Jeff Brandes Archives - Florida Politics

Bill to review government efficiency sails through committee

Legislation providing for a review of efficiency in government procurement is making its way through the Legislature.

St. Petersburg Republican Jeff BrandesSB 368 cleared the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government Thursday with a unanimous and undebated yes vote.

Brandes’ bill — which is accompanied in the House by Wauchula Republican Rep. Ben Albritton’s similar HB 111 — would create a task force within the Department of Management Services for the “purpose of evaluating the effectiveness and value of state and local procurement laws and policies to the taxpayers in this state and determining where inconsistencies in such laws and policies exist.”

The secretary of DMS, currently Erin Rock, would be given the option to appoint someone to chair the task force or chair it themselves. Gov. Rick Scott would be given seven appointments. The Senate President and Speaker would be given two each, consisting of a member of their respective chambers and a lawyer proficient in procurement law.

The task force would be finalized by the end of July and dissolved by Dec. 31, 2019.

The legislation specifies that members of the task force will not be paid for their work.

A comparable bill from Brandes died last year in its last committee of reference, but Brandes expects it to have widespread support this Session.

Brandes’ St. Petersburg colleague, Democratic Sen. Darryl Rouson, has co-sponsored the bill.

Jeff Brandes on how criminal justice reform can address generational poverty

At an anti-poverty conference, state Sen. Jeff Brandes said that, if possible, he thinks it could be beneficial for the Legislature to work on policies that encourage millennials to marry before having children, though he acknowledged that’s unlikely to occur.

“The regulatory effects from that would be game-changing,” the St. Petersburg Republican said during the Florida Chamber Foundation’s “Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity Summit” Tuesday in Tampa.

Brandes cited the “Success Sequence” as a formula that can help reduce Florida’s poverty rate, which among those under the age of 18 is a staggering 30 percent.  Success Sequence is an anti-poverty process first endorsed by officials with the Brookings Institute and has since been adopted by folks with the American Enterprise Institute. It calls for people born into poverty to get at least a high school degree, work full-time and marry before having any children, in that order.

That’s easier said than done, Brandes admitted.

“That is one that is frankly, not well suited for the Legislature to address, but it needs to be part of the overall conversation about addressing prosperity and poverty in the state,” he said.

The conversation then veered into criminal justice reform, which has become one of Brandes’ major passions over the past couple of years.

Florida prisons incarcerate approximately 100,000 people, with another 30,000 in urban county jails, Brandes said. But there are not nearly enough people to staff those prisons, hurting the chances those in custody to avoid recidivism.

There are currently 2,100 job vacancies in our state prisons, he said, and not a huge demand to take those positions, which pay a measly $31,000 annually. That contributes to increasing contraband in prisons and inmate violence.

Brandes talked about creating a prison “off-ramp,” such as opportunities to offer civil citations instead of arrests. The state has made major progress on that with juveniles, but Brandes says that opportunity needs to be presented to adults for certain offenses.

“You steal an item in Florida that costs $300. You’re a committed felon in the state,” he said, noting that law hasn’t changed since 1986, as opposed to most of Florida’s neighboring states, where the felony threshold is stealing an item worth $1,500.

“Steal an iPhone; you’re in prison for five years. You could lose your right to vote. Good luck getting a job,” Brandes said, calling it a “scarlet letter” that will be with someone for the rest of their life.

Other policies Brandes specifically addressed include providing inmates with an opportunity to study and acquire occupational licenses while incarcerated, so they have skills in an industry where they’d be eligible to work once released from prison.

Those arrested in, say, Tampa shouldn’t be placed in a prison in the Panhandle, Brandes added, citing how important family interactions are to prisoners in giving them hope about their future.

When Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, asked what the business community could do to help, Brandes mentioned mentoring and certificate programs tied to an employer or another career source. He said the Legislature could play a part in offering incentives to businesses and released inmates.

“Can I create a certified inmate program?” he mused, suggesting a look at what other states or doing to encourage businesses to get involved.

Brandes also weighed in on the state’s affordable housing crisis; the current model was broken, he said, and a “radically different approach” needs to be adopted to help the public.


Florida Chamber tackles poverty with inaugural Prosperity Summit

Is Florida ready to tackle poverty for a more prosperous future?

That’s the subject of a new Florida Chamber of Commerce summit to address the extent of poverty — and possible solutions — throughout the Sunshine State.

Starting Tuesday in Tampa, the Chamber’s inaugural “Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity Summit” features members of the business, political, and academic community to discuss ways to boost prosperity for all Floridians.

