Jeff Brandes – Page 3 – Florida Politics

Governor would have sole discretion over FDOT head appointment under proposal

A quiet change proposed Thursday under a wide-ranging commercial motor vehicle bill would strip the power of a transportation panel and give the governor sole discretion over the appointment of the state’s top transportation official.

State law tasks the Florida Transportation Commission to recommend three names to the governor when it comes to choosing the next Secretary of Transportation. The governor then decides from that short-list.

But a “strike-all” amendment filed under SB 1104 by the bill sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes, would delete the role of the FTC, whose members are appointed by the governor. Whether that change is approved is up to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where the bill is now sitting.

If the languages moves on to become law, the governor’s choice would still be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

Aside from that change, the sweeping transportation bill would rewrite statute that governs the Department of Transportation in several ways. That includes creating a first-degree grand theft crime for an offender who commits cargo theft and authorized the Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise to fund, construct and operate test facilities to advance autonomous vehicle technology.

Senate, House at odds over $4m to pay for private prison operations

Private-prison giant GEO Group wants $4 million in taxpayer money to pay for correctional officers’ salaries at seven of its state-contracted facilities — but the House won’t budge.

The House’s top criminal justice budget-writer, state Rep. Bill Hager, said his chamber has taken the stance to zero out the private prison’s request because the Florida-based company decided to enter into contracts and therefore, it should have that money in place.

For the Senate, however, it is a “fairness issue.”

“The issue here is that a couple of years ago we raised salaries for correctional officers in our public facilities, but we never extended that pay increase to correctional officers in private facilities,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, who is the Senate’s criminal justice budget chair.

The one-time payment request by the private prison falls under HB 3745, sponsored by state Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican. Because the allocation is non-recurring, the prison company would have to lobby for the money again next year.

According to the appropriations project request, The Geo Group will be seeking $10 million over the next three years for the project.

In 2016, the private prison group gave nearly $2 million in political contributions, most notably $40,000 to Senate President Joe Negron and $100,000 to the Florida Republican Senatorial Committee. The company also gave $43,000 to the failed congressional bid of his wife, Rebecca.

As the Legislature began final budget negotiations this week, the House and Senate are only $238,422 apart in the criminal justice arena as of Thursday, a big improvement from a day before when they were more than $20 million apart.

Pre-arrest diversion program proposals head to House, Senate floors

With three minutes left in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, a bill mandating each judicial district in the state to implement pre-arrest diversion programs headed to the Senate floor.

There was no debate on the bill (SB 1392) that would set up diversion programs with the intent of giving local law enforcement agencies a tool that can serve between a warning and an arrest for low-level offenders. The goal: to spare primarily first-time offenders who commit minor crimes from the consequences of entering the criminal justice system.

The bill does not set up a blanket set of rules for jurisdictions and provides language that gives them latitude on the fees each can charge to program participants. The program is voluntary for qualifying offenders and the bill would not get rid of diversion programs that are already operating in Florida.

While proposals in the Senate and the House (HB 1197) have moved ahead in the Legislature, they have come under fire by some in the bail bond industry who say diversion programs are “flawed” without uniformity statewide.

“There is no uniformity in the program,” said Matthew Jones, the president of  A Way Out Bail Bonds II Inc. “You could possibly end up with 67 different qualification programs around the state.”

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes said he is aware of the bail bond industry’s criticism of his bill, but added he is “not in the business of making bail bondsman money.”

Bail bond industry, Jeff Brandes spar over sweeping justice reform bill

The Florida Legislature is considering sweeping criminal justice reform measures that have come under fire by the bail bond industry, but the sponsor of one of the bills said Sunday that he is “not in the business of making bail bondsmen money.”

“They are in the business of writing bonds, and their business will go down if more people get diverted to civil citations,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who is sponsoring SB 1392 and SB 1218, the duo of bills at the heart of the fight.

