Good Sunday morning.
I am in New York City this weekend, where the brunches are far from boozy as the city that never sleeps is still shellshocked from the pandemic. There are certainly signs of recovery and reopening, but the losses and wounds endured over the past 14 months are still raw. I’ll have more to say about the deep impression just 48 hours in Manhattan has made on me in a later column, but for now, let me just say there may be nothing more grotesque in our current politics than one state exalting itself at the expense of another. Most people had no other choice than to do what they did just to survive and unless you hear that desperation in their voices, you don’t know what it was like to walk in their shoes.
— It is the ultimate case of ‘there by the Grace of God go I.
— My apologies for the somber tone this second-to-last Sunday morning of the 2021 Legislative Session. Things seem to be moving along swimmingly in the House and Senate, so much so that we hear whispers of an early end to Session (meaning last Friday morning) that would allow members to be back at home in time for the first weekend of May.
— We’ll cross our fingers.
With Session in its final weeks, there are no shortage of contestants for Joe Henderson’s weekly game of Winners and Losers in Florida Politics. But we’ll give you a tease. Gov. Ron DeSantis had a good week; Richard Corcoran not so much. Find out why in this week’s rundown.
The latest on Gaetzgate
U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz is still in hot water as another week closes on his emerging scandal. The embattled Congressman is facing a Department of Justice investigation and another from his House colleagues. Now, he faces a potential second person who may be cooperating with authorities in the criminal investigation.
— Recorded phone call? According to POLITICO, a former girlfriend reportedly told friends she was worried the woman Gaetz allegedly had a sexual relationship with when she was underage tried to get her to incriminate Gaetz on a recorded phone call. The tip raises the specter that the then-underage girl is cooperating with federal investigators, which previously had not been suggested.
— Sex, drugs and … silence?: Two women who partied with Gaetz and other Republican lawmakers told CNN parties included cocaine and ecstasy use and, some times, sex. Upon entering the parties, the women were asked to put away their cellphones because Republican officials there didn’t want the activities documented.
— It all started with a teacher: The investigation into Gaetz, and his political ally Joel Greenberg, began with a sham allegation against an Orlando prep school teacher, Brian Beute, who was running for Seminole County Tax Collector. Investigators quickly dismissed the false allegation of an inappropriate relationship with a student and learned it originated with Greenberg, who was defending his seat against Beute. From there, investigators found a bevy of dirt on Greenberg and, eventually, information that led to Gaetz’s investigation.
And if potential sex trafficking wasn’t headline-making enough for the disgraced Congressman, Gaetz tweeted Friday that he was “proud” to join a new caucus, the American First Caucus, launched by colleague Marjorie Taylor Greene. The caucus policy platform states: “America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
Budget conferences began Saturday, and, as expected, it was a busy day. Lawmakers began the tedious work of aligning budgets, but posturing in both chambers was on full display, particularly with a workforce and unemployment dispute.
— Senate wants unemployment boost: And they’re not afraid to play hardball to get it. The Senate may be squeezing the House on priority legislation from Speaker Chris Sprowls to force a compromise on unemployment benefits.
— Unemployment vs. workforce development: The House budget proposal has $2 million allocated for a workforce revamp for CareerSource Florida. But in the Senate’s first budget offer, there is no money allocated for that item. Instead, the Senate has $60 million allocated for unemployment benefits, an item the House leaves out. The Senate proposal would increase unemployment benefits from $275 a week to $375 and add two weeks of eligibility for claimants, from 12 weeks to 14.
— Affordable housing boost: The House and Senate have agreed to boost state affordable housing dollars north of $200 million. And with incoming federal funds, the total level for affordable housing could approach that $1.5 billion mark, according to House infrastructure budget chief Jayer Williamson.
— Help from the feds: Florida can expect to initially get between $600 million to $800 million on affordable housing, he said. Florida also tends to get additional federal funds on top of that when other states decline funding.
