on outrageous fees and outdated rules. A story in WESH News last week shined a light on the excessive fees being charged to ridesharing drivers who go to pick up passengers at Port Canaveral. From the story, it seems like both ridesharing and taxicab drivers are unified in their opposition to costly rules that make it difficult and pricey for them to pick up passengers who arrive in the port after a cruise.

The fact is that lawmakers like Sen. Jeff Brandes, Rep. Chris Sprowls, and others worked hard – many for several years – to pass ridesharing legislation that gave these innovative companies the ability to operate across the entire state. While local governments are no longer able to charge these companies fees, airports and ports were specifically not preempted by the legislation that passed last year.

Regardless, in a time when lawmakers are carefully making sure that no company or industry gets a government-created handout or advantage, expect this issue to be something that draws attention over the coming months.

HART shows off inaugural driverless shuttle coming to Tampa next year

Katharine Eagan, as head of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) Authority, is receiving praise for embracing new technologies during her three-year tenure at the Tampa Bay area’s  most significant transit agency, despite a limited budget.

Now scheduled to depart the region next year for a similar job in Pittsburgh (with higher pay and more funding), the HART CEO seemed excited to unveil the agency’s autonomous vehicle shuttle on Tuesday that will begin making trips in Tampa come next January.

Egan did so at the 2017 Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, taking place this week at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay Hotel near the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

“We have carved out that transit is not just for buses. Our buses are fabulous, but we need more tools,” Egan said Tuesday morning inside a tent erected in the hotel’s back parking lot. “And what better way to carve out our places here in Tampa than [being] in the front of this technology, shape how it delivers and make this investment,” Eagan said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is paying for the shuttle (only for 2018 as of now) which is designed by the Canadien company Stantec. The shuttle’s route will just be about a mile long, connecting the Marion Street Bus Center to the other side of downtown Tampa. It will be limited only to daytime use and will have only limited interactions with other drivers, since Marion Street is limited to other HART buses during daytime hours.

“Think about how difficult it is to train a vehicle to stop at a railroad crossing or a four-way stop. That’s what we’ve got,” Eagan said.

Other new technologies that HART has employed under Eagan’s leadership includes their HyperLink program. That allows riders to book a ride through a smartphone app to and from bus stops in three designated areas and was designed to solve the “first mile/last mile” issue by picking people up from home or work and taking them directly to their nearest bus stop.

Earlier this year, HART introduced a partnership with the Tampa Innovation Alliance that added a small fleet of cutting-edge Tesla vehicles into the local market.

At the end of Tuesday’s short ceremony, Eagan, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, and other HART officials officially unveiled the actual AV shuttle car that will start operations in late January, where it is expected to be available for service beginning when the NHL All-Star game takes place at the Amalie Arena.


‘The Jetsons’ is now: Automated vehicles summit kicks off in Tampa

The fifth annual Florida Automated Vehicles Summit began Monday night in Tampa with officials arriving from across the country to discuss the latest development in the cutting-edge industry.

Tampa/Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) CEO Joe Waggoner said the first conference, held in 2013, strictly focused on automated vehicles, but that it’s so much more now.

“The industry and the technology has exploded since then,” he said.

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew touted the work that his agency is doing across the state regarding autonomous technology, specifically mentioning their partnership with THEA to design an automated vehicle roadway system. FDOT also is working with Gainesville’s transit system to implement an autonomous shuttle system, and with the Jacksonville Transit Authority on a new automated system for their existing Skyway.

Florida became the second state in 2011 to work on autonomous vehicle legislation, thanks mainly to St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes, who was honored before his speech on Tuesday with the summit’s first ever “Leadership and Innovation” award.

Speaking to the hundreds of conference members who gathered at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay Hotel near Clearwater, he provided the backdrop to his embrace of the technology.

While serving in Iraq in 2003-2004, he became a transportation officer, but said after his tour of duty was completed, he was poised to work for Cox Lumber, the family business owned by his grandfather, Linton Tibbets. Tibbets soon sold Cox to a subsidiary of Home Depot in 2006, prompting Brandes to reconsider running for public office.

He said it was listening to a “Ted Talk” on a drive to Tallahassee from St. Petersburg during his 2011 freshman year in the Florida House that inspired him to learn more about autonomous vehicles.

Out in the parking lot, there were a variety of vendors with autonomous vehicle technology.

Travel Technology Services is working with what they call Traffic Light Information, a feature with Audi Connect. The technology provides the motorist with how much time before a light changes. So if you’re waiting for a red light to change, the technology informs the motorist how many seconds before the light changes.

“Audi’s been working on this for over a decade,” said Traffic Technology Services Kiel Ova. “As part of the information provider, we’ve been working on it for about five years.”

