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Pushback emerges against bill closing FRS defined benefit plan to new cities

Jacksonville’s big legislative accomplishment in the 2016 session was getting an unprecedented bill through Tallahassee, one which would allow the city to access the guaranteed revenue from a future sales tax extension, once it closed one of its three pension plans.

As collective bargaining continues between the city and its unions, the 2017 session also looms. And another bill with potential bearing on Jacksonville’s pension perils awaits the Florida Legislature.

That bill, filed by Jeff Brandes in the Florida Senate and Jacksonville’s own Jason Fischer in the Florida House, would close the defined benefit plan of the Florida Retirement System to new cities.

“I believe the best way to start getting a handle on the growing unfunded state pension liability is to tackle the issue at the source. Closing this loophole to enter into the defined benefit pension plan in FRS will help the state of Florida begin the process of reconciling the out of control pension debt and put our state on a path towards fiscal responsibility,” stated Rep, Fischer upon filing the bill.

A question that is emerging, however: does the Fischer/Brandes legislation subvert the intent of the 2016 legislation that set the stage to conditionally close Jacksonville’s faltering defined benefit pension plans?


The police and fire unions believe so; their position has been to put new hires who are foreclosed from the city’s current DB plan into the FRS defined benefit plan, which was last estimated to be 85 percent funded and one of the healthiest state pension plans in the country.

Meanwhile, the sponsors of the 2016 legislation, Clay County’s Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Travis Cummings, had their own qualms with the FRS reform bills.

“The bill was clear,” Bradley said, “and I made several public statements at the time as the bill moved through the process.”

“The language of the bill was clear – that [new pension plan] is a local decision, what form the pension/retirement plan takes going forward. The only requirement of the bill is that you close existing plans and then you start anew if you want to avail yourself of those dollars,” Bradley added.

“What system is chosen by the city of Jacksonville using those dollars is a choice,” Bradley said, “to be made through collective bargaining.”

When asked if he supported the Fischer/Brandes reforms, Bradley was careful in responding.

“To the extent that those bills take options off the table, then in my mind that’s inconsistent with what we did last year,” Bradley said.

“What we did last year was say this is a local decision. They have a series of options available to them to choose. Then to go the next year, and say ‘we said that, but we don’t mean it. You have fewer options than you had last year,’ to me that would be inconsistent with what we did last year,” Bradley said.

When asked if the Fischer/Brandes bill was a “bait and switch,” Bradley laughed, saying that phrase was something he “would describe as inflammatory language.”

“But yeah, I made my statement on it,” the senator said.


Sen. Bradley, in what was an audacious play last year, carried the Senate version of the discretionary sales surtax bill through with a 35 to 1 vote of approval.

Bradley and Brandes, already slated to square off on the issue of medical marijuana expansion, look poised to be at odds on the FRS reform bill also.

Sen. Bradley’s concerns were echoed, albeit in abbreviated form, by Rep. Travis Cummings.

Cummings hadn’t seen the Fischer/Brandes bill, but after the terms were described to him, he said the terms were a “big concern.”

“I’d have a hard time supporting it,” Cummings said.

Cummings’ comments are notable in light of what he said to us in January 2016.

“History in the Florida Legislature does prove that there are philosophical differences between the House and Senate regarding traditional pension versus 401k type retirement plans. No doubt such will be a key part of the debate with our Senate partners. The train has left the station in the private sector in that pension plans are now dinosaurs due to insurmountable liabilities,” Cummings observed last year.


The concerns of legislators who don’t represent Jacksonville may not be such a concern … except for the fact that the Duval County Legislative Delegation didn’t carry the pension reform legislation in 2016.

The reasons for such were pragmatic: Cummings and Bradley had carried similar legislation before, and there wasn’t a sense of overwhelming enthusiasm to carry the bill from the local delegation.

While the local delegation did support the legislation, the lead was taken by the Republicans from Clay County.

As former Rep. Charles Van Zant, a House co-sponsor, said last May, “it was a good neighbor bill for us. Jacksonville turned to us to pass the bill,” and the “three of us spearheaded the initiative.”