— Put it on the SHIP: The Senate’s offer Saturday morning included a combined $209 million. Approximately $63 million would go to affordable housing programs, and $147 million would go to the State Housing Initiatives Partnership program, known as SHIP.
— Law enforcement radio system back in play: The Senate has added back a budget line item for the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System. The system has needed a revamp for at least three years, but a contract has yet to be finalized.
— It was gone: Sen. Ben Albritton, who chairs a budget conference committee, echoed previous statements made by Senate President Wilton Simpson that the line item was removed so the state wouldn’t show its cards as the Department of Management Services (DMS) negotiated with outside vendors to take over the contract.
— But now it’s back: “In the state’s best interest, and in looking out for the taxpayers of the state, we felt like that we needed to work on that pricing,” Albritton explained. The line item is back in the Senate budget, which is now listed at $19 million. The House has budgeted $17.4 million for SLERS.
— Space Florida funding is a go: Senate budget leaders have agreed to preserve funding for Space Florida at its usual level. Ahead of the budget conference, the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee and Chair George Gainer had only offered $3 million, half what Space Florida has received in recent years.
— But they decided to fund it fully: with the first return offer of the budget conference, the Senate agreed to preserve the aerospace economic development agency’s funding at $6 million, as the House wanted. The Senate also proposed dropping trust fund allocations to Space Florida from $12.5 million to $11.25 million, but negotiators canceled that reduction. The agency will receive its usual funding from the State Economic Enhancement and Development Trust Fund.
Not one cent.
The House thumbed its nose at DeSantis’ request for $50 million in “Job Growth Grant Fund” cash, setting aside exactly $0 for the pot of money.
— Use it or lose it. House budget crafters aren’t against the fund in theory, but House Infrastructure & Tourism Chair Williamson said the chamber isn’t keen on pumping in another $50 million when the account still has $24 million in the bank.
— His take: “Maybe the best use of dollars is them just spending what they have.”
— The Senate would top it off. The upper chamber doesn’t want to give DeSantis the full fifty either, but they’re willing to meet him halfway and bring the account balance back up to $50 million.
The funding is one of a handful of major differences between the House and Senate budgets for the TED silo, another one being cash to fix CONNECT. On Saturday, they were about $115 million apart on their $13 billion spending plans.
Lawmakers are hitting the pause button on a major technology initiative at the Department of Transportation, originally scheduled to go live on July 1.
— The Work Program Integration Initiative, or WPII, is a project over 10 years in the making that would re-engineer business processes in the five-year, $40 billion work program and leverage new tech “to improve the way revenue is converted into infrastructure by the Florida Department of Transportation.”
— The Legislature wants a second opinion, it seems, with the budget including $4 million for FDOT to hire a consulting firm to do an independent review of the project and how the department has governed and managed it.
— It’s spelled out in Line 1939: “The department must competitively procure a comprehensive assessment of the project by an independent third party consulting firm with experience in conducting independent verification and validation assessments of public sector information technology projects and that has not previously contracted with the department for the project.”
It sets a deadline of Dec. 17 for FDOT to complete the report and make recommendations for getting the project back on track.
“Freedom Week” sales tax holiday
Fires, fireworks, and freedom from sales tax. That’s the pitch from Florida lawmakers for Fourth of July week, as the House rolls out a new tax package.
— What’s covered? Bait and fishing tackle under $5 each would be covered if sold separately. Sunscreen and insect repellent under $15 is covered as well, as are snorkels, goggles and swimming masks under $25. Also included under the exemption are water bottles, lanterns and flashlights under $30, collapsible camping chairs under $40, and sleeping bags, portable hammocks, campaign stoves and hydration packs under $50.
— Pricier items: The proposal also axes sales tax for coolers, binoculars, sunglasses, life jackets, rods, and reels under $75, camping tents under $100, and inflatable tubes or floats under $150.
— The great outdoors: The effort aims to promote outdoor activities such as fishing, camping and water activities during the week of July 4. “The Freedom Week bill encourages every Floridian to celebrate our freedom this Independence Day by enjoying the outdoors with family and friends — tax-free,” House Ways & Means Committee Chair Bobby Payne said.
