Jeff Brandes Archives - Page 7 of 55 - Florida Politics

With hundreds dying from the flu, lawmakers choose inaction

Facing of one of the deadliest flu epidemics in the history of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, a Senate committee temporarily postponed a measure which would give Floridians greater access to antiviral medication, critical in the treatment of the flu and strep.

SB 524, sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, would allow a pharmacist to test for and treat influenza — in collaboration with a physician, through a rigorously written protocol approved by the doctor.

While these services are well within the education and expertise of pharmacists, the bill required additional training approved by the state Board of Medicine. In addition to the strict medical protocols, SB 524 also mandates pharmacists to carry $200,000 in professional liability insurance, to test and treat for influenza virus and streptococcal infections.

“It’s all about access,” Brandes told members of the Senate Health Policy Committee.

However, physicians oppose the bill, arguing pharmacists were not adequately trained to treat or diagnose the illness.

Among those speaking to the committee included a doctor of internal medicine, adding a level of confusion to what should have been a very straightforward proposal. This physician claimed SD 524 would allow pharmacists to diagnose and prescribe.

Unfortunately, this is untrue. There would be no diagnosis by a pharmacist under the proposal.

Used in the process are simple (and accurate) devices which detect whether the disease is present, employing a procedure that takes as little as three minutes. There would be no prescribing by a pharmacist. Strict guidelines are laid out by a physician — in meticulous detail — describing what a pharmacist is allowed to do in the case of a positive or negative test.

The doctor also told senators that flu tests are only “60 percent sensitive,” an interesting statistic, considering Food and Drug Administration requires flu tests be at least 90 percent sensitive for influenza A to even be used in the United States.

There are currently 10 FDA approved rapid diagnostic tests to screen for influenza and that the tests can give results within about 15 minutes. These devices are the same ones now used in doctor’s offices.

If such devices are not good enough for pharmacists, why would they be used in doctor’s offices and hospitals?

What’s more, the doctor acknowledged he does not even see flu patients face-to-face — admitting he only talks to them on the phone and writing a prescription based on the conversation.

In another contradiction, this doctor said the best treatment for flu is hand-washing and rest — yet still prescribes antivirals over the phone. Antivirals only decrease the longevity of the disease by about 24 hours, he said, but antivirals also decrease the severity of symptoms, which can lead to life-threatening complications like pneumonia.

In the end, the real reason all of the doctors and associations were standing in opposition to the bill: they are trying to protect their profession.

Allowing pharmacists to perform these services is eroding primary care, he said, and that pharmacists are trying to “replace” primary care physicians.

Over 30 percent of people in Florida currently do not have primary care physicians. Without such access, patients will go either without care or end up in the hospital.

Early antiviral treatment shortens the duration of fever and flu symptoms, reducing the risk of complications. Reports show, in some cases, early treatment can even prevent death.

The best clinical benefit for the flu is through early administration of antiviral treatment, especially within 48 hours of onset of symptoms. Quick access to care is imperative to saving lives and controlling the spread of disease.

Hospitals are more crowded than in the 2014-2015 flu season — the previous record of 710,000 Americans needing medical care to beat the flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hospitals, urgent care centers, and doctor’s offices are all full — a situation further aggravated by the state’s doctor shortage.

In Florida, access to care is getting increasingly worse. But with 86 percent of the population living within 5 miles of a pharmacy and many 24-hour options, pharmacists are the most accessible health care professionals for a majority of Floridians.

Allowing pharmacists to test and treat influenza will save lives and decrease the spread of the disease — keeping people out of crowded hospitals and reducing the duration of the disease.

Why is the Senate refusing to act, especially when it saves lives?

Pre-arrest diversion program bill clears House panel with lingering concerns

Pinellas County lawmakers are hoping to implement a pre-arrest diversion program in their county across the state, but on Tuesday some lawmakers in the House opposed the measure because they fear violent offenders may slip through the cracks.

“If there’s an Achilles’ heel with the bill it could be the notion that violent offenders could be caught in the citation process,” Republican state Rep. Jay Fant said.

