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November 22, 2016

Joe Negron reaffirms policy goals as he takes over as Florida Senate president

Negron

@ByKristenMClark

As Sen. Joe Negron officially took over control of the Florida Senate on Tuesday, the Republican from Stuart outlined once again his priorities for improving higher education, stopping harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and reforming juvenile justice.

Negron first detailed those plans in his designation speech almost a year ago, but now he's in a position to personally drive that agenda for the next two years.

The Florida Senate unanimously elected Negron as its chamber president for the 2016-18 term during the Senate's one-day organizational session on Tuesday, which lasted roughly two hours.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores was also elected unanimously as Negron's No. 2; she is the first Hispanic woman to hold the position of Senate president pro tempore -- and among several Miami-Dade lawmakers in positions of power for this upcoming term.

MORE: "Oscar Braynon, Lauren Book named Florida Senate Democrats' top leaders"

In his 15-minute acceptance speech, Negron demonstrated some of his most well-known characteristics: thoughtful deliberation and a wonkish knack for public policy.

Continue reading "Joe Negron reaffirms policy goals as he takes over as Florida Senate president" »

Robert Asencio is sworn in to the Florida House despite attempt by David Rivera to challenge him

Robert Asencioby @MaryEllenKlas

After a ruling by the Secretary of State that Democrat Robert Asencio's 53-vote victory over former state Rep. David Rivera was legitimate, the Florida House swore in the Democrat and rejected Rivera's seating challenge. 

The House unanimously rejected the formal challenge for House District 118 Tuesday, during the House's post-election organizational session, after the Florida Canvassing Board, headed by Secretary of State Ken Detzner certified the vote after a recount.

After 10 hours of counting ballots, Miami-Dade County elections department last week declared that Asencio finished with 31,412 votes and Rivera 31,359 — a margin 15 votes closer than when the recount began.

"There is no assertion and no evidence submitted that the Miami-Dade canvassing board...In other words, there was no allegation of any irregularity,'' said Rep. Larry Metz, R-Umatilla, who moved to dismiss the seating challenge. The motion was unanimously approved. 

Rivera’s lawyers asked elections officials to impound about 300 disputed ballots — mostly absentee ballots on which the voter’s signature was either missing or ruled not to match signatures in elections department records -- and asked the Florida House leadership to halt Asencio's swearing in until the ballots were reviewed.

Rivera said the he had received affidavits from 59 of those voters saying they voted by mail and cast their ballots for him and should be counted. But the recruitment and review of selected affidavits would have been unprecedented in a race that did not involve fraud. 

The unanimous vote of the House seated everyone who was sworn in and deemed them all qualified. 

 "Seeing that the House of Representatives is the sole judge of the qualifications, elections and returns of its members, by a vote of the House, you are now officially members of the House of Representatives. Congratulations," said outgoing House Speaker Steve Crisafulli.  

Photo: Robert Asencio

As the Legislature organizes, where's Pam Bondi?

@MichaelAuslen

Cx4BH9vVEAAOQGNIt's a big day in the Capitol as the state House and Senate elect leaders and organize for the 2017-2018 term -- big enough that Gov. Rick Scott, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and most of the Florida Cabinet are on hand.

But one member of the Cabinet isn't here: Attorney General Pam Bondi.

She is working. Bondi called in to a meeting of the Elections Canvassing Commission with Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater.

A Bondi spokeswoman did not reply to multiple emails asking about the attorney general’s whereabouts.

She could well be in New York helping with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition to the White House. Trump named Bondi to the executive committee of his transition team. She is also considered a frontrunner for an appointment in the new administration.

Photo: Michael Auslen | Times/Herald

Oscar Braynon to Richard Corcoran on the new House rules: Where's the real change?

Oscar Braynon by KeelerBy @MaryEllenKlas

Newly-elected Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon is out of the gate with some pretty pointed comments about the sweeping new rules proposed by incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran

"I look at these rules and I think, he must be expecting criminals and unethical people to come to the House. I know I expect senators to come to the Senate,'' he said in an interview with the Herald/Times.

