Here’s Brunch, a pop-up, weekend email during the 2023 Regular Session — 3.26.23

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Your Sunday buffet of Florida politics, food, culture & more.

Good morning and welcome back to “Brunch,” a pop-up email about the 2023 Legislative Session of the Florida Legislature, as well as other essential information about Florida politics.

What an incredible Saturday night we enjoyed in the ‘burg, attending the St. Pete Free Clinic’s Battle of the Minds. Michelle looked gorgeous, as always.

I am counting down the hours to the premiere of the final season of “Succession,” while working to get in front of what should be a hectic few days in the Legislature (the Realtors, who always throw down, will be in Tally this week.)

The final season begins tonight.

Be sure to check out this week’s picks for the Winner and Loser of the Week in Florida politics (please click here.)

Celebrating today is U.S. Rep. Laurel Lee and our friend, the legendary Charlie Gray, Brittany Dover, and the great Scott Dudley of the Florida League of Cities.

Now, enjoy Brunch!

— Hootin’ and hollerin’ —

How BOUT them Owls! The Florida Atlantic University (FAU) men’s basketball team is mounting one of the most improbable runs in NCAA history, reaching the Final Four with a Saturday win over Kansas State.

— Path to victory: The No. 9 seed Owls started their run by upsetting No. 8 seed Memphis, one of the favorite sleeper teams in the tournament. FAU was then helped by No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson knocking off No. 1 seed Purdue in the first round — only the second time that’s ever happened in the NCAA tournament. That gave FAU a much easier-than-expected second-round opponent, allowing their improbable run to blossom.

Florida Atlantic University is having an improbable run for March Madness.

— Cinderella run: Frankly, the fact FAU was still alive for this past week’s set of games was an achievement already. The Owls entered the tournament with odds of around 300-1 to win it all and reaching the Sweet 16 would have been seen as an overachievement in and of itself. But after knocking off No. 4 seed Tennessee on Thursday, FAU followed with a thrilling win over No. 3 seed Kansas State Saturday, putting them on a path to play the winner of today’s San Diego State-Creighton matchup in the Final Four.

— Fresh faces: And FAU is doing this all in just their second-ever appearance in the NCAA tournament. Before this year, they had zero wins in the tourney. Now, they are two wins away from being crowned NCAA champions. To their credit, FAU was the winningest team during the regular season this year. Much of that came against the less-than-elite competition, however, allowing analysts to overlook the feisty Owls. That’s not happening anymore.

— Don’t forget about the U: But FAU isn’t the only Florida team making a run. The University of Miami is also in the Elite 8, with a matchup set for 5:50 p.m. against a strong No. 2 Texas team. But No. 5 seed Miami got to this game by upsetting No. 1 seed Houston — one of the favorites to win the tournament — on Friday. So, anything is possible.

We’ll find out later today if the state will have two Final Four representatives. And with FAU and Miami on opposite sides of the bracket, an all-Florida final is still possible. March has been as mad as ever this year.

— The man behind the curtain —

If you want to know what’s going on in Gov. Ron DeSantis world, look no further than this deep-dive profile of Chris Rufo, a newly appointed member of the New College Board of Trustees who, as POLITICO puts it, is the “biggest single reason critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion have been turned into the toxic, ubiquitous and politically potent acronyms of CRT and DEI.”

Who is Chris Rufo? Before Florida, Rufo was a little-known Seattle City Council candidate and “a more or less middling maker of documentary films.” Now he is one of six recently installed conservative trustees to the New College Board, all tapped by DeSantis.

Chris Rufo relishes his role as a ‘political combatant.’

A “political combatant”: Rufo is drawing attention from well beyond Florida. U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, from Maryland, called him a “right-wing propagandist.” A rhetoric expert, Jen Mercieca, said he was “a hired gun for the information wars.”

Education as a focal point: As Gov. DeSantis sought to make education issues — including remaking school boards and higher education into a conservative image, and railing against policies he and other hard-liner GOPers describe as “anti-woke” — Rufo has served as his main surrogate. Whether it’s sharing a stage with the Governor or participating in ideologically driven roundtables with like-minded participants, Rufo is front and center, and even landed several mentions — 11 bullet points on three pages — in DeSantis’ new book. Launching his own book in July, Rufo used the very same editor.