The Attorney General hopeful said a “friendly no vote” on the bill will hopefully  “underscore the fact that this is a serious” concern of his as it moves forward in the process. The measure cleared the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee in the end, with Fant and Rep. Joe Gruters voting against it.

Other lawmakers viewed the proposal by Rep. Larry Ahern of Pinellas County as a step toward improving the state’s criminal justice system.

Under the bill, two separate pre-arrest diversion programs would be created in each judicial circuit in the state. One for adults and one for juveniles. The goal would be to give some misdemeanor offenders community service before they are pushed through the criminal justice system.

“It is important that we begin the framework for helping our bills be bills that uphold parts of the law and also provide provisions that can help the criminal justice process be a better process,” state Rep. Sharon Pritchett said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement would need to adopt rules under the bill that would expunge the non-judicial arrest record of a juvenile who completes the diversion program.

Adults and juveniles who do not successfully complete the program would be referred back to the arresting law enforcement agency which would determine if they should face prosecution for the crime committed.

State Rep. Kathleen Peters, a Republican from Pinellas County, said there are “unintended consequences” that could come with the bill if there is no consistency with the mandates.

Under the bill, local agencies can continue to operate their independent diversion program if it was operating before the bill was implemented, and if it is determined that the state attorney of that circuit will have a similar program developed to comply with state law.

“When we did this in our county, we had all different cities doing different citations and people don’t know the boundaries of the other cities,” Peters said. “Having no consistency is problematic.”

Ahern said the goal of his bill, HB 1197, is to create “uniformity” by implementing diversion programs statewide that give local law enforcement agencies “guidelines” rather than mandates on how to operate their programs. His bill now heads to its last committee stop.

A companion bill (SB 1392) in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, has two more committees before it can hit the full floor.

Bill criminalizing unpermitted access to electronic devices moves forward

Law enforcement officers in Florida could soon need probable cause and warrants to access a suspect’s mobile location tracking device.

Those potential new restrictions are provided in a Senate bill (SB 1256) that cleared its first committee stop on Tuesday. The proposal, sponsored by St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, would also make it a crime to read a text message, email or other communication on a person’s cell phone without their permission, or without a warrant.

“We need to make sure Florida laws keep pace with changes in technology,” Brandes said. “With more and more families utilizing microphone-enabled communications tools to aid in daily household activities, this legislation makes sure our laws are clear with regard to when and how these devices can be subject to search,” Brandes said.

The measure cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee without debate. It also drew the backing of social media giant Facebook.

Under Brandes’ bill, an individual would not face criminal punishment in cases where an electronic device was accessed for business purposes and the information accessed is not “personally identifiable” or is collected in a way that “prevents identification of the user of the device.”

Following its passage, Senate President Joe Negron praised the proposal. He said it would address “current ambiguities” and protect Floridians from unconstitutional property searches.

Under Brandes’ bill, a law enforcement officer who wants to get the exact location of a suspect through their cell phone location tracker would be required to get a court-issued warrant.

Once a warrant is issued, the period of time that the data may be accessed may not exceed 45 days unless the court grants an extension to the warrant.

A House companion (HB 1249) sponsored by Tampa Republican Rep. Jamie Grant is moving ahead in the chamber and has two more committees before it hits the full floor.

Grant’s bill does not offer protections to businesses that gather information that is not personally identifiable.

Bill to expand the number of retroactive death penalty cases advances

A proposal to expand the number of prisoners on death row who could have their sentences reviewed by a jury was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday.

The issue dates back to early 2016 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s death penalty was unconstitutional, as it allowed judges to make the final decision on sending a prison to death row. The Supreme Court had ruled similarly in an Arizona case in 2002.

That ruling compelled the Legislature to rewrite its sentencing laws, with the current law now requiring a unanimous jury verdict for the state to impose a death sentence.

The question following the high court’s decision was how many of the several hundred people on death row in Florida would be able to appeal their sentences. The Florida Supreme Court answered that question in December 2016, when it ruled 6-1 that death sentences finalized before that June 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Arizona case would remain in effect.

