Jeff Brandes – Page 5 – Florida Politics
distillery

Craft distillers get early win in Senate

Let the spirit(s) flow: A Senate panel OK’d a measure to raise the amount of booze a Florida craft distillery can produce per year and still be considered “craft.”

The bill (SB 296) by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes bumps that cap from 75,000 gallons to 250,000 gallons—a more than 233 percent increase.

The distinction isn’t just a matter of pride: “Distilleries pay an annual $4,000 license tax and craft distilleries pay $1,000,” a staff analysis explained.

Democrats on the Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted against the bill. Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville said she was concerned about how big to allow craft distilleries to get and still consider them “craft.” Half jokingly, Brandes had said he’d be willing to push the 250,000-gallon cap even higher.

“That wasn’t the purpose of my question,” Gibson said, smiling. More seriously, Brandes said he just wants to provide craft distillers “plenty of runway to grow their business.”

The bill also removes the six-bottle limit on how much craft distilleries can sell direct to customers, with Brandes saying he’d like to “allow people to transact as they see fit.” Not surprisingly, that was opposed by Scott Ashley of the Wine and Spirits Distributors of Florida.

The legislation also includes provisions Brandes pushed last year, including a repeal of the bottle-size law, allowing sales of wine bottles of all sizes.

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

It’s variously known as “Pinot to go,” “Merlot to go,” and “Take-away Chardonnay.” It’s the continuing legacy of the late Senate President Jim King‘s 2005 measure that first legalized carryout wine.

The bill next moves to the Rules Committee. A House version has not yet been heard.

Pirates got me thinking: The Gasparilla parade and Florida politics

There’s one event for which this proud St. Petersburg native will always cross the bridge.

It’s Robert and Nancy Watkins‘ party, held in conjunction with the Children’s Gasparilla Extravaganza, an alcohol-free event celebrating the pirates’ return to Tampa Bay.

Gasparilla is an annual celebration that began in 1904. Held each year in late January or early February, it celebrates the legend of José Gaspar (Gasparilla), a mythical Spanish pirate who supposedly operated in Southwest Florida. There is the main parade one weekend and a night parade held the following week. But to kick it all off, there is the family-friendly children’s parade.

To those who may not know them — and very few people operating in Florida politics DON’T know them — Robert and Nancy may be two of the most essential players in the state’s political universe.

Through their South Tampa accounting firm moves tens (if not hundreds) of millions in political contributions and expenditures. Additionally, Nancy serves as treasurer for dozens of candidates and committees. Among her too-many-to-name Florida clients are several A-list members of Congress and the Florida Legislature.

As we have the past five years, my wife, daughter, and I gladly accepted an invitation to view the parade from the Watkins’ beautiful home. And while my daughter was there for the beads and the floats, I attended for the politics, as the party draws many of Tampa Bay’s leading politicos.

With Bloody Mary in hand most of the day, my conversations with those participating were not for attribution. Nevertheless, I was able to glean several insights into state and local politics.

But first, a quick note about two of the children at the parade.

The first is about Lizzy Brandes, the amazing seven-year-old recently adopted by Natalie and Jeff Brandes. I say “amazing” because that’s precisely what she is. She is so much more acclimated to American life than what you could believe can happen in such a short period.

And think about, Lizzy knows nothing about our traditions, like a parade idolizing a mythical pirate. Think about how that must look through her eyes. Yet there she was, catching beads with the best of them.

The second note is about Maverick Griffin, the surprise addition to Melanie and Mike Griffin‘s lives. He’s just as cool in person as his name would suggest and it’s just incredible to see Melanie and Mike, perhaps the city’s best known young professional couple, embrace parenthood with as much enthusiasm as they have the other aspects of their lives.

Now, on to politics.

First and foremost, the attitude of the decidedly Republican crowd was less celebratory than it was in 2017. Last year, the party took place at about the same time as Donald Trump‘s inauguration and so there were plenty of folks sporting red “Make American Great Again” hats. This year, however, with the parade taking place just hours after the federal government officially shut down, there were very few, if any, outspoken supporters of the president.

Speaking of which, it’s astonishing to think of the transition one guest has made since I last blogged about the Watkins’ Gasparilla party.

I’m referring, of course, to former U.S. Rep. David Jolly.