"If Richard Corcoran and Jose Oliva really wanted to change the culture of the House, to me they wouldn't be afraid to debate issues,'' he said. "They wouldn't stifle Democratic bills. They wouldn't take good Democratic ideas and make them Republican bills. if they really wanted change, and they talk about openness, they would start doing these things instead of this foolishness claiming we're cleaning up the process because people can't fly on jets, or text lobbyists or get a promotion in a government job.

"To me, that's not a real change. Most of that is illegal or is not allowed anyway and if it is, it's disclosed. Real change is changing the dynamic where bills are not heard, where ideas are stifled, where people are forced to vote against their conscience. If they change that, then he's doing a real change. the rest of this is -- since Trump got elected I guess I can say this -- it's bullshit."

In a nod to bi-partisan cooperation, Oscar will present the Senate's rules with it convenes today to swear in new members and most of the Senate rules are the same ones used by the Republican-controlled upper chamber in the past.

"One of the reasons we didn't change them is because we believe we elected senators of high regard and if my colleagues break the law, or violate the rules, we'll deal with violating the statutes and the rules,'' he said. 

  • On the rule allowing the House to impeaching local and state elected officials for ethical violations: "The impeachment role is something they have in the statutes now but the House can't even do the trial. The trial is handled by the Senate. We're the ones who decide."
  • On the ban on lobbyists texting legislators: "That's also already in the law, it's disclosed under the Sunshine law." He suggested that the rule does not ban lobbyists from emailing legislators on their phones will in committee. "A bigger question is why we don't have a retention policy? Why don't you just improve the rules? Some of this is just to make noise for him to look good. I think that is disingenuous."
  • On the rule punishing lobbyists for sexual harassment of lawmakers: "I didn't know that was rampant,'' Braynon said. "Now the other way around might be the case. Is that the one you can control and you don't want to throw your members too far under the bus?"
  • On the rule banning legislators from being promoted into a government job after being elected: "What are you trying to accomplish? If you really want to change people from making money off the system or having conflicts of interest, let's start a true discussion about making this a full-time Legislature. If you don't want us talking about that,you shouldn't be talking about what other people do as jobs."

Braynon suggested that many of the reforms will serve to concentrate power in the hands of the House leadership, not dilute it as Corcoran says is his goal. It will also serve to raise the barriers for others without financial means to get elected to office because the ban on promotions makes it difficult for low-wage workers, like teachers, bus drivers, prison guards, to get promoted into an administrative post in order to serve in the Legislature for six months.

"What do we really want our Legislature to look like?,'' Braynon asked. "Do we want it to be wealthy, older guys who are so far along in their professions that they can take six months out of a year to come to Tallahassee for $29,000. What is wrong with a teacher being able to come here? What is wrong with somebody who spent most of his career as a bus drivers coming up here? I have a district that is mostly working people, many in my district work for government ...If you're a teacher, and you have to come up here six months out of the year, you can't be a teacher anymore. So what can you be now? You have to be an administrator. What if that's a promotion?...According to the House rules, you can't do that.

"So what do we want our Legislature to be? If we want it to be a full-time Legislature, where people have no conflicts and people are able to feed their family -- not get rich -- then maybe Richard Corcoran is really asking for a full-time Legislature."

Photo by Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Corcoran: House wants 'dramatic' campaign finance law change

If Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran is determined to break up the status quo in Tallahassee, sooner or later he'll have to attack the root of the problem.

Money.

He says he will. In an interview with the Times/Herald, Corcoran said that after rounding out his leadership team, "I fully anticipate that we will try to have some proposals dealing with campaign finance reform ... It would be dramatic reform."

Nowhere in the new bipartisan set of House rules to be adopted Tuesday is there any effort to address the most glaring problem that has damaged the Legislature's credibility with the public. 

For example, lawmakers can take money from lobbyists who seek their votes on bills, and while they can't accept checks during the regular session, they can during periodic committee weeks, where there are often more fund-raisers at the Governor's Club than there are public meetings in the House Office Building.

Lawmakers also can control two fund-raising operations: one for their re-election and a second political committee, not bound by any contribution limits, can raise unlimited amounts of money from special interests, even during the 60-day regular session. Some House members have already formed PCs even though they have yet to cast a vote as a legislator. Corcoran didn't create one until after he was chosen by his colleagues to be a future speaker, and the Florida Roundtable raised $2.4 million.