Jeff Brandes legislation would create task force focusing on criminal justice

After years of watching other red states leap ahead of them on criminal justice reform, Pinellas County Republican Senator Jeff Brandes is filing a bill that would create a criminal justice task force in the state of Florida in 2017.

It calls for a large committee consisting of 27 members (16 will be appointed) representing the Florida House, Senate, the Governor’s offices and various state agencies, as well as from a victim’s advocacy group, the formerly incarcerated, and the faith community.

The goal would be to take “holistic” review of the state’s criminal justice system, including (but not limited to) sentencing practices, minimum mandatory requirements in statute, prison and jail facilities and criminal penalties in statute.

“I really think you need a comprehensive approach to criminal justice reform, and I’ve never seen it done well in the committee process,” Brandes said earlier this month. “What we really need is a task force to vet these things, and give the (criminal justice) committee a vetted set of bills.”

In recent years, the governors of Georgia, Kentucky and Oklahoma have all made reforms to their criminal justice system, all after receiving recommendations from task forces that they created.

After being elected governor of Kentucky in 2015, Republican Matt Bevin announced the formation of a 23-member Criminal Justice Policy Assessment Council. It was comprised prosecutors and public defenders, members of the faith-based and business communities, state lawmakers and local leaders from across the political spectrum.

In Georgia, Republican Governor Nathan Deal did the same after coming into office in 2011. A task force created that year led the Georgia General Assembly to use those recommendations to enact two rounds of reforms in 2012 and 2013 that, deal wrote last fall ,have made “Georgia’s criminal justice system smarter, fairer, more effective and less costly, while in no way sacrificing public safety.”

The proposed legislation calls for the task force to present its report to the governor and the Legislature by the first date of the 2018 regular session.

(Jeff Brandes is a client of Extensive Enterprises, LLC, the holding company of Extensive Enterprises Media, LLC, which publishes this website).

Jeff Brandes files bill to standardize visitation plans

Sen. Jeff Brandes has filed a bill aimed at providing standardized visitation plans for unmarried parents.

The St. Petersburg Republican filed legislation (SB 590) Monday, which would create a standard visitation schedule for unmarried parents. If adopted, the proposal would encourage contact between non-custodial parents and their children.

“Spending time with our children is the most valuable gift parents can give,” he said in a statement. “The state currently requires child support be paid but is silent on time. This bill seeks to offer parents an optional time sharing plan, used in many other states, that puts the focus on parents spending time with their children.”

The time plan, according to Brandes’ office, would be provided as an option when parents meet with the Department of Revenue to set up child support. It would allow the parents to bypass the court system.

Under the proposed plan, children would be with the non-custodial parents every other weekend; one evening per week; Thanksgiving break and spring break in even numbered years; winter break in odd years; and for two weeks during the summer.

Parents could accept the plan as laid out, deviate and agree upon a different plan, or go through further mediation. It provides several exceptions, including when a family member lives more than 100 miles away or when there are concerns of familial or domestic violence.

Jeff Brandes urges Tri-Rail to hold off on controversial half-billion dollar contract, seeks inquiry

Saying he is concerned “it just doesn’t look right,” state Sen. Jeff Brandes, who chairs a key committee, said late Thursday he hopes the South Florida Regional Transit Authority does not award a controversial operations contract Friday that could be worth $511 million over ten years.

Brandes said he’s asking the staff of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development to look into the transit authority’s procurement process that led to this point, with five of six proposals being tossed on technical reasons and the authority then pushing a more expensive deal with the remaining bidder, Herzog Services.

Concerns about the deal were first reported earlier Thursday on, and on POLITICO Florida. Brandes said he first learned of the deal and concerns surrounding it late Wednesday.

The transit authority said earlier Thursday it would not comment, due to rules requiring silence on the matter until the SFRTA Board of Trustees gets the presentation Friday.

Brandes said he hopes the transit authority board will postpone a decision for a few weeks. In the meantime, he’ll be gearing up his committee to look into it.