Two years ago, Jolly held a sizable lead over his rivals for the Republican nomination for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat. Today, he is among the most prominent critics of Trump. In fact, he may be THE most prominent Florida-based Trump critic.

It remains to be seen what Jolly will do in 2018 and beyond. I doubt he runs for office. And I know Jolly would like to book a full-time gig with a cable network. But can he make that happen?

Jolly also had an impressive set of comments about the #NeverTrump movement. He spoke about what will happen AFTER the fever breaks. And about how those Republicans who did not stand up to Trump may be judged. I agree with the former congressman that reckoning will come for the Paul Ryans of the world who not only did not stand up to Trump, but enabled him.

He’s not exactly a #NeverTrump’er, but he’s close enough: Will Weatherford was missing from the Watkins’ party, although his lovely wife, Courtney, stopped by.

I guess Will’s just too busy making money in the private sector to stop what he’s doing for a parade.

State Sens. Jeff Brandes and Dana Young both made appearances Saturday.

While Brandes has yet to draw a Democratic opponent, Young learned last week that Bob Buesing would run against her again in 2018.

In a way, Brandes and Young’s fates are intertwined. It’s like that Florida Democrats do not have the resources to fund a candidate against both Brandes and Young, so now that Buesing is in against Young, Brandes may be closer to being off-the-hook.

Yet the upside for Young is higher than it is for Brandes: if she can get past Buesing, she has a better-than-even-money chance to be the first female Senate president in decades. There’s no doubt Young faces a stiff challenge from Buesing, but I think the book on him is still the same as it was in 2016, no matter how much the political environment has changed. He’s a smart man and, by all accounts, a solid lawyer and valuable member of the community.

But is he a good politician?

Young, meanwhile, has beat back everything opponents have ever thrown at her. And if she could beat the late Stacey Frank in 2010, I wager she’ll be able to get by Buesing this year.

Hard at work on the campaign trail is political consultant Anthony Pedicini, who is always one of the first to arrive at the Watkins party. He also brings much of his extended, parade-loving family to the event. And they’re great.

Of course, Pedicini spent much of the day on the phone, working on the special election in House District 72. Pedicini and his partner, Tom Piccolo, are on a tear, winning one special election after another in 2017-2018. But there’s something afoot in HD 72, despite advantages Republicans hold in that seat.

For several reasons, Democrats are excited about Margaret Good‘s chances in this seat. They’re raising serious money, although Republican James Buchanan is too. For some time, the fur has been flying in this race (no doubt part of what Pedicini was working Saturday), so keep this contest on your radar.

Finally, if there is one takeaway I want to impart about Saturday, it’s about how, um, interested Bob Buckhorn might be … could be … in the running for, um, Florida Governor … in 2018.

Hizzoner always comes to the Watkins party after working the parade route and, even more so than in years past; he was a man in full. Buckhorn knows what kind of job he’s done in Tampa and really, really would like to do the same for Florida.

I joked with him about how great it would be if he could give a speech years from now and say “Florida has its swagger back” just the way he was able to say the same thing about Tampa.

Lobbyist Ana Cruz and I spent thirty minutes practically begging Buckhorn to reconsider not running in 2018, primarily since John Morgan — who would’ve clogged the same lane Buckhorn would run in — has taken himself out of the running.

Buckhorn’s problem is that while he would almost certainly do well in a general election, he would struggle to escape the identity-based politics of the Democratic nomination. It probably won’t be the year for another middle-aged white guy — no matter how great his story — and Buckhorn’s story in Tampa is great. That is a damn shame. Because, in Buckhorn, you can literally see the same appeal Joe Biden has at the national level.

There is at least one upshot to Buckhorn not running in 2018. We’ll be able to see him swagger down Bayshore Boulevard one last time in 2019.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn greets a boy along the parade route of the 2018 Children’s Gasparilla Experience.

Criminal justice report given to legislators will guide reform

A four-volume, plain-spoken treatise on criminal justice reform is available to the public and it’s already caught the eyes of some legislators looking to reform Florida’s criminal justice system.

Reforming Criminal Justice” recently was published by the Academy for Justice, a group of 120 leading criminal justice scholars representing some of the best higher education institutions in the world, including University of California at Berkeley, University of Chicago, Columbia University, Georgetown University, Harvard University, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Stanford University, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Virginia.

