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Rob Bradley committee reports blockbuster December fundraising

Fleming Island Republican Sen. Rob Bradley saw his political committee raise more money in November than in any other single month.

And in December, Bradley’s Working for Florida’s Families exceeded that sum, setting an internal record level of fundraising for the second straight month.

The committee hauled in $173,000, with significant buy-in from U.S. Sugar, Wal-Mart, Florida Blue, Associated Industries of Florida and the associated Florida Prosperity Fund.

All told, the committee has over $720,000 on hand.

Bradley became Senate Appropriations Chair after the removal of now-resigned Sen. Jack Latvala, his predecessor in the role.

Northeast Florida legislators expect that he will be in a position to ensure that the oft-neglected region gets its fair share in the budget process — one that Bradley is optimistic will go smoothly.

10 issues to watch during Session

Florida lawmakers will start the 2018 Legislative Session Tuesday, with Gov. Rick Scott giving his annual State of the State address.

During the subsequent two months, the House and Senate will negotiate a state budget and consider hundreds of bills. Here are 10 big issues to watch as the Session moves forward:

Budget

Scott has proposed an $87.4 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The proposal includes politically popular ideas such as boosting education funding and providing tax cuts. But the proposal is only a starting point for lawmakers, who are expected to face a tight budget. A September analysis estimated a slim $52 million surplus for the coming year — and that did not account for the state’s costs from Hurricane Irma.

Environment

Eyeing money from a 2014 constitutional amendment about land and water conservation, lawmakers will consider a series of proposals that could shield property from development and restore waterways. For example, Senate budget chief Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, has proposed spending $100 million a year on the Florida Forever program and wants to set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.

Health Care

House Republican leaders likely will renew a push to ease health-care regulations, an effort they say would help increase access to care and lower costs. Examples include eliminating the “certificate of need” approval process for hospital building projects and ending a restriction on patients staying overnight at ambulatory surgical centers. Such proposals, however, have died in recent years in the Senate amid opposition from parts of the hospital industry.

Higher Education

Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican, has made a top priority of revamping the higher-education system and will continue seeking changes during his final term. Senators are expected to quickly approve a bill that would make permanent an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships and take steps to further bolster need-based aid. Negron also wants changes such as holding universities to a four-year graduation standard in performance funding.

Hurricane Irma

When Hurricane Irma smashed into Florida on Sept. 10, it reset priorities for the 2018 Legislative Session. Lawmakers are considering dozens of ideas for responding to Irma and preparing for future storms. For instance, they are looking at possibly providing financial help to the agriculture industry, which took at least a $2.5 billion hit in Irma. They also will grapple with Scott’s push to require long-term care facilities to have generators and fuel to keep buildings cool when electricity goes out.

Insurance

Insurance lobbyists will try to persuade lawmakers to revamp laws dealing with a controversial practice known as “assignment of benefits,” which the industry blames for increased property-insurance costs. The practice involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers — often leading to disputes and lawsuits. Lawmakers also will consider renewed proposals to eliminate the state’s no-fault auto insurance system.

K-12 Education

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has made clear he wants to continue expanding school-choice programs, which draw opposition from Democrats and many public-school officials. The House has started moving forward with a bill that would offer voucher-like scholarships to students who are bullied in public schools. Meanwhile, the House and Senate face a key budget disagreement on the use of increased property-tax revenues in funding public schools.

Opioid Epidemic

With overdoses skyrocketing and families being torn apart, lawmakers will look for ways to address the state’s opioid epidemic. Scott wants to spend $53 million to address the issue, with much of the money going to substance-abuse treatment. Scott and lawmakers also could place limits on initial opioid prescriptions that doctors write for patients. The idea is to prevent patients from getting hooked on prescription painkillers and then moving onto potentially deadly street drugs.

Tax Cuts

Since taking office in 2011, Scott has made cutting taxes a hallmark of his administration. As he enters his final Legislative Session, Scott has proposed $180 million in tax and fee cuts. The proposal, however, does not include major changes in the tax system. Instead, it includes a 10-day sales tax “holiday” for back-to-school shoppers and reductions in motorist-related fees, including fees for obtaining and renewing driver’s licenses.