According to the Chamber, Florida has more than 3.1 million people living in poverty, with nearly 945,000 under the age of 18. A recent study found that in many Florida counties, the least expensive child care expense costs more than the least expensive rents.

“The large number of Floridians living in poverty in our state impacts not only individual families, but also businesses, Florida’s economy, and our state’s global competitiveness,” says the Chamber website. “Florida will find it harder to succeed in 2030 and beyond if more than 1 in 6 Floridians continues living in poverty.”

Among the topics of the one-day event include “The Path to Prosperity,” hosted by Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson; “Framing the Issue: Understanding the Building Blocks for Economic Prosperity,” moderated by Florida Chamber Foundation Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal and an overview of state leadership with Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg.

The summit will also take a deeper dive into topics like safety and criminal justice, food security, affordability of housing, the impact of education and more, with guests such as former House Speaker Will Weatherford, CareerSource Florida President and CEO Michelle Dennard and more.

The event kicks off at 10 a.m. with a welcome address from Doug Davidson of Bank of America, who serves as chair of the Florida Chamber Foundation.

Less Poverty, Through More Prosperity, will continue through 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Sheraton Tampa Riverwalk Hotel, N. Ashley Dr. in Tampa. It will also be live streamed at

A warning for Democrats eyeing Jeff Brandes’ SD 24 seat in 2018

A word of warning for Florida Democrats in 2018; be cautious about eyeing Pinellas County Sen. Jeff Brandes’ District 24 seat.

After the somewhat surprising success of Rick Kriseman, who edged out former mayor Rick Baker, Florida Democrats are starting to think a “blue wave” will give them a legitimate shot at Brandes, the incumbent Republican in SD 24.

They may have to rethink that strategy.

But first, a few facts.

One of the most visible distinctions between Brandes’ SD 24 and the City of St. Petersburg is voter registration.

Republicans make up 38 percent of SD 24, and hold a five-point advantage over Democrats (33 percent), while ‘Other’ and no-party-affiliated voters make up the rest (29 percent).

In contrast, St. Pete is 46 percent Democratic — an 18 percent registration advantage over Republicans (28 percent) while ‘Other’ party affiliation voters make up 26 percent of the electorate.

One of the main reasons Baker found success as a Republican in the mostly Democrat-leaning city of St. Pete was his popularity in the African-American community, where he spent a good amount of time.

Sixty-nine percent St. Pete voters are white, 20 percent are African-American, a significant (and influential) portion of the electorate.

In the primary, Baker bested Kriseman 51 to 38 percent in precincts with over 80 percent African-American registration. This came despite Kriseman’s support and endorsement from former President Barack Obama and tying Baker to Trump as much as possible.

And while Trump proved a winning strategy in St. Pete’s general election, it only resulted in a three-point victory for Kriseman, 51.62 to 48.38 percent.

In comparison, SD 24 is 85 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic. Only 4 percent of voters are African-American.

Republicans hold a five percent registration advantage over Democrats in SD 24 but outperform them by much higher numbers. In the 2014 Governor’s race, Republicans turned out +9 over Democrats, giving Brandes a victory by nearly 14 percent.

In 2016, SD 24 Republicans performed +6 over Democrats, where Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 7 percent and Marco Rubio beat Patrick Murphy by 8 percent.

Those two elections played out very differently in St. Pete. Democrats outperformed +18 over Republicans in 2014, where longtime St. Petersburg resident (and Republican-turned-Democrat) Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by 33 percent.

Similarly, Democrats outpaced Republicans +18 in 2016, when Clinton beat Trump by 23 percent and Murphy beat Rubio by 19 percent.

Turnout in presidential cycles historically tends to favor Democrats, and SD 24 had a Republican advantage of 7.5 percent at the top of the ticket.

In a midterm gubernatorial race in 2018, where Republican performance historically is even better (+9 percent for 2014), Democrats would face a very steep uphill climb. This means Democrats would need to boost turnout by double of that in the St. Pete mayoral race — as well as siphon off some of the broad support for Brandes among both Republicans and independent voters.

As a family man with four young children (including a newly adopted daughter), an Iraq War Veteran, businessman and Republican who leans libertarian, Brandes appeals to a Republican base as a fiscal conservative. He is a staunch believer in limited government and Second Amendment rights.

But even more importantly, especially to a broader electorate: Brandes isn’t afraid to shake things up in Tallahassee.