Of the 120 scholars, some contributed directly and others peer-reviewed the work. The team was assembled and led by Erik Luna, an Amelia D. Lewis professor of constitutional & criminal law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. 

The volume breakdown: criminalization, policing, pretrial and trial processes, and punishment, incarceration and release. Each of the 57 chapters explores policy issues and provides actionable recommendations. 

The work was applauded Tuesday at the Capitol by Right on Crime and the Charles Koch Institute. The two groups typically advocate for right-leaning policies but their work on criminal justice has drawn unfamiliar allies — such as the ACLU and the NAACP — making it mostly a nonpartisan effort. 

Vikrant Reddy, a senior research fellow at CKI, said Florida is the “most important state in the country on (criminal justice reform).” He said the state’s size and conservative leadership make it distinct from many other states, while an example for others with red leadership.

“When Florida moves on criminal justice reform, people across the country will take it very, very seriously.” Reddy said.

And it looks like Florida is ready to move. Available to the public online, the report also is being distributed to some members of the Legislature.

Criminal justice power players Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, and state Rep. Cord Byrd, a Jacksonville Beach Republican, attended the press conference. Byrd is vice chair of Justice Appropriations in his chamber. Brandes chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice.

On the report, Brandes said, “This document will become very important as we continue to build a foundation of policies to move the state forward in criminal justice reform.”

Brandes this Session is championing pre-arrest diversion programs, which are designed to lower incarceration rates, along with other reform bills.

Senate panel to consider juvenile ‘Fight Club’ reforms

A Senate panel on Tuesday will consider two measures that would provide more oversight to the state’s juvenile justice system, which is under scrutiny for its widespread use of unnecessary and excessive force on youth detainees.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican who chairs a powerful criminal justice committee, is sponsoring both bills and intends to champion a slew of other criminal justice reforms throughout Session.

A pair of those reforms up for debate on Tuesday would make it easier for lawmakers and those appointed to the Florida Correctional Operations Oversight Council to look into specific issues plaguing the youth detainees and their enforcers. These reforms would not apply to private detention centers.

One of the bills (SB 1208) would expand the responsibilities of the nine-member Florida Correctional Operations Oversight Council to include monitoring of daily operations of correctional and juvenile facilities.

Those appointed to the council by the governor, House Speaker and/or Senate President would be tasked with more than just making policy and budget recommendations to the Legislature. Now, they would also be charged with identifying problems in the juvenile system by conducting inspections and interviews and completing an annual report on their findings.

The proposal comes in the wake of the Miami Herald “Fight Club” series which found that over a 10-year period youth care workers would give detainees honey buns and other treats as a reward for beating other youth.

The year-long probe revealed systemic misconduct at the DJJ stemming from inexperienced and underpaid staff, inadequate personnel standards and a high tolerance for cover-ups.

The second bill, SB 1004, aims to add lawmakers to the list of those who can visit any of the 21 juvenile detention facilities “at their pleasure,” and not strictly by appointment. Current state law allows lawmakers and other elected and appointed officials to visit any adult correctional facility “at their pleasure.”

In a letter to members of the Legislature last October, DJJ Secretary Christina Daly said lawmakers who don’t want to go through the appointment process, can visit juvenile centers. But said youth detainees “suffer from previous trauma and interruptions of their daily schedules can be problematic.”

The bill would also prohibit the DJJ from “unreasonably withholding” access to reporters, intending to increase transparency through independent reviews of facilities.

After high-profile data breaches, legislators want to toss credit freeze fees

In the wake of recent high-profile data breaches compromising the information of thousands of Floridians, legislators and cabinet members on Wednesday advocated for two bills that would eliminate credit report freeze fees for consumers.

Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are backing two measures proposed in the Legislature, which they say would toss a “fundamentally unfair burden” to victims of identity theft.

“When our citizens have their information violated, those credit rating agencies have the ability to implement an up to $10 freeze fee to protect their credit from something that was out of their control,” Patronis said. “That is unacceptable.”

Patronis, who is running for a second term as CFO, touted Putnam as an “outstanding advocate” of the effort. Putnam is currently in the run to be the next governor.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican, is leading the fight to put an end to these fees in the Senate. While his bill awaits committee referrals, the companion House bill sponsored by state Rep. Shawn Harrison is up for a hearing Wednesday.