One of the bills (SB 1218) would require the state to invest in a computer program that uses algorithms to determine the risk of each offender for flight risk and their overall danger level. The bail bonds industry opposes it, arguing it is safer to rely on their expertise than on a computer.

The other bill (SB 1392) would require each judicial district in the state to create diversion programs for adults and juveniles, with the intent of giving local law enforcement agencies a tool that can serve between a warning and an arrest for low-level offenders.

But some in the bail bond industry say there will be no “uniformity” in the state and that some programs pushed by jurisdictions, like the one in Pinellas County, are “flawed.”

“There is no uniformity in the program,” said Matthew Jones, the president of A Way Out Bail Bonds II Inc. “You could possible end up with 67 different qualification programs around the state.”

Jones said he is also concerned about public safety and slammed the program in Pinellas County for allowing those arrested for certain battery misdemeanor charges to participate.

According to data provided by the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the top five offenses for those who participated in its program included, possession of marijuana, retail theft, battery, petit theft and possession of marijuana paraphernalia.

If the legislation passes, each judicial district would have the flexibility to implement its own rules and criteria for qualifying offenders, as well as their own fees. Brandes’ bill does not set a blanket fee for the program.

In Florida’ 18th Judicial Court, for example, participants are normally supervised between six months to a year and are required to pay between $370 and $720, plus a $50 prosecution fee.

“Pretrial diversion is a voluntary program,” the website announced in all caps, “therefore, fees are not eligible for reduction or waiver.”

Programs that are currently in place would go not away under the proposal.

To complete a program, participants may have to go through drug treatment, community service, counseling or a combination of all those, at their expense. Those who do not fulfill the program’s requirements could be rearrested.

Advocates say the program has proven to reduce recidivism and in the long run allows adults and juveniles to tumble down employment barriers that would otherwise be there as a result of having a criminal record.

The implementation of these programs statewide would also likely save local governments money since booking and arrest-processing costs are expected to be down, Senate staff wrote in an analysis of the bill. As a result, this could cost the bail bond industry money.

Brandes’ proposal will go before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. It is its last committee stop before it can hit the Senate floor.

The House is also considering a similar diversion program bill, HB 1197 by Pinellas County Republican Rep. Larry Ahern, that is now in its last committee stop.

Run for Something ad highlights unopposed Florida lawmakers with NRA ties

A group supporting a wave of first-time candidates for elected office took out a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the Sun-Sentinel calling on Floridians to run against NRA-backed state lawmakers in 2018.

The Run for Something ad states “The NRA is killing our kids” at the top and then includes an sheet with the names and NRA letter grades of the lawmakers who are so far unopposed in their re-election campaigns.

On the list are Republican Reps. Bryan Avila, Halsey Beshears, Cord Byrd, Travis Cummings, Brad Drake, Dane Eagle, Jason Fischer, Heather Fitzenhagen, Julio Gonzalez, Michael Grant, Stanley McClain, Jose Oliva, Mel Ponder, Jake Raburn, Holly Raschein, Ray Rodrigues, Rick Roth, Chris Sprowls, Cyndi Stevenson and  Jayer Williamson.

Also included are Republican Sens. Aaron Bean, Jeff Brandes and Kathleen Passidomo.

“These 24 state legislators are running unopposed this November – and they’re complicit in the gun violence in our community,” the ad reads. “Hold them accountable. Run against them. We will help you.”

Run for Something is a political committee founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign staffer Amanda Litman. The group funds and supports mainly young, progressive candidates for elected offices.

Donald Trump is president, so throw everything you know about politics out the window. You’re qualified to run for local office – we’re here to help,” the group says on its website.

The ad is below.

Run For Something Sun-Sentinel Ad NRA

Easing drug trafficking mandatory minimums headed to Senate floor

Someone caught with oxycodone pills weighing at least 7 grams can be sentenced to a mandatory three-year sentence and fined $50,000 under Florida drug trafficking state laws.