The technology is live in Las Vegas and in parts of Dallas, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and should be coming to Tampa in just a few weeks. It works with 2017 and 2018 Audi models.

May Mobility is a new Ann Arbor-based company that began testing two, six-passenger self-driving shuttles in downtown Detroit last month.

“From what know, we were the first autonomous vehicle company to be able to enter into a natural transportation system, replacing a bus,” said Alisyn Malek, the COO of May Mobility. She says the company is in negotiations with others in Florida and Texas that will happen sometime early next year.

“We’re really excited to be pushing the autonomous vehicle technology into real life deployments,” said CEO Edwin Olson. “That’s what we’re trying to do, not wait until we can do Pittsburgh style environments, but find places where we can make contact with the ball today.

There also were trucks that were parked in the Grant Hyatt parking lot.

A truck-mounted attenuator is a vehicle which provides a safety barrier between moving vehicles and workers on the road. Now Royal Truck & Equipment has created the first autonomous truck-mounted attenuator that promises to add an extra layer of safety.

“Up until now there’s been a driver in the truck, but what we’ve done is take the driver out of the truck because it’s very dangerous,” said Fred Bergstresser, government accounts manager with Royal Truck & Equipment.

“This vehicle has a navigation computer in it, it collects data on the speed heading direction, transmits that data back to this vehicle, and then this vehicle mimics its path,” said Maynard J. Factor, director of business development with Kratos Defense.

“So you have a very high accuracy, high precision following vehicle, completely unmanned, now if the vehicle gets hit at 65 mph by an 18-wheeler, there’s nobody here who has to worry about getting their back broken,” Factor said.

Factor said the technology comes straight from the defense industry, but it’s now been adapted to the commercial industry.

Also at the summit, officials with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) agency unveiled their new self-driving shuttle vehicle which is expected to be up and running by January.

More summit coverage will appear later on Florida Politics.

‘Smart Cities’ grant would incentivize local transportation innovation

Traffic gridlock is the present for major Florida cities, but does it have to be the future?

A bill (“the Florida Smart City Challenge Grant Program”) filed Monday in the Florida Legislature would offer state grant money, via the Florida Department of Transportation, as incentive for local solutions to transportation challenges.

The House iteration, HB 633, was filed by Rep. Jason Fischer; the Senate version is being carried by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.

“Florida’s transportation system is inefficient and faces many challenges, but we can overcome them by embracing innovative technologies and thinking differently about how we plan our communities. This bill will provide cities and counties throughout Florida the opportunity to leverage technology and private investment to re-imagine mobility solutions not just for businesses but also for seniors, people with disabilities, and other underserved individuals,” Fischer added

.“Transportation technology is evolving at an astonishing pace. In order for Florida to keep up, we must create a prototype culture within our communities,” said Brandes. “The Smart City Challenge encourages cities to embrace the future by implementing technology solutions to some of our most pressing mobility challenges. Cities must continue to be laboratories of innovation, and this program will serve as a catalyst for bold solutions.”

A wide swath of agencies would qualify for funding; specifically, any governmental agency responsible for the movement of goods and services in Florida, including local governments, but also TPOs and state universities.

Autonomous vehicle deployment is one area eligible for funding; other areas include plug-in electric vehicles, connected vehicle technologies, and shared mobility services deployment.

The bill proposes solutions to a number of challenges, including those who are “transportation disadvantaged”

This is not the only transportation innovation bill filed by these Republicans for the 2018 Legislative Session.

They also have a bill that would allow for autonomous vehicles to be on Florida roads.

Among that bill’s provisions: changing laws regarding motor vehicle operation, laws which currently presume that a human being is driving vehicles on the road.

Jeff Brandes, Randy Fine file bills to slash state contracts with anti-Israel companies

A pair of Republican state lawmakers filed bills Tuesday to strengthen a 2016 law capping contracts between Florida governments and companies that support the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestiture, and Sanctions” movement.

Current law allows Florida municipal governments to do up to $1 million of business each year with anti-Israel companies, but the 2018 measures, HB 545 and SB 780, would institute a zero-tolerance policy for contracts with pro-BDS companies.

Brevard County Rep. Randy Fine, the only Jewish Republican in the Florida Legislature, said he was grateful to Senate President Joe Negron and former Rep. Ritch Workman for championing the 2016 law, but said it’s time to take it a step further.

“BDS is the latest incarnation of anti-Israel sentiment that goes back since the formation of the Jewish State. To oppose the State of Israel is to oppose Judeo-Christian values. I am proud that the legislation we introduce today takes the next step to make Florida a zero-tolerance state,” Fine said in a press release.

St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is sponsoring the Senate bill, said he was “proud to stand with Representative Fine in defense of Israel and to show support for our friends and for an important ally.”