That’s no small matter for Tri-Rail. He said the SFRTA gets about $50 million a year in state subsidy. And that goes through his committee. That’s enough money essentially to cover the entire contract.

The Republican senator from St. Petersburg stressed that he’s not accusing anyone of of wrong-doing, and that he has no evidence of wrong-doing.

But he said that anytime a contract this big comes up there should be scrutiny, especially when the process essentially turned the competition into a one-bid deal, raising strong objections from the companies whose proposals were rejected in secret, for technical reasons, which they dispute.

“It just doesn’t look right,” Brandes said. “Here you have a $500 million, ten-year contract where you disqualify five of the six bidders, it doesn’t look right. So if it doesn’t look right, we should take the opportunity to make sure it follows a correct process and the taxpayers are getting the best deal they can get for $500 million for the operation of that facility.”

He said he wants to have conversations with the transit authority’s leadership to understand their process, and perhaps would like to see an inspector general investigation. or auditor’s review. He said there might need to be hearings at the state level. And then he wants to talk about long-term, more systemic changes, including whether big independent authorities like SFRTA ought to be brought into the state system so that contract disputes could be appealed to state administrative court.

Tri-Rail is the oldest and largest state-funded rail in the state, operating up to 50 trains a day on a 72-mile track through Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The transit authority is seeking a company to take over four different long-term contracts merged into one, to operate the system, maintain the trains and equipment, maintain the stations, and provide dispatching. It’s a seven-year deal with three one-year extension options. Herzog’s bid sought $511 million for the full ten years. Other bidders were lower, as low as $396 million.

Some rejected bidders, including Tri-Rail’s current operator, Maryland’s Transdev Services, are fuming and challenging. This month, Transdev went to court to block the award; initially getting a temporary restraining order.

Two other disqualified bidders, Bombardier Mass Transit and First Transit, joined in. But after a hearing last Friday, Circuit Judge Barbara McCarthy of Broward County lifted her order Monday.

The issues the challengers have raised questions on how much latitude the agency’s staff has in deciding whether a proposal meets requirements, how staff members can make judgment calls and assumptions that go beyond stated prices, and how they do so without contacting the bidders for clarification.


Jeff Brandes bill would legalize delivery drones

A bill filed Tuesday would allow delivery drones to operate in Florida.

The legislation (SB 460), however, focuses on ground drones, or “personal delivery devices.”

Such a unit is defined as a “motorized device for use primarily on sidewalks and crosswalks at a maximum speed of 10 miles per hour, which weighs 50 pounds or less excluding cargo.”

Ground drones
Photo credit: Starship Technologies

London-based Starship Technologies makes a six-wheeled model that is beginning to make deliveries in California and Washington, D.C.

“With this legislation, Florida continues to lead in transportation policy,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who filed it.

He long has embraced “disruptive technologies,” such as ridebooking apps, for example.

“This technology could revolutionize home delivery and will usher in new business models,” Brandes said. “This type of innovative technology should be embraced by policymakers, and I am excited to focus Florida on the future.”

His bill also requires drone operators to carry insurance coverage, among other things, and prohibits drones on the state’s shared-use nonmotorized trail network, or SUNtrails.

Some of Brandes’ fellow lawmakers have not always been as receptive to drones.

In 2013, the Legislature limited Florida law enforcement’s use of flying drones, or remotely-controlled aircraft, in the “Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act.”

That measure was backed by Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican who is now the Senate President.

Bill to expand juvenile civil citations raises questions on officer discretion

A bill to set up a civil citation program for juveniles statewide advanced Monday through a Florida Senate committee.

However, questions about removing officer discretion may need to be addressed before the proposal gets widespread support from lawmakers later this Session.

Miami Republican Senator Anitere Flores’ bill (SB 196) would mandate law enforcement officers to offer a civil citation for youths admitting to one of 11 separate misdemeanors: possession of alcohol beverages; battery; criminal mischief; trespassing; theft; retail and farm theft; riots; disorderly conduct; possession of cannabis or controlled substances; possession, manufacture, delivery, transportation, advertisement or retail sale of drug paraphernalia and resisting an officer without violence.