Former Justice James Perry was the lone dissenter, writing that all death row inmates should have their sentences changed to life in prison. Justice Barbara Pariente agreed with Perry that the ruling should apply retroactively to all death row inmates, but said they should be entitled only to a rehearing, not guaranteed a lesser sentence, the Miami Herald reported.

 The proposal from Ocoee Democrat Randolph Bracy (SB 870) would do just that.

“It’s just a matter of justice,” Bracy told Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean when asked why the need for a law after the Supreme Court had weighed in already.

Bracy, the chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, added that the June 24, 2002, cutoff date for death sentence reviews was arbitrary. “I think they should have the right to get a sentence reviewed again, just as the ones after that date are able to,” he told Bean.

Adding his voice in support of the bill was St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who said it the right and fair thing to do.

While the bill now advances in the Senate, it has yet to get a sponsor in the House.

Expanded use of bed tax revenues gets heat from hotel industry

Hotel advocates are adamantly opposed to a legislative initiative this year that seeks to include public facilities projects in the list of expenditures that can be funded by the tourism development tax, also known as the bed tax.

Despite industry woes, the Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously cleared the proposal on Monday.

But the battle over the bill (SB 658) has drawn the ire of some very influential interests, such as the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and the Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association, and is far from over.

The bed tax is levied at different rates by different municipalities across the state. It is tacked onto the price of any short-term stay at places like a hotel, timeshare or resort.

Bed tax revenues currently can be spent on local budget items that would promote tourism, public zoos, auditoriums and other entertainment venues. Revenues can also be spent on beach improvements. 

St. Petersburg Republican and SB 658 sponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes said his bill would allow bed tax revenues to be spent on projects for public facilities that are needed to increase tourism. Ahead of the vote on Monday, Brandes explained an amendment that was presumably designed to make his bill less of an industry adversary.

“The goal here is to offer flexibility,” Brandes said regarding the amendment in an interview after the committee meeting. 

The amendment permitted spending bed tax revenues on estuary and lagoon nourishment. It also added language that would make SB 658 apply only to districts that collect more than $20 million in tourist-tax revenue. It also would require two-thirds approval from the county governing board to reallocate dollars towards public facilities projects.

Additionally, the amendment, adopted on Monday, would cap bed tax revenue spending on public facilities at 70 percent of the project’s total cost and require an independent analysis showing the reallocation will have a positive impact on tourism in the district.

But even with the amendment adopted, the industry ultimately was still opposed.

Kevin Craig, public policy director for the CFHLA, said his organization, which represents nearly 121,000 hotel rooms in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, is opposed to the expanded use of tourist-tax revenues.

“Our association continues to assert that the tourist-development tax dollars continue to be utilized for developing tourists,” Craig said.

“While sewers, transportation, public facilities and others are important community needs, visitors to Central Florida and Florida as a whole are already supporting these general fund expenditures through sales tax revenue,” Craig said. He said tourists generate 20 percent of sales tax revenue.

Richard Turner, general counsel and vice president of government affairs for FRLA, echoed similar concerns but was appreciative of the amendment adopted by the committee.

“There are some portions of the amendment offered by the sponsor which are great steps,” Turner said. He cited the two-thirds vote and independent study provisions as examples of “safeguards.”

Still, Turner, on behalf of FRLA, fundamentally disagrees with Brandes’ bill.

“The purpose of the tourist-development tax is to promote and advertise tourism, not to build roads or sewers,” Turner said. “Our concern is whether continual, additional exceptions — regardless of how they’re intentioned — will ultimately dilute the very purpose of the tourist-development tax.”

Brandes later said there may be more changes to the bill that would ultimately bring the opposed parties on board.

“I think you’re starting to see us coalesce around a group of ideas,” Brandes said.

SB 658 will now head to Senate Appropriations. Palm Bay Republican Rep. Randy Fine is sponsoring a comparable bill (HB 585) in the House. Brandes is confident that the two bills will begin to align.

Bill giving judges discretion over drug trafficking sentences moves forward

A proposal that would give judges discretion over drug trafficking mandatory minimum sentences advanced Tuesday after receiving strong pushback from a veteran Tallahassee lobbyist.