“Strengthening our position by removing the $1 million threshold sends a strong message — Florida stands with Israel,” he added.

If passed and signed by the governor, the bills would go into effect July 1, 2018. They would leave in place the $1 million cap for companies doing business with Cuba or Syria.

Jack Latvala allies come to his defense after sexual harassment claims

After six women anonymously accused Sen. Jack Latvala of sexually harassing and groping them, at least five women who have worked closely with the powerful senator have come to his defense.

The allegations against Latvala, a Republican candidate for governor who turned 66 Friday, range from him grabbing a female lobbyist’s buttocks to making unsolicited comments about breasts, according to a POLITICO Florida report Friday.

Latvala came out swinging in what appears to some as a coordinated campaign to clear his name following the news report. That included a lawsuit threat — though he has yet to file one — and requests for female lobbyists and staffers in his orbit to come to his defense.

The women Florida Politics talked to said they were not among them, but they have worked with him closely in The Process.

Following criticism from members in both parties in the House and Senate, these women continued to praise the Senate budget chief’s ethics. Two of them acknowledged that they too have experienced sexual harassment at the Capitol by other elected officials, but insisted they never saw Latvala act inappropriately.

“If you are a female elected official then you should have an expectation that people will say and do things to you in a sexual nature with the intention of being offending,” former Sen. Ronda Storms, a Republican, said.

“That hasn’t been my experience with (Latvala), but it has been my experience with other people, with another male senator.”

Storms declined to name her sexual harasser because she said the harassment stopped when she addressed him directly. She said he is still in office, “but not in the Senate.”

The allegations against Latvala come after Senate Democratic Leader-designate Jeff Clemens, a close ally of his, resigned after he admitted to an affair with a lobbyist. Since then, rumors have swirled at the Capitol, painting a picture of women being exploited and victimized in the policymaking process.

One GOP female lobbyist, according to the POLITICO report, said she would get a “cold shoulder” from Latvala if he didn’t get enough attention. Latvala has denied the sexual harassment allegations.

Missy Timmins, a lobbyist who worked as Latvala’s chief legislative aide during his early years in the Senate, told Florida Politics she was worried male legislators might be hesitant to work with female lobbyists in the wake of the claims made against Latvala.

Timmins added she never witnessed inappropriate behavior from Latvala, but that he once “turned red face” when another legislator told her she “had the nicest legs in the Senate.” She too declined to name that lawmaker.

“I can assure you as his staffer he got offended when people said something inappropriate to me,” Timmins said.

Jacqueline Elise D’Heere, who worked with Latvala in 2006, took another approach when defending Latvala. In a Facebook post she aggressively discredited the unnamed women who accused him.

“There is no more accurate way to describe (the accusers’) behavior than reprehensible,” wrote D’Heere.

“Failure to disclose their names leads me to believe they are the very idiots who clunk around the Capitol’s marble floors in short skirts and giant stilettos looking for the first elected who will destroy their families for some physical attention.”

Republican state Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Pinellas County ally of Latvala, also was quick to discount the accounts of the six women who say the senator sexually harassed them.

“If it’s anonymous, it’s not legitimate,” Peters, of Treasure Island, said in a Facebook post. “Anyone can make up stories if that person is protected under secrecy.”

The unnamed women told POLITICO Florida they did not “want to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, getting a bad reputation in the male-dominated Capitol or running afoul of an influential politician who can kill their clients’ issues.”

Jennifer Wilson, a former staffer for Latvala, told Florida Politics the news came as a surprise to her. She said she worked many late nights with Latvala — sometimes alone with him in his office — and that he never acted inappropriately with her.

“I’m trying to pick my words because I know there have been women harassed in this process, but I don’t know that it has happened with Jack,” Wilson said. “It surprised me so much and based on the little information we have, it just looks very fishy.”

Senate President Joe Negron has opened an investigation into the allegations against Latvala, which he called “disgusting.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is expected to announce a run for governor after the 2018 legislative session, has since called for his resignation.

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, the top Democrat on the House budget committee, also has asked Negron to remove Latvala from his appropriations chairmanship. The 2018 Legislative Session starts Jan. 8.

Though the Republican-controlled Senate has been mostly mute, Sen. Jeff Brandes did express concern over the “very serious” accusations, and said the Senate should seek an impartial special counsel to investigate the allegations.

It now will have to: Negron initially tapped Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to lead the investigation, but she has since recused herself from the case, citing a potential conflict of interest based on her longtime work association with Latvala.

Ben Diamond wants to unshackle judges from minimum drug sentencing

(UPDATE) Before the 2017 Legislative Session, a number of Florida lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — talked a good game on criminal justice reform.

Nevertheless, they fell far short on a number of fronts.