Flores introduce the bill to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice Monday.

“The reason why I find this bill to be very important is that it brings uniformity to the Civil Citation Program,” Flores said, “so that ability to get a second chance doesn’t depend on where you live or what the color of your skin is, and that it just be something that in the state of Florida we prioritize for all members of our state.”

Although civil citations are already an option for all law enforcement agencies to write up, there is a huge discrepancy in the percentages of actual use among various police and sheriff departments.

For example, in the most recent fiscal year, Pinellas County used civil citations 94 percent of the time they were available. However, across the bay, Sheriff David Gee’s agency in Hillsborough used them only 34 percent of the time.

Currently, Florida law states that law enforcement officers may issue a civil citation. Flores bill would make civil citations a requirement for law enforcement in particular cases.

Although each person in the seven-member committee indicated general support for the bill, some resistance came from St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who said that while 94 percent of Pinellas County Sheriff Deputies did write up civil citations, 6 percent believed placing the juvenile under arrest was the best thing to do.

“Why shouldn’t they be allowed to exercise their discretion?” he asked.

Barney Bishop, with the Florida Smart Justice Alliance, said he had been advocating such a bill since his time with Associated Industries of Florida. Nevertheless, Bishop said he had several issues with the bill as currently written.

Like Brandes, Bishop said law enforcement should not be mandated to issue civil citations; he instead suggested incentivizing police chiefs and sheriffs to create department policies to encourage the maximum use of civil citations.

Bishop also disputed the staff summary of the bill saying it will have no fiscal impact. Small counties like Taylor or Washington — ones which currently do not have any civil citation programs in place — must spend money to create such a program, he said.

Bishop then suggested small counties could work together, or with a nonprofit agency, to come up with their own program.

While Flores’ bill would only mandate a civil citation for first-time offenses, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said, currently, there is no statewide database system to allow his deputies to know if a youth found guilty of one of the offenses listed in the legislation hadn’t already received such a citation in a different county.

And though Flores emphasized that the misdemeanors requiring the offer of a civil citation were all nonviolent, Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean questioned the inclusion of battery on the list.

“Battery stands out. That one might be an issue,” Flores admitted, adding that part of the problem is how expansive its definition is, including unwanted touching.

“I’m open to suggestions on how we walk that line,” she said.

The bill passed out of committee by a 5-2 vote. Brandes and Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley opposed it.

After the vote, Senate President Joe Negron issued a statement: “Instead of helping our youth to learn positively from their mistakes like we once did, they may be put in the juvenile justice system, which then creates a criminal record that could potentially follow them for their rest of their lives.”

Legislature mulls closing FRS defined benefit plan to new cities

House Bill 353 and Senate Bill 428, filed on Monday, would foreclose enrollment in the Florida Retirement System’s defined benefit plan to any city not currently involved.

While the defined contribution arm of FRS would be open to new municipal entrants, the defined benefit option would not.

The bill was filed in the Florida House by Jacksonville Republican Jason Fischer, a political ally of Mayor Lenny Curry, who adamantly opposes the entry of local police and fire unions’s new hires into the FRS defined benefit plan – an outcome they seek during collective bargaining with the city

Adding to the intrigue: those police and fire unions backed Fischer’s opponent in the contentious House District 16 GOP primary last summer, even as Curry robocalled and fundraised for Fischer, who hired Curry’s political team to run his campaign.

When asked about these political realities, Fischer asserted that his decision to file this bill was his own. Curry likewise claimed that he had nothing to do with the bill being filed, even as he’d heard “chatter in Tallahassee” about it.

(This take was disputed by Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police head Steve Zona, who posted to Facebook that “while Fischer has enough hate in his heart for Police and Fire unions to file this bill himself, I don’t believe a word he says.”)

For Jacksonville, Fischer said, the “local pension is a big problem.”

“The unfunded liability,” which is approaching $3 billion, is “crippling my home town. I want to make sure the state isn’t following the same path,” Fischer noted.