— Economy booster: “Coming out of what could be seen as our most difficult year in recent memory, I can’t think of a better way to encourage the celebration of our freedom and how far we have come — both as a nation and state,” said House Speaker Chris Sprowls. “We hope this tax holiday will serve to unite us as Americans and help us create new memories with our friends and loved ones across the Sunshine State.”
The tax package was introduced late last week and must now move through the House.
Sabatini bill dies
Committees are often a rubber stamp on a bill, particularly local bills. Negotiations are made beforehand, and the committee only hears them if the committee chair knows they have the votes. But in a rare event, a committee voted down a bill Friday.
— Tax district nixing: Rep. Anthony Sabatini, a Republican disliked by many of his colleagues, was carrying a local bill (HB 257) from the Lake County delegation in the House Ways and Means Committee. The delegation wants a special hospital taxing district in northern Lake County gone, and so does the majority of the hospital board.
— Vox populi: A 2016 referendum in Lake County showed 57% favored maintaining the district. “It was the rogue 2016 delegation that decided to basically pass the hot potato and throw it to a referendum because they didn’t want to make a difficult decision,” Sabatini said.
— Reported unfavorable: After critics highlighted that referendum, Reps. Thad Altman, Chuck Clemons and Wyman Duggan voted against the bill, torpedoing it with a 7-9 vote. With a sigh, Chair Payne uttered a rare phrase: “By your vote, members, show the bill is reported unfavorable.”
— RINO sighting: Sabatini took to Twitter to tell fellow Republicans to “GROW A BACKBONE.” “Tallahassee has more RINOs than the San Diego Zoo.”
Sabatini has cast a lot of no votes this Session on otherwise spotless bills. Perhaps that’s come back to bite him. Maybe committee leadership didn’t read the room. Maybe the Lake County delegation should have put the bill in more trusted hands.
There was a showdown in Thursday’s meeting of the House Judiciary Committee between Tallahassee environmental activists and locals from the Glades community. Hands down, the locals won.
— The Right to Farm was the focus. The bill is aimed at protecting farmers from litigation, but opponents of the bill have been portraying farming as hazardous to the health of communities in South Florida. Few, if any, of naysayers are from the region.
— The locals said, ‘We can speak for ourselves, thank you very much.’ That was the gist, at least, when they and a platoon of Glades community leaders came to Tallahassee to shoot down the anti-farmer narrative.
— Spotted: South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles, Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, City of Pahokee Commissioner Clara “Tasha” Murvin, Pastor Patricia Wallace, Pastor Julius Hamilton, Tammy Jackson-Moore for Guardians of the Glades, Machinist Labor Union Delegate Loretta Gaines and Joaquin Almazan of the Machinist Union.
— Their take, via Kyles: “We might be small in size, with only a population altogether of about 37,000, but what makes us unique is that we are an integral part of the industries that help feed the world, the country and the state. We do have value. We respectfully ask you to help us keep that value by supporting our industry and not trying to destroy it.”
Their presence mattered. The strong testimony supporting the bill flipped three votes in the committee, and now the Right to Farm bill heads to the House floor. The Senate companion, SB 88 by Sen. Jason Brodeur, has already passed the full Senate.
Senate election bill back on track
After multiple delays, the Senate is aiming to take up a GOP-backed election law that critics contend will unnecessarily limit mail-in voting.
— Date set: The legislation (SB 90) backed by GOP Sen. Dennis Baxley is now set for the Senate’s Special Order Calendar for Wednesday, April 21.
— Not so fast: But one more hurdle remains. The Rules Committee must still approve the bill after that body temporarily postponed the measure. That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 20.
— What’s the holdup? Baxley’s bill was delayed due to a slate of amendments and drawn-out debate during the Rules Committee’s last meeting. The bill has garnered stark opposition from some corners — particularly among Democrats — who argue Republicans are simply seeking adjustments to the state’s election law to placate voters who bought into Donald Trump’s election fraud lies.
