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Will Weatherford endorses Ed Hooper for state Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Fundraisers set for three GOP special election candidates

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

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

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

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

The general election is set for Sept. 26.

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

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

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

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

The invitations to the events are below:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jeff Brandes, Dana Young endorse Ed Hooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Florida’s bizarre fireworks law still in place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On open records, half Florida’s legislators rate F or D

Half of Florida’s legislators failed or nearly failed in a review of their support for public records and meetings given by Florida newspapers and an open-government group after this year’s legislative sessions.

In a “scorecard” produced by the Florida Society of News Editors and based on information provided by Florida’s First Amendment Foundation — which tracked a priority list of public records exemptions — the 160 legislators totaled three Fs, 77 Ds, 71 Cs, and 9 Bs.

Each year FSNE completes a project devoted to Sunshine Weeka nationwide initiative to educate the public about the importance of transparent government. This year FSNE members created a scoring system to grade legislators on their introduction of bills and their final votes.

“As an advocate for open government, the grades of course, are disappointing,” said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit supported mostly by newspapers and broadcasters.

Several lawmakers contacted about their grades questioned the concept of fairly and accurately scoring how they addressed and decided on open records bills.

“It’s a little simplistic to think you can reduce this to a mathematical formula. It’s a little more complicated,” said Rep. Rick Roth, R-Wellington, who has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Emory University,

Roth, who was graded a D-minus, added, “The Sunshine Law is great in principle, but what it actually assumes is everybody is a crook. I just think it needs a little bit of tweaking.”

Florida’s Legislature established public records laws as early as the early 20th century, created the Government in the Sunshine Law in the late 1960s, and in 1992 established a “constitutional right of access.” Because of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law, the state’s records and meetings are more accessible than in most states. But the Legislature has, year in and year out, instituted, or considered instituting, numerous exemptions. The body, on average, imposes up to a dozen a year.

Petersen said the recent session accounted for “a near record number of new exemptions created, but we see few bills that actually would improve access to either meetings or records.”

The 2017 Legislature created 26 exemptions and expanded another, then instituted yet one more exemption during its special session. Should Gov. Rick Scott approve all the 28 new exemptions, the grand total over the years would be 1,150.

Where does your legislator rank? See the scorecard

The three legislative Fs — actually F-minuses — were assigned to two representatives from southwest Florida and one from the Jacksonville area.

The single lowest score went to Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, who sponsored House Bill 351, which would have made secret records of public college president searches; and House Bill 843, which would have allowed two members of a government board to meet privately. Both bills failed. Rommel also voted on the House floor against government openness in five of seven cases.

Rommel was joined in drawing an F by Rep. Byron Donalds, another Naples Republican; and Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat.

Daniels did not personally return a reporter’s call, instead providing a prepared statement that doesn’t directly address her grade but says that getting the two public records exemptions passed, as well as four others, as a freshman legislator, “exceeds more than I could have imagined accomplishing.”

And all five voted for HB 111, which hides the identification of murder witnesses — Harrell co-sponsored it — as well as SB 118, which hides criminal histories. Those two bills passed and were signed by Scott.

No legislator earned an A in the same way the others got the Fs. Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, voted for government openness in six of seven floor votes and earned a B-plus, the same grade given to Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana.

Despite his favorable score, Geller is bucking for “at least an A-minus,” pointing out that he so frequently asks about the First Amendment Foundation’s position on open government bills that he said he “got a pretty bad ribbing about it on the floor from other legislators.”

Just six Democrats and three Republicans earned a score of B-minus or better. And 17 Democrats and 63 Republicans drew grades of D-plus or worse.

For Democrats, the most common grade was a C-minus. Dozens of Republicans drew C-minus grades, but more got a D-plus.

Scores in the House were much more likely to be lower than those in the Senate. Some of that may be because of HB 111, which drew nearly two dozen sponsors and co-sponsors in the House. The bill, which hides information about witnesses to murders, was signed by Scott in May.

Roth, of Wellington, defended his position on secrecy for the process of hiring public college presidents, explaining that while he’d be OK with making candidates public once there’s a “short list” of finalists, he feared scaring away top-flight candidates who don’t want their respective college leadership to know they’re shopping for a new position.

On HB 843, dealing with talks between two officials, Roth said he voted for it — in fact he was a co-sponsor — but said it probably went too far and “I’m glad it failed.” He said he’d like to see a new bill with conditions that would satisfy opponents — such as requiring staff be present and notes be taken to be made public later. He said he supports trying to head off “skullduggery” but he said many elected bodies now are dominated by staffers who “pretty much drive the bus,” and since officials can’t talk in advance, “they don’t come to the board meeting fully informed.”

Roth also noted the bill to protect crime witnesses does require they’re eventually identified, and while he didn’t remember much of SB 118, he saw a desire to protect the privacy of people who had committed crimes in the past.

The First Amendment Foundation’s Petersen did note that, because the scorecard reflects only votes and sponsorship, it might skew perception of legislators’ attitudes toward open government.

For example, she said, Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, who is in line to become Senate Democratic leader in 2018, “always has something to say about open government when something comes up on the (Senate) floor.”

But, she said, “what we would like to see is more awareness from some legislators, and we’re hoping that’s what this project will do.”

She said the last bill that improved access to meetings was pushed three years ago by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, now Senate President. And, she said, “We haven’t seen anything passed by the Legislature to enhance the right of access to public records since 1995. We did see a couple of bills that would improve access, but they didn’t even get a committee hearing.”

Some South Florida lawmakers also argued the scorecard’s narrow focus on open government doesn’t leave room for considering good policy.

On HB 111, for example, “It’s not that hard of a reach to say this law will keep others from being murdered,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who earned a C-minus. ” I realize they (the First Amendment Foundation) are a one-issue, one-note organization. But at a certain point, reality comes crashing in to any philosophy.”

And Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who also earned a C-minus, said, “It’s not that I don’t respect the First Amendment Foundation. It’s that I’m going to do whatever I can do as a legislator to begin to bring justice to individuals who are being murdered senselessly.”

Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat and another of those who earned a C-minus, said, “People are trying to get good grades from these organizations, instead of looking at whether it’s fair policy. The only grade that matters is the one that my residents give me when they decide to re-elect me into office.”

Two of the top four grades went to Republican senators from Tampa Bay: Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Bill Galvano of Bradenton.

“Our goal is that there be a completely transparent and open government,” Brandes said. He, along with Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg — who received a B-minus — sponsored legislation that protects court clerks from being sued if they release confidential information due to an error committed by a lawyer involved in a case. Current law isn’t clear on the issue.

Diamond called HB 843, the proposal to let two elected officials meet, an “existential threat” to open government in Florida.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who earned a D-plus, supported HB 843.

“In the Legislature, we can meet with another legislator one-on-one, so I thought that the state government shouldn’t be treated any differently than the local government,” he said.

Thirteen Tampa Bay area lawmakers scored below a C.

“This ‘scorecard’ was created by a special interest group that thinks legislators should cater to the group’s own political agenda rather than do what is in the best interest of the people of Florida,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, who scored a D-plus.

Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz — who scored a D-plus — called inclusion of HB 111, the witness-identity bill, in the scorecard, “just plain silly.” And Latvala said, “If I have to vote on that bill 100 more times, I will vote 100 more times for that bill.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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