Texting While Driving

Lawmakers in recent years have repeatedly rejected efforts to toughen the state’s ban on texting while driving. But the issue has a better chance of passing during the 2018 Session after Corcoran announced that he supports making texting while driving a “primary” offense. Currently, it is a “secondary” offense, meaning motorists can only be cited if they are pulled over for other reasons. But if it is a primary offense, police would be able to stop motorists for texting behind the wheel.

Audubon happy Rick Scott opposes drilling, releases Session priorities

Audubon Florida announced its legislative priorities on Thursday, but also was happy to see Gov. Rick Scott oppose the U.S. Department of Interior’s possible drilling explorations in the Sunshine State.

“We were glad to see Gov. Scott’s response, coming out strongly in opposition to drilling near Florida’s waters,” said Julie Wraithmell, the interim executive director of Audubon Florida who took over after Eric Draper left to lead the Florida State Parks system. “It’s rather shocking to think that so soon after the 2010 Deep Horizon incident, we could be having this conversation already.”

Wraithmell said her organization, as a whole, is concerned with management and acquisition of public lands, along with water issues, climate, growth management, and more.

Part of that concern includes advocating for public dollars towards projects that will help the environment. The organization is a major player in the Legislature.

Wraithmell said this year’s focus is on appropriations. She hinted election year spending might be a major factor with so many seats at stake.

“Our top priorities for the coming Session surround appropriations,” Wraithmell said. “We all know it’s going to be a busy Legislative Session — especially given that it’s an election year.”

Audubon spearheaded the passage of Amendment 1 — commonly referred to as Florida’s Water and Land Legacy — in 2014, which provided for Florida Forever, a dedicated funding source for public land acquisitions. That’s a project Audubon will continue to pursue in the 2018 Session.

“We’ll continue to advocate for those programs to ensure we’re setting aside the places that we depend upon not just for recreation and jobs, not just for wildlife, but also as green infrastructure for our communities,” Wraithmell said. She added that doing so makes the land more resilient, protecting the state from catastrophes while also helping to recharge water supply.

Audubon also is throwing its weight behind the Department of Environmental Protection’s request to fund Everglades restoration at more than $300 million.

The organization named Senate President Joe Negron a “champion of the Everglades” in December after he pushed a bill in the 2017 Session to construct a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges to the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee estuaries and prevent harmful algal blooms.

Wraithmell said the organization also is excited for legislation from Sen. Rob Bradley that addresses Florida’s springs. Bradley’s SB 204, if passed, would lead to a $75 million yearly state expenditure on springs projects.

Bradley has replaced Sen. Jack Latvala as chair of Senate Appropriations.

Wraithmell concluded the agenda by addressing water policy issues.

“We’re going to be watching and monitoring closely a constellation of bills addressing water policy,” Wraithmell said.

The agenda comes just a day before Audubon Florida releases a report on the impacts of Hurricane Irma on the state. Wraithmell foreshadowed the report will provide methods that could help Florida be more resilient to storms in the future — things that are not only good for the environment, but “good for people, too,” she said.

A new year brings more overreach by environmentalists on Lake O reservoir

A new year brings yet another attack by environmentalists against the South Florida Water Management District’s plan for a reservoir to help clean Lake Okeechobee discharges.

This time, the Everglades Foundation is offering its own plan — even though the group is criticizing a proposal it helped create.

First, a timeline of events.

In January 2017, Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley files Senate Bill 10 — a bill that (at one point) called for the purchase of nearly 60,000 acres of working farmland south of Lake O — using language created, in part, by the Everglades Foundation.

As reported by POLITICO Florida, Senate President Joe Negron’s office used an October 2016 Foundation report as “the basis for the cost estimate [in SB 10 as originally proposed].”

By April, an overwhelming bipartisan Senate majority agreed to strip the most controversial part of SB 10, which would have bought 60,000 acres of privately-held farmland.

According to TC Palm, the Everglades Foundation backed this reconciliation: “The state’s top environmental groups, such as the Everglades Foundation and Audubon Florida, support the bill.”

When signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in May, the Everglades Foundation and CEO Eric Eikenberg ultimately praised SB 10 — which included instructions for the SFWMD to use its modeling.