The legislation would only permit the use of drop boxes for mail-in ballots during early voting hours. It would also state that individuals can only drop off ballots for immediate family members, including grandchildren or grandparents, as well as two other people, among other changes.
The lightweight pastel fabric is a Florida staple. Lawmakers honored the heat-friendly garb with another annual Seersucker Day at The Capitol.
— Photobomb?: While it might look like there’s a seersucker photobomb, we checked, and Rep. Tom Leek, pictured at the far left, was wearing a seersucker tie and a seersucker mask. Just a pop of seersucker for the Ormond Beach Rep.
— Not the only ones: In the late 1990s, Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott decided one Thursday each June would be deemed Seersucker Thursday in the U.S. Senate. The tradition continued until 2012 when Senate cloakroom staff said the tradition was being discontinued.
— Seersucker revival? The tradition was revived in 2014 by the Louisiana Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Suits for Session
The sixth annual charity event helped collect 670 pounds of professional attire for job-seekers in Florida striving to enter or reenter the workforce.
— Suit up: Clothing acquired through the Suits for Session service project was donated to CareerSource Capital Region and the FSU Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement (CARE)’s Unconquered Scholars Program. Volunteer Florida and Simply Healthcare helped support the event.
— Open for business: “Thanks to Gov. DeSantis’ leadership, Florida is open for business,” said Volunteer Florida CEO Corey Simon. “Especially this year, helping our fellow Floridians join or rejoin the workforce is priority number one. Volunteer Florida is grateful to the legislative, agency and community partners who contributed to this year’s Suits for Session and its incredible impact on job-seeking Floridians across the state.”
— Helping the community: “The work being done by Volunteer Florida has an enormous impact on the ability for Floridians to safely and effectively return to the workforce,” added Holly Prince, Simply Healthcare’s Medicaid plan president. “By supporting Suits for Session, Simply Healthcare is continuing its efforts to help local communities and ensure our members and all Floridians have access to the resources needed to secure employment.”
— Sincerely grateful: “CareerSource Florida is sincerely grateful for all the generous donations from the 2021 Suits for Session clothing drive, providing thousands of items of professional attire for job seekers in need,” said CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard.
— Job-seekers of tomorrow: “CARE is committed to supporting its students to achieve academic success and prepare for life beyond FSU,” said DeOnte Brown, assistant dean of undergraduate studies and CARE Director. “The donations from so many great individuals will assist our students in several areas within their college experience.”
National Crime Victims’ Rights Week begins Sunday. The Florida chapter of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice (CSSJ) will host a virtual event to allow survivors throughout the state to speak out and find support.
— Healing vigil: The Zoom event will take place Sunday at 2 p.m. Individuals looking to attend can register here. “The event is part of a national Survivors Speak virtual gathering that brings together crime survivors to advocate for policies that prevent crime, better support survivors, families and communities, and reduce wasteful incarceration,” according to a release on the event.
— Scheduled talks: Agnes Fury, founder of “Achieving Higher Ground,” will speak at Sunday’s event. Alexandra Barry, founder of Siblings of Murdered Siblings, will also give remarks. Diana Mejia, a domestic violence survivor and founder of Nuevo Sendero, is also scheduled.
— Speaking out: “For too long, the voices and experiences of diverse crime survivors have been ignored in public safety policymaking,” said Aswad Thomas, National Director for CSSJ. “It’s past time to listen to our stories and invite us into the policymaking process and to ensure that our experiences and needs shape public safety and justice policies.”
Florida’s CSSJ chapter boasts 5,400 members. In the coming days, the Florida chapter will also unveil its legislative agenda to protect victims, including an expansion of workplace protections for all victims of and violent crimes witnesses.
Marsy’s Law joins awareness effort
Marsy’s Law for Florida is also commemorating National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, with multiple iconic Florida buildings bathed in purple light.
— Bright lights: Tallahassee’s Historic Capitol will shine purple each evening from Sunday, April 18 through Saturday, April 24. Miami’s Freedom Tower will be illuminated in purple that Saturday evening as well.