“I don’t ever want to help a trafficker, no sir, and I don’t want to give a judge not one iota of an opportunity to go less on a trafficking sentence,” said Barney Bishop III, a lobbyist with the Smart Justice Alliance, a conservative criminal justice reform group.

“A drug abuser? Every day of the week. A drug trafficker? Absolutely not,” Bishop added.

The proposal cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 7-3 vote, with some in the panel criticizing Bishop for “fear mongering” and painting all drug traffickers as violent offenders.

“A lot of these are nonviolent officer and to jump from someone facing a mandatory minimum to them being released from prison and killing someone is a huge assumption,” said Sen. Bobby Powell, a West Palm Beach Democrat.

The measure (SB 694) proposed by Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, would give a court power to depart from current state mandatory minimum prison terms. The judge would be able to look at evidence and part from them mandatory minimum if the offender was not part of a criminal organization, used violence or a weapon during the offense. Mandatory fines would still apply.

“One pill can make all the difference on how long you serve, whether it is three years or seven years,” Brandes said.

The minimum sentence may be lower or higher than the one set forth by state law under the court’s discretion, according to the bill’s staff analysis.

Republican Sen. Debbie Mayfield was one of the three senators that voted against the measure, saying she did not agree with including fentanyl cases.

“We have been trying to fight fentanyl for the last couple years,” Mayfield said.

Brandes’ 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.

“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.

Current law requires those convicted of a drug trafficking offense to serve a mandatory minimum sentence. Those terms depend on the drug trafficked. When it comes to cocaine, a person caught with at least 28 grams, but less than 200 grams must serve at least 3 years in prison and pay a fine of $50,000. For an amount of at least 400 grams, a traffickers must be sentenced to at least 15 years in prison and pay a $250,000 fine.

Bishop was skeptical about the proposal and said the drug amounts that are being discussed go way beyond personal use, adding that he has done drugs before and has never been in possession of large quantities that would qualify under the state’s drug trafficking laws.

“You are helping people that have so much drugs that they can’t use it themselves,” he said. “If I smoke over a gram of pot every year it would take me 1.1 years to smoke a pound.”

“Imagine what it would take me to smoke 25 pound.”

Backed by Pam Bondi, Lauren Book’s sexual harassment bill clears Senate panel

On Tuesday, the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved a landmark bill on “Creating the Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Harassment and Misconduct.”

SB 1628, sponsored by Plantation Democrat Lauren Book, mandates that the task force meets every four years. It bars legislators, candidates, agency employees, and lobbyists from sexually harassing anyone, and keeps the identity of accusers confidential and exempt from public records requests.

Additionally, an amendment bars sexual favors between legislators and lobbyists or “closers.”

Violations of guidelines could spawn criminal or civil penalties, including impeachment or removal from office for public officials, a one-third salary cut for up to a year, or a $10,000 civil penalty.

These changes are driven by sex scandals that have dogged the Legislature in recent months, led by the resignation of former budget chief Jack Latvala after two special reports found probable cause for serial sexual harassment.

Book referred to what unchecked lust and abuse of power have wrought, noting that she is “one of what should be 40 Senators, but we stand as only a body of 38.”

“For far too long, bad actions have been able to hide in the shadows of this process,” Book said, abetted by a “good ol’ boys club” that threatened victims who complained of harassment, intimidation, or manipulation.

“It’s especially shameful here, undermining public trust,” Book added. “We know and have clearly seen that where there is power, there is potential for abuse.”

Candidates and lobbyists will have to disclose that they have read and understood the standards, Book said.

Attorney General Pam Bondi lauded Book for carrying the bill, specifically the provisions for confidentiality and victim advocates.

There was no debate on the amendment or the bill; there didn’t need to be. The consensus was that these changes are necessary.

“This is the first step,” Book said through tears,

This was the first committee stop for Book’s bill; the bill moves onto Governmental Oversight and Accountability, then Rules.

As well, there is a House companion, and it is strongly supported by Speaker Richard Corcoran.