As the newly enacted law states:

“The total acreage necessary for additional water treatment may not exceed the amount reasonably required to meet state and federal water quality standards as determined using the water quality modeling tools of the district. The district shall use the latest version of the Dynamic Model for Stormwater Treatment Areas Model modeling tool and other modeling tools that will be required in the planning and design of the EAA reservoir project.”

In a November Tampa Bay Times op-ed, Eikenberg applauded the SFWMD for its open process in planning the southern reservoir, saying: “ … the district has performed commendably.”

However, the next month, representatives of the Everglades Foundation meet with the SFWMD, with another plan in hand — that included a 13,000-acre stormwater treatment area, more than the 11,500 acres in the original plan.

TC Palm reported: “The meeting took place, said district spokesman Randy Smith, but the foundation representatives ‘didn’t present any data or technical documents to support their plan.'”

When SFWMD staffers requested data for evaluation, Foundation staffers said they were “not willing to provide that.”

Nevertheless, the Foundation’s plan acquires 13,000 acres for the reservoir through a swap of as much as 20,000 acres of state-owned land among the farmland south of the lake with private land adjoining the reservoir site.

Despite vocal resistance by Glades farmers against losing productive agricultural land, Eikenberg is not giving up.

Instead, the Everglades Foundation again overreaches, once again calling for SFMWD to negotiate (forcefully, if necessary) a land swap for “state-owned land known as the A-2 parcel” to the west — about 13,000 acres of land obtained in swaps with adjacent landowners.

Thomas Van Lent, the Foundation’s director of science and policy, told TC Palm that his group “offered to share our modeling results with the (SFWMD) if they had any interest in considering this as an alternative … But, clearly, at every opportunity, (SFWMD) has made it clear that they have no interest in looking at anything besides what they have already put out there.”

Except for this — the plan environmentalists are now blasting is one the Everglades Foundation once endorsed, a proposal they had helped set up in the first place.

Never satisfied, environmentalists should just take the win for Lake O reservoir

Closing the book on 2017, among the most notable political battles centered on Lake Okeechobee water issues.

While lawmakers reached a compromise earlier in the year, this food fight may be far from over.

Last Session, environmental activists, working with Senate President Joe Negron, hammered out a bill that (at one point) called for buying up to 60,000 acres of working farmland south of Lake O.

But an equally vocal group of Everglades farmers, joined by local leaders and community advocates, strongly opposed the plan, pointing out the negative economic impact that Negron’s land buy would have on the Glades farming community.

What the Legislature ultimately approved – in the form of a somewhat more palatable Senate Bill 10 – was praised by environmental activists, farming interests (including the sugar industry), local and state leaders.

Heralded as a “grand compromise,” SB 10 began the process of building a new southern reservoir, settling the issue once and for all.

Or so many thought.

With a lower price tag than originally proposed, SB 10 called for using only state-owned land, closing the door on eminent domain to take privately-held acreage.

Arguably, it was the most significant victory of Negron’s Senate presidency, paving the way for construction of up to 360,000 acre-feet (an acre of water, 1 foot deep) of water storage, which could help tackle future algae blooms, like those that plagued his district a year earlier.

In June, following a high-profile bill signing on the banks of Lake O, bringing together Gov. Rick Scott, Negron, Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg, Glades leaders and others, it seemed as if happy days were here again. With choruses of Kumbaya and hallelujahs ready to break out, construction of the reservoir was about to begin.

Rick Scott visits Lake Okeechobee ahead of the ceremonial bill signing of SB 10, which authorizes a reservoir to collect runoff south of Lake O.

All seemed good, right? Wrong.

Since then, a handful of environmental organizations – the Everglades Foundation, the Sierra Club, Bullsugar among others – began raising concerns over the South Florida Water Management District’s modeling used to develop the reservoir.

They just don’t use enough land, the environmentalists say.

As outlined in SB 10, SFWMD developed four models for a southern reservoir for presentation to the Legislature by Jan. 9. Ranging in cost from $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion, each model includes an above-ground storage reservoir on adjacent state-owned land south of Lake O … exactly how the Legislature – led by Negron – first envisioned.

So why now the red flags?

Is it possible that, after a rare legislative success, these environmental groups are seeking further relevance? Or are they so hell-bent on buying land, they will risk a Hail Mary pass to get what they wanted – and lost – in the Legislature?