Fischer notes that, contrary to the mythology that the FRS is stable, there is a misalignment of that narrative with the real rates of return, which run far short of projections (which were 7.65 percent yearly, but have been lowered to 7.5 percent yearly recently).

The five-year rate of return: 6.78 percent.

10 and 15 year rates are even worse, short of 6 percent per annum.

“If the private sector did what the state does,” Fischer said, “it might be accused of cooking the books.”

Fischer notes that even that slight .15% adjustment in projected rate of return added $1.1 billion to the unfunded liability on the state level.

The FRS defined benefit plan, Fischer said, “looks more healthy than it is.”

“I believe the best way to start getting a handle on the growing unfunded state pension liability is to tackle the issue at the source. Closing this loophole to enter into the defined benefit pension plan in FRS will help the state of Florida begin the process of reconciling the out of control pension debt and put our state on a path towards fiscal responsibility,” stated Rep, Fischer.

This is the first of a series of pension reform bills headed to the Florida Legislature, Fischer said.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, who filed the Senate companion bill, asserted that the “unfunded obligations of local pension plans are a ticking time bomb, threatening the financial stability of our local governments.”

“This bill ensures that responsible taxpayers are not bailing out irresponsible policymakers. I look forward to working with my colleagues to protect the solvency of the state retirement plan so that we can keep our promises to our public servants, first responders, and teachers of Florida,” Brandes added.

Proposed legislation could break the cycle of debt for many caught in Florida’s legal system

It’s a vicious circle: Poor people who can’t afford their court-related costs and penalties incur escalating costs for not paying, further indebting them to the state.

“It’s a circle that some people get stuck in and they can’t get out,” Christopher Torres, a Tallahassee defense attorney and former Florida assistant attorney general, told

Compounding the problem is the state’s practice of suspending drivers’ licenses as both a punishment for delinquent payments and an incentive to get people to pay up. For those who can’t afford their financial obligations, the suspensions only add more obstacles to meeting debts and ultimately moving on.

A new reform bill aims to break the cycle.

Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg is proposing legislation to modify legal-debt payment terms and prohibit drivers’ license suspensions statewide for individuals demonstrating an inability to pay court obligations and other legal penalties.

The St. Petersburg Republican is teaming up with state Sen. Darryl Rouson, a Tampa Bay-area Democrat, to push the reform measure. An identical bill, also sponsored by Brandes, died in an appropriations committee last year despite unanimous support from fellow legislators at two separate committees stops.

Brandes sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and helped pass a landmark civil asset forfeiture bill in 2016. A second attempt at reforming legal system costs and burdens indicates renewed confidence that the reforms could pass this year.

Local clerks of court are required to accept monthly debt payments equal to one-twelfth of 2 percent of a person’s annual net income. It’s a flexible standard meant to accommodate various income backgrounds.

But payments are often arranged inflexibly and at higher rates.

“In Florida, this presumption is often ignored and payment levels are set at fixed amounts,” states a Brennan Center for Justice report on criminal justice debt.

Brandes’ bill would cap annual payments made to local clerks of court at no more than 2 percent of annual net income, unless an applicant agrees to pay more.

In Florida, clerks of court also turn over unpaid accounts after 90 days to private attorneys or debt collection services. State law allows them to tack on 40 percent surcharges to underlying debts.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t abolish the surcharges, but it would limit the amount of time private collectors could pursue legal system debts to no more than 5 years. It would also deny any additional charges beyond what clerks of court contractually negotiate through an open bidding process.

Suspension problems

With respect to drivers’ licenses, prohibiting suspensions for low-income people would help tackle the inherent inefficiency of obstructing good-faith efforts to drive to work and earn an income.

“Most people in Florida are dependent on driving,” Torres said. “If you can’t drive then it’s harder to work or find employment. … Getting caught driving illegally means new problems added to old problems, maybe even an arrest, and the cycle starts over again.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 1.5 million notices of suspension were issued in 2014, mostly originating from “failure to comply” or “failure to pay” offenses.