That could soon change for non-violent offenders who are not involved with a criminal organization under a Senate proposal that would allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences, but not fines.

The bill, sponsored by Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Democrat Sen. Randolph Bracy, cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 15-5 vote and now heads to the Senate floor for consideration.

The proposal would impact those criminally charged under the drug trafficking statute, whether it be sale, delivery, importation, manufacturing or possession of large quantities of a controlled substance. That would include cocaine, marijuana and opioids such as fentanyl.

A Democrat-sponsored House effort that would seek to reduce sentences for certain drug offenses has not moved in the chamber though. This could show signs of trouble for the proposal with two weeks left in the 2018 legislative session.

The Senate and the House have pushed a series of criminal justice reforms this year, but those seeking to loosen mandatory minimum sentences requirements have not been too welcome in the House. Lobbyist Barney Bishop has also been critical of the measure, saying that it would not help drug addict, but instead aid those with “so much drugs” on them.

Brandes, however, has pushed back on that claim.

“Our point here is largely low level people who are addicts and get involved with heroin and they may purchase heroin that is mixed with fentanyl,” Brandes said.

Graphic school shooting images, footage could soon be exempted from public records

In the wake of the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, some lawmakers plan to exempt photos and videos of school shootings from public records laws.

The plan has yet to be codified into a bill, but legislators reached a verbal agreement on Tuesday at the final Senate Criminal Justice Committee meeting of the Legislative Session to attempt to tack the exemption onto an existing proposal, SB 1178.  

That bill, sponsored by Chair Randolph Bracy, an Orlando Democrat, as drafted would prevent visual or audio recordings of human killings from being obtained via Florida’s public records laws. Under current laws, members of the media and the general public can request access to a recorded killing if it is held by an agency unless it depicts the death of a law enforcement officer. 

Bracy’s sweeping exemption, however, was not favored by the committee and after being postponed twice before in earlier meetings, members failed the bill on an initial vote.

But then Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, motioned to reconsider the bill. Bracy then called for a recess. 

Upon returning, Bracy gave his word that an amendment would be drafted to “balance” the public’s right to obtaining records with a respect for the incidents that have “been happening across our country and across our state,” an allusion to mass shootings.

“We need to figure out a way to make sure that these photos and depictions are protected,” Bracy said.

Bracy later told Florida Politics that the amendment would “narrow” the public records exemptions provided in his bill to only apply to visual and audio recordings of school shootings. He acknowledged that the provision addresses an aspect of the recent mass shooting in Parkland.  

With Bracy’s promise, the bill cleared the committee unanimously. It now heads to Government Oversight and Accountability and later Rules — although Bracy said the same provision could likely be added onto existing legislation on the Senate floor.

Flu spike shows need for easier access to treatment, lawmakers say

At the peak of one of the worst flu seasons in recent history, some lawmakers are trying to make it easier for sick patients to be diagnosed and treated for the virus. 

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia are sponsoring legislation (SB 524 and HB 431) that would let some pharmacies, under the guidance of a physician, test for and treat influenza.

Brandes said on Wednesday that the proposals come at a time when the flu is especially widespread, which has led to concentrated waiting rooms at medical facilities. He said his bill would provide quicker care to patients.

“This is a very powerful tool that allows somebody to skip the extra step of going to the walk-in clinic or trying to fight for that spot at your local doctor’s office,” Brandes said.

Avon Park Republican Rep. Cary Pigman, who also is an emergency room doctor, has thrown his support behind the initiative.

Pigman said that saturated waiting rooms are common and that allowing pharmacies to handle some of the intake would be beneficial.

On weekends during Session, Pigman said he works shifts at the emergency room.

“There’s more people that need care than we have physicians and nurse practitioners to take care of them,” Pigman said. “We are busy.”

Pigman said the legislation also would help curb the spread of influenza. He said that patients in crowded medical facilities without the flu would have less exposure to patients with the virus.