“There is no place in our capital city, our state, or the workplace for unacceptable and unwanted behavior. We believe these new rules are the toughest in the nation and they will apply to all state employees, legislators, and visitors. Never again should one’s job title or position of power shield them from accountability for their disgusting behavior. I am proud to lead this House of Reformers and believe these new rules will be a model for the nation,” Corcoran said Tuesday.

Legislative leaders seek reassurance as USF consolidation plan moves ahead

Two Pinellas County Republicans want reassurance that students at the University of South Florida’s two smaller sister campuses will receive “significant benefits” under a proposed plan to consolidate the three-campus system into a single university.

Citing “years of distrust between campuses” in a letter to USF Board of Trustees Chair Brian Lamb, state Rep. Chris Sprowls and Sen. Jeff Brandes asked if there would be a commitment to invest in specific programs at USF St. Petersburg and USF Sarasota-Manatee if the “barrier to opportunity is eliminated.”

“It is simply not enough for us to state the benefits of the proposal in a legislative hearing and speak in the weeds on higher education policy, and how that interacts with the student experience,” they wrote.

Under the state’s preeminence program which rewards top-performing universities, USF Tampa will soon receive more funding. But that is currently not the case for the two smaller campuses.

The proposal would bring the USF campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee back under the purview of the main campus in Tampa. Sprowls and Brandes say the proposal supports the notion that “one USF secures a bright future for our students, faculty and communities by ensuring equitable investments at each institution.”

The lawmakers said some members in the community still need some reassurance that what is being said is accurate.

“While the relationship of preeminence and regional classification act as barriers to these opportunities on campus currently, would that still be the case if USF was accredited as a single institution?” they write.

USF St. Petersburg officials first raised objections last week when a provision was added to the large House higher education bill (HB 423).

On Thursday, the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce said it wants a formal study on the effects of the proposal before the plan moves forward.

The Chamber cited concerns over the “the pace of taking this from an idea to a policy without any public process or due diligence.”

In the late 1990s, after complaints that USFSP wasn’t reaching its potential under the control of Tampa administrators, state lawmakers began the process of formally separating St. Pete from the main Tampa campus. When that effort failed, a new movement to separately accredit USFSP moved forward in 2006.

If the proposal is approved, the USF board of trustees would have one year to plan for consolidation, and another year to execute.

Read the letter below:

Mr. Brian Lamb

Chairman, USF Board of Trustees University of South Florida

4202 Fowler Avenue

Tampa, Florida 33620

January 25, 2017

Dear Chairman Lamb:

Through the collaborative efforts and hard work of students, faculty, and staff from throughout the University of South Florida, the university is poised to join the ranks of Florida’s best public universities by achieving a pre-eminent designation. This distinction recognizes USF’s success as a Research I University, its continually improving graduation rates, the hundreds of patents its received, and the many degree programs offered by the campus, including doctoral programs.

As we celebrate this achievement as a region, we write to you today on an issue that directly impacts the future of the USF System.

As you know, language was added to PCS/HB 423 directing the USF board of trustees to consolidate the accreditations of the three USF institutions: USF, USF Sarasota/Manatee, and USF St. Petersburg. The proposal gives the Trustees one year to plan for consolidation, and one year to execute.

The impetus for this proposed change is rooted in a firm belief and commitment from this legislature, and past legislatures, that performance funding, and pre-eminence provide the structure that motivates our State Universities to strive for excellence. We saw significant results from this structure last year when the University of Florida was ranked among the nation’s Top 5 public universities and USF, in their pursuit of pre-eminence, achieve great feats in research and patent acquisition.

However, while USF Tampa and its students will benefit from pre-eminence and all it affords to that institution, that success will not be shared with the entire USF Community — namely USFSP and USFSM.

As members of the Tampa Bay Delegation and residents of Pinellas County, it is our sincerest desire to create a level playing field of opportunity throughout the USF System — every student at USFSP or USFSM should share in the success of the USF System.

The consolidation proposal initiated in the House came after thoughtful consideration of the limitations on USFSP and USFSM by their regional mission and Carnegie classification.

As you know, the institutions regional classification does not permit them to share in the status, or the benefits of pre-eminence. In addition to neither institution being allowed to offer doctoral programs, there are also other limits on additional opportunities for students.