Perhaps these concerns are less about the survival of the Everglades than they are about the survival of the Everglades Foundation (and its satellite organizations)?

Attempting to quell the rising anger from environmentalist groups, Negron wrote a letter to the SFWMD in early December, asking if it had enough land to construct the reservoir. In response, SFWMD Executive Director Ernie Marks said that the district indeed has more than enough property to do the job.

To follow SB 10, all SFWMD needs to do is construct slightly higher reservoir embankments. In addition, using state-owned lands set out in the bill will also keep costs down, officials said.

Nevertheless, these environmental groups refused to be satisfied, moving the goal posts by demanding more land.

A recent Facebook post from Bullsugar highlighted concerns of the Friends of the Everglades, which allege, among other things, that the SFWMD’s reservoir models violate federal water quality standards.

 

This tactic is nothing new. Environmentalists have intervened before to block construction of a southern reservoir.

In 2008, the National Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and others went to court to stop a similar project. The Everglades Trust, led by the late Thom Rumberger, decried that reservoir as “unnecessary and expensive.”

The suit, along with an ill-fated 2008 U.S. Sugar deal struck with then-Gov. Charlie Crist, succeeded in halting work on the reservoir, which is still virtually unused and available. This idle land became a key talking point in the debate over SB 10.

In January 2017, SFWMD officials publicly challenged the science used by the Everglades for a “study” on a southern reservoir. SFWMD Hydrology and Hydraulics Bureau Chief Akintunde O. Owosina wrote a scathing letter to Everglades Foundation scientist Thomas Van Lent, declaring: “The assumptions you made in the model input were obviously selected to reduce northern storage and create an outcome in favor of southern storage.”

In the end, neither the Legislature nor the SFWMD used the Foundation models – widely denounced as flawed – for SB 10. Instead, they patterned designs after four other district projects, including Scott’s much-heralded Restoration Strategies Water Quality Plan and the C-43 storage reservoir – long supported by environmental groups.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, environmental activists raise these concerns – objecting to the project size and water quality – just as a long-awaited reservoir appears to be finally within reach.

These latest complaints, advanced only six months after signing SB 10, will ring hollow in the halls of the Florida Capitol. And Senate leaders, such as newly-minted Appropriations Chair Rob Bradley (an SB 10 sponsor) will have little interest in revisiting the issue, especially in an election year.

Putting it bluntly, it’s dumb to cast doubt on Negron’s signature policy achievement, but it is also unsurprising for a group not exactly known for its political savvy.

Instead of congratulating Negron and Speaker Richard Corcoran for their efforts, environmental groups criticize that it simply wasn’t good enough. Besides showing a great deal of ingratitude, not just to Negron and Corcoran, it’s also a slap in the face to incoming leaders like Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Jose Oliva.

As 2017 winds down, Eikenberg (and others) should consider being a bit more gracious and take the win.

Also, they should be wary of any attempt by rank and file members to pull the football away (like Lucy with Charlie Brown) before reaching the end zone.

Judge halts black farmer marijuana license

A Tallahassee judge Thursday ordered health officials to stop the process of granting a marijuana license to a black farmer, one of 10 coveted new pot licenses approved by the Legislature this year.

The state Office of Medical Marijuana Use was supposed to grant all of the licenses by Oct. 3, but has not begun accepting applications for some new licenses. Christian Bax, director of the office, blamed the delay on the lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the carve-out for a black farmer.

The challenge is focused on a portion of a new state law that was passed during a June special Legislative Session. The law was intended to carry out a voter-approved constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana in Florida.

Under the law, one of the 10 licenses must go to a grower who had been part of settled lawsuits, known as the “Pigford” cases, about discrimination against black farmers by the federal government.

The law also requires the black farmer who receives a license to be a member of the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association-Florida Chapter.

But lawyers for Columbus Smith, a black farmer from Panama City, argued that, while he meets the qualification of being part of the Pigford litigation, he has not been allowed to join the black farmers association, effectively preventing him from receiving a license.

The Florida Constitution bars “special” laws, in part, that relate to “grant of privilege to a private corporation.” The lawsuit alleges the medical-marijuana law violates that part of the Constitution.