“Society as a whole is benefited,” Pigman said. Pigman said the bills are balanced, and would still require a physician-trained pharmacist to diagnose and prescribe patients with Tamiflu, a common medicine used to treat the flu in its early stages.

Backing the legislation is the Florida Retail Federation, which represents pharmacists and pharmacies across the state.  

“Simply put, this is lifesaving legislation,” Scott Shalley, president and CEO of Florida Retail Federation, said.

The Senate version of the bill was temporarily postponed in Health Policy earlier this month after the bill was criticized by physicians. The House bill still awaits its first committee hearing.

Bill aiming to curb wastewater discharges advances

After Hurricane Irma swept through the state, power outages resulted in 989 wastewater spills, totaling more than 9 million gallons of unauthorized sewage release.

Legislation (HB 837) sponsored by Plantation Democratic state Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole would attempt to reduce those discharges by helping utilities gain compliance with industry standards. It was advanced unanimously by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.

If the bill became law, the voluntary “blue star collection system assessment and maintenance program” would be created to limit the number of unauthorized releases. The program would be administered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Blue star certified utilities would be issued a 10-year permit for the same fee and under the same conditions as a five-year permit upon approval of its application renewal by DEP if the utility demonstrates that it is in compliance and does not have any pending enforcement action against it by the EPA, the DEP or a local program.

Coconut Creek Democrat Kristin Jacobs asked Edwards-Walpole if there was any hurdle the utilities needed to overcome initially to get into the five-year certification if they previously were responsible for excessive power failures.

Edwards-Walpole admitted that there would be some “perpetual bad actors,” who don’t have any incentive to get into the program. This bill would simply allow them to be rolled from a five-year permit to a 10-year one if they performed ably enough.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who championed a version of the same bill a year ago that failed to make it to the governor’s desk.

In the past two years, according to DEP, there were just over 1,000 spills related to a loss of power, including some significant ones in the Tampa Bay area.

Sewage spills in St. Petersburg and south Pinellas were so prevalent in 2016 that the issue became a major talking point for critics of incumbent Mayor Rick Kriseman, who faced a daunting reelection campaign in 2017 that at times was dominated by his handling of the sewage situation. The city has since committed to spending more than $300 million to fix sewers by 2021.

House panel advances bill adding protections to cellphone searches

A House proposal that would change the way law enforcement officers get their hands on data from a person’s cellphone was pushed on Tuesday to its last committee assignment.

Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant said his bill (HB 1249) would require police to “reflect constitutional due process” when they search a person’s phone-location records as well as data from microphone-enabled household devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home.

“At the founding of our country the Fourth Amendment is the most important protection and technology has made it more challenging,” said Republican state Rep. Cord Byrd, who chairs the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee where the bill was last heard.

With no questions or debate, and the Public Defenders Association and Florida Smart Justice Alliance waiving in support, the measure passed unanimously. Now it heads to the Judiciary Committee, where Grant said there will be an opportunity to further discuss tweaks in policy to the bill.

Under the House bill, law enforcement officers would need probable cause and a court-issued warrant to search a person’s cellular device. Officers would need to install a mobile-tracking device within 10 days of obtaining the warrant and would only have access to the location data for 45 days, unless the court grants an extension for the search.

The measure also would widen the scope of activity in which a person can be charged for accessing another person’s phone without permission. Under the bill, reading emails or emails on another person’s phone or laptop without permission would be a crime.

If someone accesses a phone’s data without permission for the purpose of destroying the data or commercial gain, it could be punishable by up to a year in county jail.

House staff analysis said the state prison population would “insignificantly” increase.

The companion bill (SB 1256) in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, has also been moving along in the upper chamber. Both measures differ in that Brandes’ bill would offer protections to businesses that access information from an electronic device if the data “prevents identification of the user of the device.”

Brandes’ bill is up for consideration Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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