The Commander: Rufo, POLITICO expertly describes, knows how to pick a scab and get under his critics’ skin — so much so a crowd of protesters showed up at a recent New College meeting dressed in the iconic red robes indicative of the dystopian show based on Margaret Atwood’s book of the same title, The Handmaid’s Tale. Even then he couldn’t resist a poke, tweeting he would have “been mortified if my mom came to my university dressed in a costume, screaming about ‘fascism.’” He called the demonstration “bizarre” and said the “Nazi” references” were “ludicrous.”

A three-step process: Rufo told POLITICO he reports, then amplifies and finally, actualizes. That applies to anything from real-world legislation to other policy-related issues and involves regular hits on Fox News, his own Substack and other friendly publications.

The entirety of Rufo’s strategy and persona is wrapped into one massive public persuasion campaign, of which he describes critical race theory as being central, noting that it was the “perfect villain.” Read the extensive POLITICO profile here.

— Never forget? —

The Lincoln Project is prodding DeSantis over a non-answer he gave during a recent interview about where he was on 9/11.

— Setting the scene: The group’s new ad begins by hearkening back to that day in 2001 when America was attacked. Throwing in some jabs at DeSantis by emphasizing his Ivy League background (in contrast to DeSantis’ recent everyman heartland shtick), the ad emphasizes that everyone remembers where they were that day … “except Ron DeSantis.”

To watch the ad, please click on the image below:

— DeSantis’ answer: Asked by Piers Morgan where he was that day, DeSantis scrunched his brow while thinking as he replied. “You know, I was umm, uhh, I think I had just graduated college and was, kind of, not a care in the world. And all of a sudden, boom, you know, it happened,” he said, without specifying where he was that day. That provided plenty of fodder for the group, inspiring the ad.

— Rick Wilson roast: The Lincoln Project co-founder excoriated DeSantis in a statement. “Every American knows where they were on 9/11, and though he refuses to say it, we know Ron DeSantis was teaching at the elite Darlington school in Georgia on that day. Why he refused to answer has left America questioning his honesty,” Wilson said.

— Green gap —

There is a $700 million difference between budget plans released by the Senate and House this week, meaning some negotiation is in store during the 37 days the chambers have to reach a deal.

— Big bucks: Both chambers are offering a number higher than the current year’s $109.9 billion package. The Senate’s number comes in at $113.7 billion, which the House proposal adds up to around $113 billion.

Florida’s record-breaking budget still has $700B to iron out.

— Pricey packages: The Senate and House, however, are already agreeing on some major spending items. That includes a bill approved this past week expanding private school vouchers to all Floridians, regardless of income. The chambers disagreed on the exact cost for that program, but it will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, if not more. Lawmakers are also moving forward on an affordable housing bill expected to cost $711 million.

— Key differences: The House budget would eliminate Enterprise Florida and defund VISIT FLORIDA, while the Senate would not. In fact, the Senate increases funding for VISIT FLORIDA by $30 million from the current fiscal year.

The new fiscal year begins on July 1.

Live local —

An affordable housing bill passed the Legislature this week thanks in large part to Senate President Kathleen Passidomo prioritizing the measure.

Rostrum visit: The passage in the House actually drew a rare invitation for Passidomo to not only attend the vote but for Speaker Paul Renner to have her share to rostrum and celebrate the legislation’s passage.

Kathleen Passidomo’s affordable housing proposal is making headway.

Credit where due: “This groundbreaking legislation is the result of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo’s extraordinary vision to provide Florida’s families, seniors, and workers with a safe and affordable place to live,” Renner said.

SAIL ahead: The bill calls for investing $150 million into Florida’s State Apartment Investment Loan program. That offers low-interest loans to multi-housing developers.

Hometown heroes: It also will revise a down payment assistance program for essential workers in Florida localities.

Alien alert —

An anti-immigration bill in the Senate prompted a strong defense by Sen. Ileana Garcia, a Miami Republican with a constituency with ties to other countries. While Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, a Spring Hill Republican, sponsored SB 1728, Garcia said she wanted to fight “misinformation.”

Stopping traffickers: She said the bill would stop illegal ID cards and prevent unscrupulous traffickers from abusing poor individuals.

Ileana Garcia wants to fight misinformation over an anti-immigration bill.