But there’s always next year, which is why Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation (HB 481) to give judges discretion to depart from mandatory minimum sentences when sentencing nonviolent, low-level drug offenders.

Under current Florida law, judges have no discretion in sentencing certain low-level drug offenders. Diamond’s bill will provide judges with discretion to fashion a more appropriate sentence on a case-by-case basis.

To use the so-called “judicial safety valve,” courts must find that the offender has no previous conviction for a similar offense, is not part of a continuing criminal enterprise, did not use or threaten violence while committing the offense, and the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury.

“We need to bring smart reforms to our criminal justice system in Florida,”  said Diamond. “And this bill is an important part of that effort.”

Diamond pointed out that Florida is incarcerating an “extraordinary number of people” for nonviolent drug offenses, in part through mandatory minimum sentencing.

“Our prison population has exploded,” he said. “We are spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people under our mandatory minimum sentencing laws.”

The laws are not actually deterring the use or sale of drugs, or making our communities safer, he added. “It’s time we take a different approach to these problems.”

State Sen. Jeff Brandes filed similar legislation in the Senate. The St. Petersburg Republican serves as Chair of the State Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

“I want to thank Senator Brandes for his leadership and support,” Diamond said.  “I am proud to take a lead on this bipartisan effort to bring meaningful criminal justice reform to Florida.”

Several conservative groups say they support the Diamond/Brandes bill.

“One-size-fits-all punishments do not reduce crime, and every dollar spent locking up low-level drug offenders is a dollar that can’t be used to punish dangerous criminals,” said Greg Newburn, Floridian’s Against Mandatory Minimums state policy director. “We thank Senator Brandes and Representative Diamond for supporting a judicial safety valve – a commonsense solution to a problem long overdue for reform.”

“With the State of Florida housing nearly 100,000 inmates and costing taxpayers nearly $2.4 billion every year, the legislature must address the problematic prison population, and one way to do that is reforming mandatory minimum sentences for  low-level drug offenses,” said Chelsea Murphy, Right on Crime’s Florida state director. “These minimum sentences are often unnecessarily severe, even for those with no prior criminal record.”

“There’s nothing conservative about throwing money away incarcerating nonviolent offenders longer than necessary,” said Sal Nuzzo, vice president of Policy at The James Madison Institute. “A judicial safety valve doesn’t abolish mandatory minimums; it simply provides flexibility for the courts to punish low-level offenders appropriately. That’s a conservative solution.”

“By allowing our judges to have the discretion to impose an appropriate sentence for each case, we can save money and make our communities safer,” said Diamond.

Orange you mad? Citrus language leads to marijuana lawsuit

A Florida nursery is suing the state over its preference in granting medical marijuana licenses to companies with underused or shuttered citrus factories.

Tropiflora LLC of Sarasota filed suit against the Department of Health‘s Office of Compassionate Use—now the Office of Medical Marijuana Use—in Leon County Circuit Civil court on Friday, court records show.

The lawsuit is the latest in a long line against the state over its medical marijuana licensing scheme.

Tropiflora, which previously filed an administrative protest over the award of medical marijuana licenses, already “has two judicial challenges pending,” its complaint says. One is still in circuit court and another is on appeal.

The latest is over the citrus provision.

For up to two licenses, “the department shall give preference to applicants that demonstrate in their applications that they own one or more facilities that are, or were, used for the canning, concentrating, or otherwise processing of citrus fruit or citrus molasses and will use or convert the facility or facilities for the processing of marijuana,” state law says.

Tropiflora calls that an “unconstitutional special advantage” that “adversely impacts” the company, putting it at a “disadvantage” in competing for 10 available licenses to be a “medical marijuana treatment center.”

It further says there is no “rational basis for granting a special privilege” to concerns that own facilities once used for processing citrus.  

The complaint asks the court to declare that portion of statute an “impermissible special law (that) grants a special privilege.”

Lawmakers claimed ignorance about that language’s origins when it was added to this year’s bill that implemented the 2016 constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana in the state.

Nonetheless, Sen. Rob Bradley—the Fleming Island Republican who sponsored the Senate’s legislation—called it “good public policy” during the 2017 Special Session. He mentioned the shellacking the industry took in recent years from the citrus greening malady. 

“If you travel parts of the state, it breaks your heart to see these old orange juice factories, jobs lost,” he said. “Transitioning some of those facilities to something new is good.”

But Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who tried unsuccessfully to remove the citrus language, said it was “a carve-in for a special interest … It doesn’t look right; it doesn’t feel right.”

Tallahassee attorneys Steve Andrews, Ryan Andrews and Brian Finnerty of the Andrews Law Firm are representing Tropiflora. The case is currently assigned to Circuit Judge Jim Shelfer.

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