On Thursday, Leon County Circuit Judge Charles Dodson granted Smith’s request for a temporary injunction “on the bases stated by plaintiffs in their motion,” which focused on the part of the law dealing with the black farmers.

“The court granted the motion based on the particular statute that we challenged, and not on anything else,” Wilbur Brewton, a lawyer representing Smith, told The News Service of Florida after Thursday’s brief hearing.

Brewton and lawyers representing the state told Dodson they wanted to have the matter wrapped up by June.

But lawmakers may resolve the issue earlier.

Senate budget chief Rob Bradley told The News Service of Florida he wants to revisit the black-farmer portion of the law during the Legislative Session that begins Jan. 9.

“Based on how I’ve observed this issue evolve, I would like to see the Legislature address the matter in the 2018 Session,” said Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in developing and passing marijuana-related legislation for the past three years.

Bradley intends to co-sponsor a measure (SB 1134) filed by Sen. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, that would strip membership in the black farmers association from the eligibility requirements for the black-farmer license.

“It would open up that particular license to more competitors who meet the definition of being involved in that (Pigford) civil rights litigation. I think it would be in the best interest of the people of the state of Florida to have more competition for that license,” Bradley said.

Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said Thursday agency officials “are currently reviewing the injunction to determine a path forward.”

But marijuana industry insiders said they believe the agency could plow forward with licenses because Smith’s challenge is focused solely on the black-farmer portion of the statute.

Based on Dodson’s injunction, “we believe the department should move forward with the application and selecting process for the remaining MMTC (medical marijuana treatment center) licenses,” Medical Marijuana Business Association President Jeffrey Sharkey said.

“Patients throughout Florida are still waiting to get access to this medicine they approved last November because there aren’t enough licensees in the marketplace,” he said.

Under the June law, health officials were required to issue licenses to applicants who had legal challenges pending as of January or who had scored within one point of the highest-ranked applicants in five regions. The Department of Health granted six such licenses after the law went into effect. The law also opened up the application process and required the health department to grant additional licenses.

Licenses to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana have been one of the most-controversial issues in the rapidly developing industry. The new round of licensing will be the first opportunity for those eager to get in on the lucrative “green rush” to apply for licenses since the birth of the state’s marijuana industry in 2014, when the Legislature authorized non-euphoric cannabis for patients with severe muscle spasms or cancer.

Under the 2014 law, nurseries that had been in business for 30 years or longer in Florida and grew at least 400,000 plants were eligible to apply for a medical marijuana license.

In expanding the number of licenses this year, the Legislature carved out a license for black farmers who complained that they were prevented from applying for the original licenses because none of the black farmers met the eligibility criteria.

Additional licenses will become available as the number of patients in a statewide database increases, but, for now, potential pot purveyors are anxious for the state to get the process started.

And they’re not the only ones.

In October, Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, berated Bax for insisting that he could not begin processing new applications until his office knew what the judge would do regarding Smith’s lawsuit.

“I’m not buying that just because there’s litigation out there you can’t fulfill your statutory duty to issue these additional licenses,” Young, a lawyer, scolded Bax during a committee meeting.

Incumbent NE Florida Senators pad campaign war chests in November

Correction: A previous version of this post misidentified a consultant for Sen. Travis Hutson. We regret the error.

 

Northeast Florida’s State Senators continued strong fundraising in November. Three of them for re-election, and another on the committee level only.

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Sen. Aaron Bean brought in $14,600 in new November money to his campaign account, pushing the hard money tally over $84,000.

The most interesting Bean Team donation, amidst the usual daps from construction and pharma: $2,000 from the auction industry (Stuart’s “Florida Auctioneer Academy” and an associated auction house cut the checks).

Bean’s political committee, Florida Conservative Alliance, brought in $11,500 — pushing that cash on hand to $91,752. “Consumer Health Alliance” was in for $10,000, and prison industry darlings The Geo Group kicked in $1,500.

All told, Bean has over $175,000 to deploy, 11 months ahead of an election in which he runs unopposed.

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Also unopposed, and carrying a six-figure bankroll into a 2018 election: Sen. Audrey Gibson.

The Jacksonville Democrat is the leader-designate for Senate Dems, and for the fourth straight month she brought in over $10,000. Gibson has raised $118,268, and has $102,095.82 of that on hand.