Past efforts to shut down the committees have gone nowhere. Here's background from the Times/Herald 2014 series, Buying In: How Money Controls Tallahassee.

Even a modest ban on ending the fund-raising shakedown during committee weeks couldn't get off the ground.

Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, who worked with the Republicans on rules changes, said both parties discussed it, but the proposal was dropped. "There was some discussion and it was decided not to do it," Berman said. Asked to explain why, she said: "I'd prefer not to" and that the Democratic "caucus was split" on the idea. Berman, entering her final House term, said she didn't care whether the ban were implemented or not: "I'm termed out. I'm not up for re-election," she said.

The speaker's office has declined a Times/Herald request to provide drafts of proposed rules changes, citing a public records law exemption.

Nothing screams "status quo" as much as the current system of member-controlled slush funds, which is indefensible if Corcoran is serious about reforming the system.

One possible solution is for the House to propose abolishing the committees, possibly in return for higher contribution limits to members' campaigns. Another is to restrict how the money is spent to end the practice of lawmakers using PCs to subsidize personal expenses on political business, such as meals, entertainment and travel.

As Corcoran put it in his brief speech at his designation ceremony Monday, "We have to reduce the temptations."

November 21, 2016

Ron Book -- lobbyist, father of Sen. Book, soon to be Coach Book -- faces new fight: cancer

Ron Book by Scott KeelerBy @MaryEllenKlas

Ron Book sat in the Florida Senate's public gallery with tears in his eyes as his daughter was named to the honorary role to lead the Democratic caucus.

"That was an 'Oh my God' moment,'' he said after freshman Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation was named Senate Democratic leader pro tempore.

It was 15 years ago this past August when Book and his wife discovered Lauren had been sexually abused by their former babysitter. The experience led her to a career as a prominent advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse, the founder and CEO of Aventura-based Lauren’s Kids, and in August, the uncontested election to the Florida state Senate.

"You don't know as a parent what that journey's going to be,'' Ron Book said, but to have been able to walk into the newly-renovated Senate chamber, to a place he regards with respect "was just one of those special moments.

"It's a recognition of what she's become as a woman. It's a recognition of what she's become as a leader."

Book, who is known as one of the Capitol's most veteran and successful lobbyists, acknowledged that he has been slowed somewhat in recent months after having suffered a bone infection after foot surgery. In July, he was diagnosed with an aggressive tumor on his prostate and is undergoing radiation treatment.

"I've had a very rough couple of months,'' he said. "I'm going to be alright over time, but I'm still sort of experiencing those side effects every day."

A tireless worker, he said it has been difficult to scale back his work hours. He said his 18-hour days have become more like eight and 10.

Tears welled in his eyes again as he pulled up photos from his Iphone of the twins in utero that Lauren and her husband are expecting in February. He proudly proclaimed the girl would be  named Kennedy Grace and the boy named Hudson Lee. The family will move to Tallahassee for the session and Grandfather Book expects to have an active role.

"I have refused to use aging-connotative names,'' he said, bristling at the suggestion of being called "grandpa." Instead, he said he is going to become known as "Coach." To make sure his carefully-tailored suits are not soiled when he cares for the babies, he has ordered six lab coats that say "Coach" on each one.

Photo: Ron Book hugs daughter, Lauren, after a 2011 Senate vote. By Tampa Bay Times Photographer Scott Keeler

Miami-Dade delegation unity frays with fight over who will be chair

by @MaryEllenKlas

Who will be the next chair of the powerful Miami-Dade delegation?

The vote is Tuesday and the post is generally perceived to be a bi-partisan and ministerial -- heading up the 24-member delegation. But the job does include some important appointments to several locally powerful boards -- from Jackson Memorial Hospital to the Arsht Center for the Arts to the Homeless Trust.

Nominees are the current chairman, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and freshman Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, the delegation's current vice chair. 

Technically, the election gave Democrats the majority, outnumbering Republicans 13-11.  They could name one of their own to the one-year post but that's the rub. They may not have the votes if some of their members don't show up for the afternoon vote.

Sen. Daphne Campbell, the Democrat who was elected to the Senate after bitter primary and general election feuds, is not happy about the Democratic Party's role in what she believes was behind-the-scenes attempt to back one of her primary opponents, Jason Pizzo. She is not feeling magnanimous about supporting Rodriguez. 