Employment policing: She said the bill will properly increase fines for those employing unauthorized immigrants and would make it a third-degree felony to false identification documents.

Not anti-immigrant: Garcia said she spoke up to defend her support of the bill. “I’m proud of my record on behalf of our immigrant community, and I look forward to continuing to work on issues that improve the quality of life for all our residents and protect the most vulnerable.”

— Martini millionaires —

The Florida House late Friday approved a bill (HB 3) that would remove environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations for state and local pension funds, bonding decisions, lending decisions and state contracting. That means not investing pension funds in certain companies based on objectionable business practices, typically referred to as the “divestment” in “boycott, sanctions, divestment,” or BDS, would no longer be allowed.

Speaker speaking: “Floridians should be able to trust that the investment of their tax dollars and state employee retirement assets are guided by nonpartisan, impartial financial factors and not subject to corporate activism,” said House Speaker Paul Renner. “This bill also protects Floridians, businesses, and organizations from discrimination based on political or religious beliefs or whether their business happens to be popular with jet set elitists. These martini millionaires should not be able to use Floridians’ hard-earned savings to serve activist, political agendas or to decide who can open an account based on their political prejudice.”

Paul Renner seeks to cut all ties with companies guided by BDS.

Not just BDS: The bill would prohibit discrimination in lending decisions on the basis of political or religious beliefs or the business of the borrower, requiring decisions to be quantitative, impartial and risk-based.

“Arbitrary social scoring”: “There is a problem when some of the largest financial institutions in the world collude with governments to decide they are going to discriminate against a practice or industry they politically disfavor,” said bill sponsor and Commerce Committee Chair Bob Rommel. “We have an obligation to protect our businesses and citizens against financial institutions that use an arbitrary social scoring system to determine whether they have access to capital.”

The House has sent its bill to the Senate for consideration. It passed in the House largely along partisan lines, with Democrats dissenting.

Breaking ranks —

On a couple of pieces of otherwise popular bills Friday, Rep. Mike Beltran, a South Riverview Republican, broke with peers. He was frequently the only Republican to do so.

Housing skeptic: Beltran was the only Republican among six House members to vote no on an affordable housing package that had been a priority for legislative leaders. “My constituents live in the suburbs to obtain sufficient housing at an affordable price,” he wrote in an explanation of his vote. “My constituents should not pay taxes to subsidize urban areas.”

Every so often, Mike Beltran breaks with his party.

Cause of action: But he was also the only GOP downvote on legislation bill reduces the statute of repose from 10 years to seven for construction defect claims. Only he and seven Democrats voted no on HB 360. “My constituents expect their new homes to last without defects for decades. Builders should build homes to withstand for at least a decade,” he explained.

Halfhearted yes: One move that likely pleased leadership came when Beltran voted for and spoke on behalf of a permitless carry. But he alluded to an amendment he filed and withdrew seeking open carry, and got silenced on the floor at one point for speaking too long on why he would prefer Florida go full gun rights.

— Manic Monday —

The Legislature ended last week passing multiple major bills. And they’re not taking a break to start off the upcoming week, with several events slotted for Monday morning.

— Calling out Cuba: Sens. Jay Collins will host a 10 a.m. presser with former political prisoner Roberto Pisano and other members of the Legislature to condemn the Cuban Ambassador’s recent visit to Tampa. Sens. Bryan Ávila, Alexis Calatayud and Ana Maria Rodriguez and Reps. Danny Alvarez, Berny Jacques and Karen Gonzalez-Pittman will be on hand. The presser will take place on the Old Capitol steps.

Alexis Calatayud is among the lawmakers who are rolling up the welcome mat for the Cuban Ambassador.

— Dishing Democrats: Also at 10 a.m., Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book and Senate Democratic Leader Pro Tempore Jason Pizzo will hold media availability. They will be available outside the Senate Democratic Office Conference Room.

— Captain’s orders —

CFO Jimmy Patronis is out with a proclamation recognizing the Palm Beach International Boat Show, which began Thursday and runs through today. The CFO is a well-known booster of the state’s businesses and economy.

— Costly crafts: This year’s edition displayed more than $1.2 billion worth of boats, yachts and accessories, according to the proclamation. The show launched in 1982, running annually each spring.

Time for Palm Beach to hit the open seas.