The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, a legislative research office, reports that a large percentage of license suspensions relating to delinquent court costs take more than two years to reinstate.

Reinstatement requires full payment of all financial obligations, enrolling in a payment plan (if not already enrolled), or a court order granting relief.

The amount of time and money involved for many suspension reinstatements leaves the door open for illegal driving. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators estimates that as many as three-fourths of drivers with suspended or revoked licenses continue to drive.

Torres said the penalties for driving with a suspended license hinge on intent. If a law enforcement officer determines that an individual was driving “without knowledge” that their license was suspended, then the penalty is a civil offense punishable by a traffic ticket.

If an officer determines that a driver was “knowingly” driving with a suspended license, then the offense is criminal and warrants arrest.

Under current law, hardship exemptions for business or employment purposes do not apply for failing to pay court obligations and legal penalties, even though they’re available for many driving-related suspensions, such as driving under the influence.

Prohibiting license suspensions for indigents, disabled persons, bankrupt individuals and government assistance recipients could enhance efforts to pay off legal obligations and reduce the cycle of escalating burdens and taxpayer resources required to sustain the merry-go-round process.

The question may be whether the state and local governments are willing to lose the revenue streams.

Revenue vs. debtors

According to a legislative staff analysis, if Brandes’ 2016 bill would’ve passed it would’ve caused significant government revenue losses.

“The bill would likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain drivers’ license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with drivers’ license suspensions and revocations.”

The Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, a statewide association, estimated clerks of court would suffer annual losses ranging from $24.7 million to $82.4 million, depending on the success of the reforms.

If 15 percent of collections were lost because of the new payment plan modifications, licensing reforms, or the bill’s promotion of community service as a way to pay work off debts at minimum wage, then clerks of court could lose an estimated $24.7 million in revenue.

If participation jumped to 50 percent, then $82.4 million in estimated losses could result.

Add on another $7.5 million in annual recurring funds for new full-time employees and IT support for payment plan maintenance, and legislators might balk at the reforms again.

But the issue isn’t going away. Criminal justice reformers are confronting financially burdensome, and sometimes insurmountable, legal system practices across the country.

Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, says the cycle of escalating court obligations and legal penalties is too expensive in both human and taxpayer costs.

“While there is a legitimate role for fines and fees, their use has skyrocketed over the last few decades, with the penalties appearing to be more tied to generating revenue for government rather than legitimate public safety purposes,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union asserts that “state and local courts have increasingly attempted to supplement their funding by charging fees to people convicted of crimes, including fees for public defenders, prosecutors, court administration, jail operation, and probation supervision.”

The debate between revenue and reform will be heard at the state Capitol when the annual legislative session convenes on March 7.

Last year, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers association reported $894 million in total collections for court costs, monetary penalties, fees, service charges and other costs. The collection rate was 73 percent.

Lawmakers look to raise money during upcoming legislative committee meeting weeks

It’s going to be a busy few weeks for Florida Republicans.

House Majority announced fundraising events for seven House Republicans, all of which are running for re-election in 2018, between Jan. 24 and Feb. 20.

The fundraising kicks off on Tuesday with an event for Rep. Bob Cortes. The event is scheduled to begin at 5:30 p.m. at The Beer Industry of Florida, 110 South Monroe Street, Suite B.

House Majority will also hold a fundraiser for Reps. Heather FitzenhagenMaryLynn MagarKathleen Peters, and Holly Raschein on Feb. 15. That event is scheduled to take place in the Library Room at the Governors Club, 202 S. Adams Street.

Five days later on Feb. 20, the House Majority is hosting a fundraiser for Rep. Paul Renner and Rep. Cyndi Stevenson in the Library Room of the Governor’s Club.

All of the events are slated to happen in Tallahassee, and are hosted by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rep. Jose Oliva, and Rep. Chris Sprowls.