As a Republican in a GOP-majority Legislature, Brandes has been a longtime advocate for some traditionally un-Republican issues, such as the legalization of medical marijuana for those who need it. He also led the charge for prison and criminal justice reform, questioning the effectiveness of mandatory minimum sentences.

Brandes is also a staunch supporter of cutting-edge technologies in Florida, both in the classroom, on roads, and in the everyday lives of citizens. He sponsored legislation for increased autonomous vehicle technology in the state and to develop digital driver’s licenses. Brandes also spearheaded the expansion of ride-sharing services statewide and pushed for the repeal of red light cameras.

From his first House victory in 2010, unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Heller by 999 votes, Brandes has won solid victories (or ran unopposed), with arguably one of the most organized campaigns structures in Pinellas County history.

Employing a robust ground game, strong fundraising and willingness to commit personal resources, Brandes defeated fellow House member Jim Frishe in the Senate race by more 14 percent. In 2014, he beat Democrat Judithanne McLauchlan by 13.9 percent in the general election and went unchallenged in 2016.

With a mix of demographics, organization and support, any Brandes challenger in SD 24 will find themselves facing a rough road — Democratic “blue wave” or not.

Be forewarned.

Tax break proposed for standby generators

A Senate Republican on Monday proposed providing a property-tax exemption for permanently installed generators used to provide power when electricity goes out.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, of St. Petersburg, filed a proposed constitutional amendment (SJR 974) that would ask voters next year to approve the tax exemption.

He also proposed a bill (SB 976) that would carry out the constitutional amendment. Both measures are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, which starts in January.

Under the proposals, the value of permanent generators would not be considered in determining the taxable values of properties.

The proposals come amid heavy attention on efforts by Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to require nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators that could keep buildings cool.

The issue stems from the deaths of residents of a Broward County nursing home whose air conditioning was knocked out by Hurricane Irma.

Jeff Brandes returns from China with new adopted daughter

While sexual harassment allegations and rumors continued to swirl around Tallahassee, one legislator watched the show while completing a personal international deal.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, his wife Natalie and their eldest daughter Charlotte, whom they call “Lottie,” spent the past week in the sprawling port city of Guangzhou – outside Hong Kong – wrapping up the year-long adoption of a new daughter.

The trip was their first time in China since they began the adoption process.

“You meet them on a Monday, you go back to the consulate on a Tuesday, they ask if you still want this child,” Brandes said, back in the Capitol Wednesday. “You promise not to abandon her and everything else. Then it’s about a week-long process.”

Elizabeth, “Lizzie,” is the fourth child for the couple married just over a decade. Elizabeth, 8, is the first they’ve adopted.

The couple has two sons, Colin and Conor, ages 6 and 4.

Brandes, known for pushing legislation about new technologies, said he was able to follow the latest Capitol intrigue via tweets and admitted: “it was a good week to be away.”

“I walked in the lunchroom today, I said, `Sorry guys I’ve been gone a week. Anything happen while I was gone?’,” Brandes joked Wednesday before an Appropriations Committee.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers champion efforts to reform criminal justice system

Some Florida lawmakers say that seeing the positive impact of criminal justice reform efforts in other states has given them new impetus to push for measures that aim to reduce the state’s prison population by giving sentences that “fit a just result.”

The early bipartisan undertaking to reform the state’s criminal justice system — an endeavor that has hit legislative roadblocks in past years — is starting with two main proposals. One seeks to give judge’s discretion over mandatory minimum sentences in certain drug cases and the other would increase the felony property theft threshold from $300 to $1,500.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes and Democratic state Rep. Ben Diamond, both of St. Petersburg, are both championing bills that would revise the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws by relying on a “judicial safety valve” in cases involving non-violent, low-level offenders.

A separate Senate bill filed by Sen. Randolph Bracy would also allow judges to depart from the 3-year mandatory minimum in certain drug trafficking cases, but would not apply to those caught with opioids and opiates. Under Brandes’ bill, judges would still have discretion over certain offenders found in possession of opioids.

“We have to stop treating addict like king pins and unfortunately, Florida’s drug laws all too often treat addicts like king pins,” Brandes said.

Bracy said his decision to not include those caught with opioids is in wake of the epidemic hitting the state and a stricter opioid penalty bill being signed into law last Session.

Brandes, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice, said there may be a change of heart in the Senate on this topic.

Bracy and state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican from Naples, filed legislation on Wednesday that looks to amend the “outdated” property theft threshold, which was last raised in 1986.

A bill that would have changed the state’s felony theft threshold passed three House committees last Session, but died in the Senate.