— Rising tide lifts all boats: “Florida has long been considered by many to be the ‘Boating Capital of the World’ and the Palm Beach International Boat Show is a shining example of that great accomplishment,” Patronis said. “The PBI Boat Show is one of the best in the world and contributes an estimated $1.05 billion in economic impact statewide and brings in more than 55,00 visitors a year. The show is also an enormous job creator, supporting more than 6,000 jobs statewide. Thank you to the team at the PBI Boat Show for all of their hard work in making this amazing event a success every year.”

After Ian —

Hurricane Ian made landfall near Cayo Costa on Sept. 28. Nearly six months later, the region remains one in recovery, but things are humming along.

Shaker of salt: TPI Hospitality just held a topping-off ceremony at the Fort Myers Beach Margaritaville Resort. That’s been seen by the business community as a major step toward restoring tourism on an island after the destruction of Times Square, as noted by Southwest Florida Business Today.

A topping-off ceremony at the Fort Myers Beach Margaritaville Resort highlights a region making slow and steady progress after Ian.

Seeing the light: More recently, islanders welcomed the relighting of the Sanibel Lighthouse. The landmark lost a leg but fared better than many surrounding structures. While modern technology guides boats these days, the Orlando Sentinel noted the symbolism of switching the lights back on.

Bridges and Schools: Of course, budgets released by the Legislature suggest billions in relief will make its way to Southwest Florida soon. The Senate wants to send $17.6 million for restoring schools and $75 million to rebuild bridges.

Taking out the trash: At the same time, cleanup still remains on the coast. The News-Press recently documented intense debris removal still underway at locales including marinas in Downtown Fort Myers.

— Airbnb billions —

The typical Airbnb host in the U.S. earned approximately $14,000 in supplemental income in 2022, according to the vacation rental giant. A full 62% of hosts said they plan to use the extra income to cover the heightened cost of living over the next 12 months.

Airbnb has been an economic driver For Florida’s economy.

A whole lotta dough: In 2022, U.S. hosts collectively earned $22 billion by opening their home to travelers. In addition to those who said the extra income was key to covering soaring housing costs, 44% said the money was useful to cover other needs such as food. And 42% said the earnings helped them stay in their homes, while 10% said money helped them avoid eviction or foreclosure.

The local breakdown: Miami-Dade had the highest Airbnb earnings in Florida, with hosts collectively making $76 million. Osceola County followed at $64 million, Broward at $59 million, Pinellas at $51 million and Hillsborough at $35 million.

Airbnb hosts come from all different walks of life, from retirees to teachers, parents and artists. Of those who host a home on Airbnb, 60% identify as female; more than a third live with their children; 39% are small or independent business owners; 15% are health care workers; 13% are teachers; and 11% are artists.

Top of the list —

One of the most prominent organizations promoting Democratic women has a new political director. Cassidy Whitaker was hired by Ruth’s List.

Layers of experience: “She brings a wealth of experience on political campaigns to the organization, which will be invaluable as we gear up for the 2024 election cycle,” said Ruth’s List CEO Christina Diamond. “Cassidy knows what it takes to run winning campaigns, and she’s ready to put her knowledge and skills to work for Democratic pro-choice women candidates in Florida.”

Congrats to Cassidy Whitaker for her new gig at Ruth’s List.

Trail veteran: Before joining Ruth’s List, Whitaker managed former Rep. Andrew Learned’s campaign in a Brandon swing district. She also worked on the winning 2018 campaign for Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman, and interned for former state Rep. Adam Hattersley.

Florida native: Whitaker was born in Pasco County and earned her bachelor’s in political science and journalism from Saint Leo University.

Caputo landing

It turns out there’s life after NBC News. Political reporter Marc Caputo, one of the biggest names in the industry, will continue writing about the Sunshine State.

Don’t shoot: The Messenger, a digital startup and the brainchild of media mogul Jimmy Finkelstein, appears to have recruited the reporter into its ranks ahead of a May launch.

Jimmy Finkelstein is giving Marc Caputo a home.

National interest: The news widely broke as a mention in a Vanity Fair article about the sudden rush for Florida-knowing journos ahead of the 2024 presidential election, though that piece linked to a report in the Washington insider-ey Puck.

Other courters: Also in the reporting, Caputo apparently was wooed by Axios and Semafor.