In recent months, the state has had its fair share of data breaches including one by Uber, which is currently under investigation by Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office. The information of at least 32,000 Uber drivers in the state may have been compromised during a 2016 hack.

Most recently, though, the state Agency of Health Care Administration said the personal and medical information of up to 31,000 may have been accessed after an employee opened a malicious email last November.

Patronis said Miami, Naples and Tallahassee are the state’s hot spots for identity theft.

Florida could grant legal immunity for reporting drug overdoses

A Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that would grant people immunity for carrying small amounts of drugs if they seek medical help for an overdose.

The proposal applies to individuals who are found in possession of any drug, including fentanyl and illicit opioids, if they ask for medical assistance in “good faith” when they believe a user is experiencing an overdose.

“It’s really trying to make sure that if somebody is in the midst of seeing somebody struggling of an overdose they shouldn’t have to be worried about the state charging them,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican sponsoring the measure.

“They should immediately do the right thing — the focus here is to save lives.”

Under a law signed last year that created tougher drug trafficking statutes, fentanyl traffickers can face first-degree murder charges  if users die from an overdose.

The law was in response to the growing opioid epidemic gripping the state and upon passage was praised by Attorney Pam Bondi as life-saving legislation that “gives law enforcement and prosecutors the tools they need to combat the trafficking of fentanyl.”

The proposed measure (SB 970) would not toss or change that law. However, it would give arrest and prosecution immunity to people who seek medical assistance in “good faith” if they believe an individual is experiencing an alcohol or drug-related overdose even if they are found in possession of fentanyl and helped distribute the drug to the user.

Over 40 states have passed similar laws over the years. Brandes believes it can help lower the number of “preventable” alcohol- and drug-related overdose deaths in Florida, which amounted to 5,392 in the first six months of 2016, according to Florida Bureau of Vital Statistics.

The vote to move the bill ahead was unanimous. The measure now has two more committee stops before it can head to the full floor for consideration.

Hours before the vote Senate President Joe Negron kicked off the 2018 legislative session by urging lawmakers to address the opioid crisis and to make sure addicts have access to the resources they need to beat their drug habits.

Brandes, who has long championed criminal justice reform bills and is now the chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said he is “excited” to see a shift in policy this year in the criminal justice arena.

Senator files ‘certificate of need’ repeal bill, identical to House priority

Sen. Jeff Brandes filed a bill Wednesday that would toss a controversial “certificate of need” hospital regulatory process as the House fast-tracks an identical bill.

House Republican leaders and Gov. Rick Scott, a former hospital CEO, have long supported repealing the “certificate of need,” but the effort has stalled in the Senate.

This year, though, the bill has a powerful advocate in the Senate: Budget Chairman Rob Bradley, who last Session filed a bill to scrap that regulation.

“By eliminating the state’s restrictive CON process we’ll increase competition and drive down the cost of health care for Floridians,” Bradley said.

The House bill filed by state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, is already set for a week-one floor vote, an indication that it is again a priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran. Brandes’ bill has yet to be referred to committees.

Under both bills, the “certificate of need” would be repealed for hospitals only. Current law requires health care providers to have a “certificate of need” before building or converting hospitals, nursing homes and hospices.

The regulation was initially created in 1973 by the federal government as a method to control costs and it was repealed at the federal level in 1987. Several states have maintained some form of it, including Florida.

Florida could soon implement pre-arrest diversion programs statewide

A pair of criminal justice reform proposals are laying out an ambitious plan that could reduce crime and incarceration rates in Florida by implementing pre-arrest diversion programs statewide.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg, filed a bill on Thursday that would direct all judicial circuits in the state to create and implement both an adult and juvenile civil citation programs.

The program would give an opportunity to offenders who commit minor crimes, such as petty theft or marijuana possession, to report to the program, which aims to give individuals who qualify community service hours instead of jail time. Brandes says the move will “free up the court system to deal with more serious offenses” and will give individuals the chance to face “appropriate sanctions” for their crimes.

“Allowing civil citations for minor offenses committed by juveniles and adults has proven to be an effective tool for law enforcement by modifying the behavior of cited individuals without the scarlet letter of an arrest,” Brandes said.