"The bottom line is, I've been on my own, period,'' she told the Herald/Times. "I never got strong support from no side. I've been a free agent."

Diaz argues that recent tradition is to allow the delegation chairman to remain in the post for two years. Since he took over for Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, after only one year, he argues that he deserves to be elected to a second year. He wouldn't comment on whether he has appealed to Democrats to support him.

"I'm running for re-election,'' he said Monday. "I feel confident that whoever wins, our delegation will be in good hands.''

Rodriguez, the delegation's current vice chairman, argues that he doesn't consider it a partisan position. "The things that we work on are almost by consensus,'' he said. "The reason for my running is I want to work on long-term priorities -- really drilling down into what we could accomplish and build on what we have been doing."

He suggested that among the goals of the delegation chairman should be to "put Miami-Dade in a better place competitively,'' rather than seeking "small battles." 

Campbell wouldn't say what she would do Tuesday but said she will remain a member of the Democratic caucus. 

"I will never be an independent. I love being a Democrat,'' she said. But she harbors a grudge.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon supported her, she said, but she is still stinging from the fact that she did not receive the endorsement of President Obama in the general election. "I was the only one,'' she said. "They never treat me fairly period -- and I always win."

Oscar Braynon, Lauren Book named Florida Senate Democrats' top leaders

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@ByKristenMClark

A longtime legislator from Miami Gardens will lead the Democrats of the Florida Senate for the next two years.

Sen. Oscar Braynon’s ascension to Senate minority leader was made official Monday evening in advance of Tuesday’s organizational session for the 2016-18 Legislature. He’s now in charge of a 15-member Democratic caucus, of which 11 are newly elected senators.

“I’m happy to be taking on that role,” Braynon said. “We’re going to have a bunch of blank slates when it comes to what happens in the Senate. There’s a lot of potential there.”

One of those newcomers is freshman Broward County Sen. Lauren Book, whom the Democratic caucus also unanimously elected as Braynon’s No. 2 in the role of Senate Democratic leader pro tempore.

Book, of Plantation, is a prominent advocate for victims of childhood sexual abuse and the founder and CEO of Aventura-based Lauren’s Kids. She is also the daughter of powerful Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book, whom she called “her best friend, rock and mentor.”

Although the Republican majority in the Senate will drive the agenda, Braynon said his goal as minority leader is to continue pushing for Democratic priorities, such as equal pay for women and raising the minimum wage, protecting the environment, improving access to health care and strengthening public education.

Read more.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Democrats elect Janet Cruz as House minority leader

@MichaelAuslen

CruzAfter what she termed an “unusual and unpredictable” election cycle that gave Democrats just two additional seats in the House, Leader Janet Cruz rallied members of the minority party Monday.

Cruz, of Tampa, was unanimously elected by Democrats to lead their caucus. She is the first Hispanic woman named leader. 

She told the story of her family. Immigrant great-grandparents, a single mother who worked in a gypsum plant and Cruz’s own teenage pregnancy.

That, she said, is a story mirroring many in Florida.

With just 41 members to the Republicans’ 79, Democrats likely won’t accomplish most of their biggest goals. But she said she is hopeful that House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, will be open to good ideas, no matter which party they come from.

Democrats elected Rep. Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale as leader pro tempore.

Cruz issued a charge to members of the minority that they stand by their beliefs, even if it looks like they won’t succeed.

“We believe it is time to give Floridians a raise, to protect Floridians from discrimination, to preserve our environment for generations to come,” Cruz said. “On these core values, our principles are not negotiable.”

Photo: Scott Keeler | Tampa Bay Times

New Florida Senate chamber gets its long-awaited debut

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@ByKristenMClark

After eight months and nearly 50,000 hours of construction work, Florida legislative leaders got their first official look at a brand new Senate chamber on Monday.

The $6 million renovation was the first major overhaul to the room since the current Capitol was built in the late 1970s, and the result is a brighter and modernized — yet classically styled — chamber where the Florida Senate will continue to conduct its business.

“They did a phenomenal job, and it’s long overdue,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. “It brings a level of respect to the process to have the chamber looking so stately as it does now.”

Read more.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times