Virtual bikeathon —

Former Rep. Gary Aubuchon is back on the move, but in a more stationary fashion. The Cape Coral Republican will again conduct a Cure on Wheels drive to support cancer research, but can’t pedal the whole way himself this time.

System crash: After several years riding by bike to Tallahassee to raise funds, his journey came to an abrupt stop last year when he crashed 30 miles from the Capitol. He spent six days in Tallahassee Memorial as a result of six broken ribs and a punctured lung.

A terrible accident during Cures on Wheels is keeping Gary Aubuchon on the sidelines this year.

Still rolling: He’s not yet ready to ride long distances. “While I can’t ride this year, I can fundraise to fight cancer and its devastating effects,” he wrote in an email.

Digital drive: Other riders will still make the trek to Tally. That includes siblings Pamela and Darryl Aubuchon. The former lawmaker is asking supporters and cancer haters to continue supporting his “virtual ride” to the state capital.

— Herp perps —

Invasive species are a problem in Florida, especially reptiles. Venomous reptiles can create a bad day for anyone while also being a problem in the larger environment. Bills advancing through both legislative chambers seek to up penalties on people illegally handling venomous reptiles in the hope it will deter the trafficking of these creatures.

Do the crime, do the time: The bills set the penalties for knowingly releasing, or letting escape through gross negligence, a nonnative reptile of concern to a Level Three violation. Knowingly releasing or letting escape through gross negligence a venomous reptile would be a Level Four violation, which is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and/or a term of imprisonment of no longer than five years. Level Three violations can result in a fine of up to $1,000 and a term of imprisonment of up to a year if it’s the first such violation within the last 10 years. If it’s a Level Three violation within 10 years of a similar or worse violation, the penalties also include a $750 mandatory minimum fine and revocation of the offender’s license or permit.

Illegally dealing with nonnative venomous snakes like this monocled cobra could draw increased penalties under current legislation. Image via Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Taking action: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) generally takes the lead in these areas, and Commissioners intend on making an impact. Chair Rodney Barreto made those intentions clear last year when he said: “I’ve been clear — we do not want another python out in the Everglades. We don’t want another lionfish in the water. We don’t want a tegu lizard out there. We’re going to put our foot down. We’re going on the offensive. I’ve let the industry clearly know from me, my perspective, that we do not want to wait and realize that we approved something that’s detrimental to our environment, to Florida’s environment.”

Hiss: Florida’s reptile keepers are vocal in their displeasure at tighter regulations for reptiles and increased penalties for violating the state’s laws governing handling of the creatures. They are worried a lack of specification for nonnative species, along with allowances for studies of the snakes in the wild, or trapping and relocation of venomous reptiles, could halt needed work or put people with the best of intentions on the wrong side of the law.

Slithering along: HB 1161 is set for the House Infrastructure Strategies Committee on Monday, its last scheduled stop before the House floor. SB 1266 awaits action in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice. If approved there, it heads to the Senate Committee on Rules.

— Brunching out —

Jenny’s Lunchbox is a small breakfast and lunch nook with a huge local following.

Backstory: Jenny Rhodes opened her restaurant in 1999, but when she decided to sell the place five years later, she turned to server David Raney, who at that time was a 23-year-old, recent Florida State University grad. Jenny’s celebrates its 24th anniversary this summer.

Setting: Customers will want to arrive early because the place fills up quickly. The restaurant is housed in a former service station on Magnolia Drive, with inside seats and a few tables outside. A fun feature: numerous lunchboxes are hung around the restaurant, including vintage picks like Route 66, Peanuts, Betty Boop and I Love Lucy.

Jenny’s Lunchbox is a small breakfast and lunch nook loved by locals.

The menu: Jenny’s specializes in breakfast and lunch classics such as omelets, sweet cream pancakes, flat iron steaks, burgers, Belgian waffles and a spam breakfast. Tip: Pay an extra $1 to get farm-fresh eggs. Raney gets the eggs from chickens raised by his mother in her backyard. You can taste the difference. You can also buy a dozen eggs for $5, which is a great deal these days.

Details: Jenny’s Lunchbox, 295 N. Magnolia Dr.; 850-942-9766. Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. daily. If the parking lot is filled, you can park behind the building.

Staff Reports



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