If a person does not complete the program, the bill states the case would go back to the law enforcement agency that made the arrest to determine if there is good cause to recommend charges for the misdemeanor offense. The case would be referred to the state attorney.

An adult pre-arrest diversion program introduced last year in Pinellas County, which Brandes represents, could act as a model for what may be ahead for municipalities across the state.

“This bill enhances this tool, requiring all judicial circuits implement a civil citation program, while maintaining the flexibility of local control and officer discretion,” Brandes said.

Under the Senate bill, programs such as the ones implemented in Pinellas County would not go away. But if a program does not meet the criteria established by the circuit, it would need to be adjusted.

State Rep. Larry Ahern, a Seminole Republican, is expected to file a similar companion bill in the House.

Bill seeks to prevent driver’s license suspensions in non-driving offenses

No one should lose their driver’s license over an infraction that isn’t related to driving.

That’s the premise of a bill (SB 1270) filed Friday by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.

“It is time to address the growing problem of non-driving related license suspensions,” Brandes said in a press release announcing the bill. “Stop the madness and quit taking away people’s driver’s licenses for unrelated offenses, especially failing to pay fines and fees.”

The bill would prohibit suspending someone’s driver’s license for various offenses unrelated to driving – except for failing to pay child support.

The legislation also helps solidify the right of a defendant in financial hardship to instead use community service as a form of payment for fees and fines. Individuals who have their licenses suspended due to financial reasons would instead be issued a “hardship license.”

Currently, someone who has been caught driving on a suspended license three or more times is given a felony. Brandes’ bill would prevent such action in instances when the driver had their license suspended for financial hardship.

“A relatively minor offense puts someone into the system where they may spiral downward and lose their job or end up serving prison time because they have to choose between driving to work and driving with a suspended license,” Brandes said.

The 2018 Session, which starts Jan. 9, marks the third time Brandes has tried to limit non-driving related license suspensions. Brandes’ bill last year died in Senate Appropriations.

Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, also of St. Petersburg, co-sponsored the legislation last year. Brandes notes that Sarasota Republican Sen. Greg Steube and Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young have also been supportive of previous measures.

Jeff Brandes wants privacy protection for Echo, Google Home

It’s time to deal with privacy in the age of Alexa, Sen. Jeff Brandes says.

The St. Petersburg Republican has filed legislation (SB 1256) to protect the expectation of privacy in the use of cell phones and other microphone-enabled household devices.

The surge in sales of “smart speakers” like Amazon’s Echo, with its “Alexa” cloud-based voice service, and Google Home has caused some civil libertarians to express privacy concerns.

Brandes’ measure requires law enforcement to get a warrant before searching communications and location data contained in such devices.

“As technology continues to become more integrated in our daily lives, it is critical that the law recognize that electronic devices are the modern day equivalent of papers and effects, falling under the protections of the 4th Amendment of the Constitution,” Brandes said in a statement.

“It is my hope that this collaborative effort will accomplish my goal of bringing us into this day and age technologically without compromising law enforcement’s ability to provide public safety.”

Dan Olds, an analyst with technology analysis firm OrionX, told computerworld.com last year that “there are plenty of privacy issues with this type of always-listening technology.”

“It’s obvious that any device that is always listening could also be always storing and always analyzing anything that is within earshot of the receiver,” he said.

“It could give Google a hell of a lot more personal data about users than they get now,” Olds said referring to Google Home, which was introduced a little over a year ago.

Google’s support page for the device, however, says it isn’t recording all of its owners’ conversations. 

“When Google Home detects that you’ve said ‘OK Google’ or that you’ve physically long-pressed the top of your Google Home device, the LEDs on top of the device light up to tell you that recording is happening, Google Home records what you say, and sends that recording … to Google in order to fulfill your request,” it says. “You can delete those recordings anytime.”

Brandes says he sought advice from industry experts and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement prior to filing the bill to ensure that privacy is maintained and to provide clarity as to how law enforcement may access these devices.

He says his legislation makes clear that collection by law enforcement of an individual’s location, a cell phone, or a home enabled device, without the consent of the person or owner of the devices, should be allowed only when authorized by a warrant, unless certain exigent circumstances exist.

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