House Republicans aren’t the only ones raising dough in in the coming days and weeks.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo is already starting to ramp up for her next state Senate bid with a fundraiser at 5 p.m. in the library of the Governor’s Club in Tallahassee. According to the invitation, the fundraising reception is hosted by Senate President Joe Negron, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, Sen. Rob Bradley, Sen. Anitere Flores, Sen. Bill Galvano, Sen. Jack Latvala, and Majority Leader Wilton Simpson.

Sen. Jeff Brandes is hosting a fundraising reception in the Trapiche Room at the JW Marriott Miami, 1109 Brickell Ave. in Miami. The 9 p.m. “dessert and cordials” reception will benefit Liberty Florida, and will feature a visit from special guest CFO Jeff Atwater.


Legislation covering Uber, Lyft filed for 2017

Online car services such as Uber and Lyft got a preliminary win in Florida after favorable legislation was filed Wednesday in the Legislature.

The bills (SB 340 and HB 221), which would apply to ridebooking companies like Uber and Lyft, combine parts of previous measures that have been introduced but not passed over the last few years.

Still, “transportation network companies,” or TNCs, pretty much got what they wanted, including a provision for driver background checks that don’t require fingerprints, which are more expensive for the companies.

Senate sponsor Jeff Brandes, however, says the checks provided for in the bills are still rigorous and comprehensive. He and state Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Pinellas County Republican who filed the House bill, spoke with reporters Wednesday.

Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who advocates for ridebooking and other “disruptive technologies,” mentioned running potential drivers through a national sex offender database and searching their driving history records.

Importantly, the bills also prohibit local governments from trying to regulate TNCs, another bugaboo of the companies.

Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison called the bills “fair and comprehensive.”

The legislation “establishes common-sense guidelines throughout the state, and allows people in Florida to continue benefitting from Lyft’s affordable, reliable rides,” said Harrison, Lyft’s senior policy communications manager.

“More than two-thirds of states across the country have embraced modern transportation options like Lyft and we are hopeful Florida will soon join them in creating a framework that benefits drivers and passengers,” she added.

Such legislation has been opposed by taxicab and limo interests, and the head of the Florida Taxicab Association called this year’s bills “another attempt by Uber to have legislation written to codify their exact business practice.”

“The goal for policymakers should be what is in the best interest of the public, including drivers, passengers and third parties,” said Roger Chapin, also the executive vice president of Mears Transportation, Central Florida’s largest taxi and hired-car provider.

“A good start,” he added, “would be an appropriate level of insurance for any and all ‘for hire’ drivers that covers the additional risk associated with the more intensive use of the vehicle,” such as “24/7 commercial insurance.”

But the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America came out in support of the bills.

“Many drivers believe their personal auto insurance policy will cover them; this is almost never the case, as the majority of personal auto insurance policies exclude coverage when a vehicle is being used for hire,” association spokeswoman Logan McFaddin said.

“This legislative solution helps to ensure there are safe transportation options that protect drivers, passengers and the public.”

Among other things, the bills require the companies to insure drivers for at least $1 million when they’re giving a ride.

While drivers are on duty but waiting for a ride, they must insure them for death and bodily injury of $50,000 per person, $100,000 for death and bodily injury per incident, and $25,000 for property damage.

Chris Hudson, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Florida, a free market advocacy group, also came out in favor of the bills. He said TNCs “offer economic benefits to the economy by stirring market activity through new good paying jobs consistent with the American Dream.”

Lawmakers “need to strip away the red tape that is crushing innovation and opportunity for Floridians to thrive,” he added. “We will hold elected officials accountable that stand against common sense reforms to expand available services to entrepreneurs and consumers.”

Colin Tooze, an Uber representative, called the legislation “sound and consistent with the emerging national consensus” on regulating ridebooking.

“The bills have very robust safety, insurance, and consumer protection standards,” said Tooze, Uber’s public affairs director. “That’s what our drivers and riders are looking for.”

He also said the pre-emption language, reserving TNC regulation to the state, also was important to save drivers and riders from a “patchwork of regulations that’s very confusing.”

“We think people ought to have certainty and uniformity so that wherever in Florida you are, you can count on a good experience,” Tooze said.



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