In response to these reform efforts, Diamond said lawmakers have an obligation to be “smart” in how they spend taxpayers’ money, adding that the state spends about $2.5 billion every year to incarcerate nearly 100,000 inmates.

Florida has the 10th highest incarceration rate in the nation, according to data from the Sentencing Project published in 2016. And it has the highest rate for felony disenfranchisement in the country.

Brandes, who believes in rehabilitating inmates and having educational and vocational programs in prison, said more measures dealing with this topic will be unveiled in the upcoming weeks.

Ridesharing legislation is bringing us to the future, so why are airports still stuck in the past?

There’s nothing more aggravating than seeing the Legislature finally do the right thing, only to see local authorities attempt to undermine that progress. Take, for instance, the maddening example of Florida airports and the extra fees they tack on when travelers try to leave the airport property.

Since the Legislature passed uniform regulations for ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, you might think the state’s airports would have consistent fees for tourists who want to get a ride to their destinations — but you’d be wrong.

I suppose I can understand different airports across the state charging different fees – within reason. But an egregious exception is Orlando’s airport, where arriving travelers who want to use Lyft or Uber to get to their final destination see a charge – some would call it a tax – of $5.80 added onto the fare for each ride.

Not only is this $5.80 fee among one of the highest charged by any airport in the country, it’s also a huge leap above the $3.30 fee for travelers who choose to take a taxi. The $2.50 difference is tangible evidence of the leadership at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority attempting to pick winners and losers in the transportation space.

This needs to stop.

Orlando is a major tourist attraction for the state. The airport alone receives 40+ million passengers every year and is one of the busiest airports in the nation – both with tourists and local residents. Coupled with the ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico, which has brought a significant influx of refugees to Central Florida, and it becomes even clearer that we need to ensure a reasonable and consistent level of fees for passengers regardless of which mode of transportation they choose.

Whether this substantial price difference is a result of Mears Transportation’s powerful influence in Central Florida, or just some airport execs trying to maximize profits on the backs of an emerging transportation option, remains to be seen. They claim it has to do with a subtle difference between a pre-arranged ride and one that is requested on the spot, but consumers don’t see that difference. Neither do I – sounds like a distinction without a difference. People just want to get where they need to go in the quickest, safest and cheapest way.

And airports don’t have a monopoly on outrageous fees and outdated rules. A story in WESH News last week shined a light on the excessive fees being charged to ridesharing drivers who go to pick up passengers at Port Canaveral. From the story, it seems like both ridesharing and taxicab drivers are unified in their opposition to costly rules that make it difficult and pricey for them to pick up passengers who arrive in the port after a cruise.

The fact is that lawmakers like Sen. Jeff Brandes, Rep. Chris Sprowls, and others worked hard – many for several years – to pass ridesharing legislation that gave these innovative companies the ability to operate across the entire state. While local governments are no longer able to charge these companies fees, airports and ports were specifically not preempted by the legislation that passed last year.

Regardless, in a time when lawmakers are carefully making sure that no company or industry gets a government-created handout or advantage, expect this issue to be something that draws attention over the coming months.

HART shows off inaugural driverless shuttle coming to Tampa next year

Katharine Eagan, as head of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) Authority, is receiving praise for embracing new technologies during her three-year tenure at the Tampa Bay area’s  most significant transit agency, despite a limited budget.

Now scheduled to depart the region next year for a similar job in Pittsburgh (with higher pay and more funding), the HART CEO seemed excited to unveil the agency’s autonomous vehicle shuttle on Tuesday that will begin making trips in Tampa come next January.

Egan did so at the 2017 Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, taking place this week at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay Hotel near the Courtney Campbell Causeway.

“We have carved out that transit is not just for buses. Our buses are fabulous, but we need more tools,” Egan said Tuesday morning inside a tent erected in the hotel’s back parking lot. “And what better way to carve out our places here in Tampa than [being] in the front of this technology, shape how it delivers and make this investment,” Eagan said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is paying for the shuttle (only for 2018 as of now) which is designed by the Canadien company Stantec. The shuttle’s route will just be about a mile long, connecting the Marion Street Bus Center to the other side of downtown Tampa. It will be limited only to daytime use and will have only limited interactions with other drivers, since Marion Street is limited to other HART buses during daytime hours.

“Think about how difficult it is to train a vehicle to stop at a railroad crossing or a four-way stop. That’s what we’ve got,” Eagan said.