The proposal asserts the idea that a consolidated USF provides the residents of Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Pinellas access to a pre-eminent university with all the resources that prestigious distinction affords. The proposal supports the notion that one USF secures a bright future for our students, faculty and communities by ensuring equitable investments at each institution including: support for research, doctoral programs, additional degrees, and unlimited opportunity for students preparing to enter a competitive job market. It also suggests that just as a rising tide lifts all boats, one USF will allow the university to grow together in success and stature.

As you know it has been stated that the proposal will further unify the institutions by motivating USF Tampa to invest in programs and resources at the regional institutions as the performance of each will, for the first time, impact the performance-based metrics and funding for the University. These investments have short and long-term consequences to USF and all of its cities. In the short-term, funds from Tampa will be redirected to fund students, faculty, and facilities at the regional institutions which support the pre-eminent mission. In the longer view, the performance-based metrics at each of the campuses will increase thus ensuring additional dollars earned from the state through performance-based funding as well as continuing pre-eminence funding. Tampa Bay as a region will benefit mightily when top researchers are embedded in a variety of our communities and contributing their knowledge to help solve important problems in the private and public sectors.

While the list of reasons that the proposal will have a significantly positive impact on the lives and educational experience of students, as highlighted today by the unanimous support of the proposal by the State University Board of Governors, there have been some who have raised concerns. Especially, the USFSP community. It is fair to say that much of the concern of the proposal harkens back to years of distrust between the campuses, and while your leadership and that of many others have made significant strides, those wounds run deep. That is why we are writing to you today.

It is simply not enough for us to state the benefits of the proposal in a legislative hearing and speak in the weeds on higher education policy, and how that interacts with the student experience. Some members of the community need some assurances that what is being said is accurate, and that USFSP students will be receiving significant benefits from a consolidation plan.

That is why we are asking you to respond to several things that have been discussed specifically related to the USFSP campus. In speaking to members of the USFSP community, it is clear that engineering degrees, health care related degrees, research support, and doctoral programs in marine science are unmet needs at the campus.

As you are aware, St. Petersburg is the starting point to Florida’s High Tech Corridor and the location of a thriving innovation district. The innovation district includes John Hopkins All Children’s, Bayfront Hospital, SRI, NOAA, Florida Institute of Oceanography, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, USFSP, and the College of Marine Sciences.

With a thriving innovation district, that unites tech industry, health care, and the underwater world of Marine Science, this seems to be an early starting point for opportunity at USFSP. While the relationship of pre-eminence and regional classification act as barriers to these opportunities on campus currently, would that still be the case if USF was accredited as a single institution?

Can the USF board of trustees commit to the USFSP community that they will invest in these specific programs at USFSP if that barrier to opportunity is eliminated?

In addition to the programs the market is calling for in St. Petersburg, USF- Sarasota Manatee is poised to grow their programs in areas of strategic emphasis, nursing, STEM related fields, and for the first time, the opportunity to have doctoral students on campus.

Can the USF board of trustees commit to the USFSM community that they will invest in these specific programs at the Sarasota/Manatee campus if the barrier to opportunity is eliminated?

While the opportunities above are by no means the only lingering questions or concerns for the USFSP and USFSM communities, we believe it will provide clarity on the proposal if you can be clear on your intentions to bring those opportunities to students in short order if separate accreditation is no longer a barrier.

If the board of trustees is in a position to commit to the opportunities referenced above, can you provide a timeline of the necessary steps to increase academic programs at USF Sarasota/Manatee and USF St. Petersburg to us prior to the end of the 2018 legislative session?

I would also invite you and the board of trustees to offer any other insights you may have on the impact of this proposal and the potential benefits to the students of USFSP & USFSM.

It would be helpful if the board of trustees could respond to these inquires by next week, Tuesday, January 30th.

Thank you for your attention to these important issues on behalf of the USF System and the Tampa Bay region as a whole. We appreciate your work to push USF to strive for excellence, and to create pathways to prosperity for USF students systemwide.

We look forward to hearing from you.


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.

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