— Facebook filter: Users of the social media platform can also utilize a photo filter to support National Crime Victims’ Rights Week.
— Florida law: “Passed by voters in 2018, Marsy’s Law for Florida gives crime victims the right to have a voice in the process, the right to be present, the right to be informed, and the right to keep confidential, personally identifiable information that could be used to locate or harass them or their families,” said Jennifer Fennell, a Marsy’s Law for Florida spokesperson. “These important rights and protections not only help prevent a victim from being revictimized, but they also empower victims and enable them to regain control of their situations.”
Those provisions were added to the state’s constitution following a 2018 ballot initiative campaign.
Doug Wheeler is departing as president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council (FPC) after more than a decade of service. The FPC is a nonprofit corporation, which serves as the professional association for Florida’s fifteen public seaports.
— Moving on: “I thank the Florida Ports Council for the opportunity to serve over the last 10-plus years, and I look forward to what the future brings,” Wheeler said in a statement announcing his decision. “Serving as President and CEO of the Florida Ports Council has been a career honor. I’m proud of the advancements we’ve made on behalf of Florida’s 15 deep-water seaports, which have contributed to creating jobs, growing the economy, and positioning Florida as a global hub for international trade.”
— End date: Wheeler will stick around with the organization until April 30. He did not elaborate on his decision to leave in Friday’s statement. Wheeler touted his work securing emergency funds during the COVID-19 pandemic and working with Congress on the Water Development Resources Act as some of his high points leading the council.
— Interim boss: Michael Rubin, vice president of government affairs, will serve as Interim President and CEO while the group looks for a permanent successor.
“This is a positive opportunity for me as well as the Council,” Wheeler added. “Since the start of the pandemic, Florida’s maritime industry has suffered tremendously. The impacts have left thousands of cruise-related employees sidelined, and cruise ships still unable to sail. By stepping down now, the Council will have an opportunity to level set, and re-imagine the role our seaports will play in the economic future of Florida’s cruise industry.”
World of Beer Bar & Kitchen may be best known for its huge selection of brews and its tavern atmosphere, but here’s another reason to visit: Brunch on Saturday and Sunday. There’s a covered outdoor patio, which is perfect if you want to go out on a rainy morning. Arrive early, and you’ll have your pick of tables.
— Backstory: World of Beer started in Tampa in 2007 when best friends Scott Zepp and Matt LaFon were having a couple of craft beers and talking about their future. We’re told the original location started as a retail store but evolved into a neighborhood tavern when the guys noticed customers were looking for a place to sit, talk beer and spend time with friends. In 2010, Ben Novello and Jim Pollard joined the team and stepped up the growth. There are currently 50 locations nationwide and one site in Beijing.
— Setting: Jason Frimmel and Sean Githens, franchise owners of the Tallahassee site, remodeled and renovated the former home of Genghis Grill. The casual pub setting is accented with wood, offers lots of booths, and has attractions like the Topgolf Swing Suites. WOB has 22 TVs, with four on the patio.
— Menu: My order of chicken and waffles brought two small slider-type sandwiches. The white wheat beer-brined fried chicken is topped with a flavorful, slightly sweet bacon and onion jam and served between two Belgian-style waffles. Other highlights include the WOB Star Breakfast with two eggs, breakfast cubed potatoes, choice of bacon or sausage and multigrain toast; Applewood Smoked Bacon Benedict; appropriately named Hangover Skillet; huevos rancheros and lunch items like wings, burgers, and nachos.
— Spirits: For a twist on a mimosa, the server brought a morning cocktail made with coconut cream, pineapple juice, and Brut sparkling wine. You can also start your day with a beer — WOB has 45 tap lines, more than 200 beers in the cooler, and at least 100 liquors.
— Deets: The restaurant is located at 830 E. Lafayette St.; 850-901-9001.
— Hours: Saturday and Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with hours extending to 2 a.m. Hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Friday.
Via Rochelle Koff of Tallahassee Table.