Among Gibson’s donors: Dosal Tobacco Company, Florida Bankers Association PAC, Florida Home Builders, Wal-Mart and Walgreens.

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Though he’s not on a ballot again until 2020, St. Johns County Sen. Travis Hutson is likewise gearing up — even if, like Bean and Gibson, meaningful opposition won’t manifest.

Hutson, Chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries committee, brought in $5,000 of December money, via five $1,000 checks: Dosal Tobacco, United Phosphorus, and Isle of Capri Casinos all anted up.

Hutson dropped $6,000 on consulting to Front Street Consulting.

Hutson has almost $38,000 in hard money.

One of Hutson’s affiliated political committees, First Coast Business Foundation, didn’t report money raised in November — leaving that committee around $13,000 on hand.

His primary political committee, Sunshine State Conservatives, was a different matter.

That committee brought in $101,000 in November, with real estate, pharmaceutical, petroleum, and gaming interests represented. The committee has over $103,000 on hand.

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Though Sen. Rob Bradley is not on a ballot, his political committee — Working for Florida’s Families — continues to put in work.

Bradley took over the Appropriations chair recently in the Senate, and the donor class has taken notice.

The committee had its best month ever in November … both in terms of money raised and the purpose of money spent.

The committee raked in $124,000 of new November money, spending $55,487 of that. All told, the committee closed November with $572,151 on hand.

But those are just numbers. One particular transaction is most interesting.

Of the $55,487 spent, $50,000 of it went to Mercy Support Services, an Orange Park non-profit that addresses the issue of youth homelessness.

The charitable spend was driven by Hurricane Irma. The storm hit Clay County especially hard, and Bradley saw an opportunity to help.

“Mercy is leading the Clay County community’s response to the devastation from Hurricane Irma. Rep. Cummings and I both agreed to support and help make successful the recent concert event where Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd performed and raised money to help displaced families in our community,” Bradley said.

Rob Bradley political committee spends $50K on Irma relief

Fleming Island Sen. Rob Bradley took over the Appropriations Committee earlier this year.

Perhaps predictably, Bradley’s political committee — Working For Florida’s Families — had its best month ever in November … both in terms of money raised and the purpose of money spent.

The committee raked in $124,000 of new November money, spending $55,487 of that. All told, the committee closed November with $572,151 on hand.

But those are just numbers. One particular transaction is most interesting.

Of the $55,487 spent, $50,000 of it went to Mercy Support Services, an Orange Park non-profit that addresses the issue of youth homelessness.

The charitable spend was driven by Hurricane Irma. The storm hit Clay County especially hard, and Bradley saw an opportunity to help.

“Mercy is leading the Clay County community’s response to the devastation from Hurricane Irma. Rep. Cummings and I both agreed to support and help make successful the recent concert event where Molly Hatchet and Lynyrd Skynyrd performed and raised money to help displaced families in our community,” Bradley said.

Politicians typically don’t spend committee money on charity. But Irma — which caused catastrophic flooding in parts of Clay County — was atypical in its impact. And the Senator saw an opportunity to help.

Of course, the money will be recouped soon enough, as Bradley is getting the kinds of donations that ensure he has the resources for future campaigns and political moves.

The biggest single donation in November: $25,000 from Regent Consultancy, an Illinois-based business concern of Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shad Khan.

House projects might get chilly reception

Heading into the 2018 legislative session, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley says the House and Senate are not as far apart as casual observers, lobbyists and the media might believe.

“We agree on so much more than we disagree on,” the Fleming Island Republican told reporters after an Appropriations Committee meeting Wednesday that featured an overview of Gov. Rick Scott‘s proposed $87.4 billion budget. “We’re all committed to having a fiscally conservative budget. We’re all committed to tax cuts. We’re all committed to the environment being pristine and education world class.”

But that “we’re all” doesn’t apparently extend to a plethora of budget projects proposed by House members. In the House, unlike the Senate, members are required to file individual bills for their spending proposals.

“I did notice that there is a high amount, the House members want to spend a lot on local member projects,” Bradley said. “I think we need to be very careful in this budget year to … be very judicious in these House requests for local projects, because they have requested a bunch.”