Other new technologies that HART has employed under Eagan’s leadership includes their HyperLink program. That allows riders to book a ride through a smartphone app to and from bus stops in three designated areas and was designed to solve the “first mile/last mile” issue by picking people up from home or work and taking them directly to their nearest bus stop.

Earlier this year, HART introduced a partnership with the Tampa Innovation Alliance that added a small fleet of cutting-edge Tesla vehicles into the local market.

At the end of Tuesday’s short ceremony, Eagan, state Sen. Jeff Brandes, and other HART officials officially unveiled the actual AV shuttle car that will start operations in late January, where it is expected to be available for service beginning when the NHL All-Star game takes place at the Amalie Arena.


‘The Jetsons’ is now: Automated vehicles summit kicks off in Tampa

The fifth annual Florida Automated Vehicles Summit began Monday night in Tampa with officials arriving from across the country to discuss the latest development in the cutting-edge industry.

Tampa/Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) CEO Joe Waggoner said the first conference, held in 2013, strictly focused on automated vehicles, but that it’s so much more now.

“The industry and the technology has exploded since then,” he said.

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Mike Dew touted the work that his agency is doing across the state regarding autonomous technology, specifically mentioning their partnership with THEA to design an automated vehicle roadway system. FDOT also is working with Gainesville’s transit system to implement an autonomous shuttle system, and with the Jacksonville Transit Authority on a new automated system for their existing Skyway.

Florida became the second state in 2011 to work on autonomous vehicle legislation, thanks mainly to St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes, who was honored before his speech on Tuesday with the summit’s first ever “Leadership and Innovation” award.

Speaking to the hundreds of conference members who gathered at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay Hotel near Clearwater, he provided the backdrop to his embrace of the technology.

While serving in Iraq in 2003-2004, he became a transportation officer, but said after his tour of duty was completed, he was poised to work for Cox Lumber, the family business owned by his grandfather, Linton Tibbets. Tibbets soon sold Cox to a subsidiary of Home Depot in 2006, prompting Brandes to reconsider running for public office.

He said it was listening to a “Ted Talk” on a drive to Tallahassee from St. Petersburg during his 2011 freshman year in the Florida House that inspired him to learn more about autonomous vehicles.

Out in the parking lot, there were a variety of vendors with autonomous vehicle technology.

Travel Technology Services is working with what they call Traffic Light Information, a feature with Audi Connect. The technology provides the motorist with how much time before a light changes. So if you’re waiting for a red light to change, the technology informs the motorist how many seconds before the light changes.

“Audi’s been working on this for over a decade,” said Traffic Technology Services Kiel Ova. “As part of the information provider, we’ve been working on it for about five years.”

The technology is live in Las Vegas and in parts of Dallas, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and should be coming to Tampa in just a few weeks. It works with 2017 and 2018 Audi models.

May Mobility is a new Ann Arbor-based company that began testing two, six-passenger self-driving shuttles in downtown Detroit last month.

“From what know, we were the first autonomous vehicle company to be able to enter into a natural transportation system, replacing a bus,” said Alisyn Malek, the COO of May Mobility. She says the company is in negotiations with others in Florida and Texas that will happen sometime early next year.

“We’re really excited to be pushing the autonomous vehicle technology into real life deployments,” said CEO Edwin Olson. “That’s what we’re trying to do, not wait until we can do Pittsburgh style environments, but find places where we can make contact with the ball today.

There also were trucks that were parked in the Grant Hyatt parking lot.

A truck-mounted attenuator is a vehicle which provides a safety barrier between moving vehicles and workers on the road. Now Royal Truck & Equipment has created the first autonomous truck-mounted attenuator that promises to add an extra layer of safety.

“Up until now there’s been a driver in the truck, but what we’ve done is take the driver out of the truck because it’s very dangerous,” said Fred Bergstresser, government accounts manager with Royal Truck & Equipment.

“This vehicle has a navigation computer in it, it collects data on the speed heading direction, transmits that data back to this vehicle, and then this vehicle mimics its path,” said Maynard J. Factor, director of business development with Kratos Defense.

“So you have a very high accuracy, high precision following vehicle, completely unmanned, now if the vehicle gets hit at 65 mph by an 18-wheeler, there’s nobody here who has to worry about getting their back broken,” Factor said.

Factor said the technology comes straight from the defense industry, but it’s now been adapted to the commercial industry.

Also at the summit, officials with the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) agency unveiled their new self-driving shuttle vehicle which is expected to be up and running by January.

More summit coverage will appear later on Florida Politics.

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