As of Thursday morning, House members had filed 1,099 different proposals – collectively worth just under $1.8 billion – since Sept. 29.

Included in those totals are 90 projects, worth $161.1 million, that were posted on Wednesday, including $450,000 for the Clermont South Lake Wi-Fi Trail (HB 4099), $1 million for the Land O’ Lakes Boulevard Beautification plan (HB 4033) and $50 million for the Data Science and Information Technology program at the University of Florida (HB 4063).

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, has said priority for funding projects will go to proposals related to hurricane relief.

The House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness also has received 141 recommendations to deal with storm-related issues, included extending north the Suncoast Parkway toll road as a new evacuation route, leasing a cruise ship to carry evacuees from the lower Keys or requiring utility lines to be placed underground.

The member budget proposals are separate from most of the recommendations before the select committee.

Asked during an appearance Wednesday on C-SPAN about how much Hurricane Irma will cost the state, Corcoran made the big-ticket items seem possible as he touted the state’s fiscal health.

“The simple answer to that is we have the reserves. We’ve been fiscally prudent. We’ve been great protectors of the taxpayer money,” Corcoran said. “And so, because we have those reserves, what’s more important is the lives of our citizens are protected.”

“The underground hardening of our infrastructure for power lines, that could cost some money,” he continued. “Extending our Suncoast Parkway all the way to Georgia and having that fourth arterial road, that will cost money but we have a transportation trust fund. It will just be more of a redirect, potentially.

“Obviously, putting the (proposed generator) regulations on the nursing homes and having them come into compliance, that will cost some money. But all of these things, including, we’re even talking of having a gas reserve. There were issues of getting gas during the hurricane, so if we had a huge gas reserve that we could keep in the middle of the state in a protected area, that could cost some money.

“But all of these things will make it so the next storm we have we’ll be better prepared, and our citizens will be able to get back to their lives as quickly as possible.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Forever Florida, St. Johns proposals get Senate backing

Measures that would double Gov. Rick Scott‘s spending request for the Florida Forever conservation program and earmark money to improve the St. Johns River continued to move easily through the Senate on Thursday.

The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously backed a proposal (SB 370) to designate $100 million a year for Florida Forever. Also, it approved a bill (SB 204) that would increase annual funding for springs projects from $50 million to $75 million and set aside $50 million a year for the restoration of the St. Johns River, its tributaries and the Keystone Heights lake region in North Florida.

Both proposals are sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will hear the bills next.

“Our state is known for a lot of things, but the character of the state, the true character of the state is defined by its rivers, it’s beaches, it’s springs,” Bradley said. “We have an obligation to make sure future generations enjoy those wonderful gifts we get to enjoy.”

Neither proposal has a companion bill in the House. Scott requested spending $50 million on Florida Forever as part of his proposed 2018-2019 budget released last month.

Money for both Senate bills would come from the state’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund. Voters in 2014 approved a constitutional amendment that requires a portion of real-estate “documentary stamp” tax revenues to go toward land and water conservation, with the money funneled through the trust fund.

That portion of the documentary-stamp tax is expected to generate $862.2 million next fiscal year, according to an August estimate by state economists.

Lawmakers in the past have carved up part of the annual funding so at least $200 million goes for Everglades projects, another $64 million goes for a reservoir in the Everglades Agricultural Area south of Lake Okeechobee and $5 million goes to the St. Johns River Water Management District for projects dedicated to the restoration of Lake Apopka.

But they have also used the money to cover agency expenses, which backers of the 2014 constitutional amendment contend is not allowed.

Bradley has said a review needs to be done to determine how much of the trust fund goes into agency overhead.

Orlando Democratic Sen. Linda Stewart said she was “proud” to be able to vote for Florida Forever bill, which would use the money “the way the voters had hoped to see it funded.”

The Florida Forever program was created in 1999 as a successor to an earlier version known as Preservation 2000.

Since 2001, Florida Forever has been used to purchase more than 718,000 acres for $2.9 billion. But the program has languished since the recession and as some key legislators have questioned the need for Florida to buy more land while struggling to manage the acres it already owns.

Lawmakers didn’t direct any money to Florida Forever for the current fiscal year, which began July 1. Bradley’s bills are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts next month.

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