January 11, 2016

With Confederate battle flag gone, new (temporary) seal installed in Florida Senate


Before and after: The former Florida Senate Seal, left, and the new seal, right. The new seal, approved Monday, swaps out the Confederate battle flag for the Florida state flag.



Just in time for the 2016 session to begin tomorrow, the Florida Senate has put up a new version of its seal -- absent the Confederate battle flag -- behind the president's rostrum.

The wood-and-vinyl emblem is "temporary," pending any further changes to the seal that senators might opt to make while they're in Tallahassee the next couple months.

In the fall during a special session on redistricting, senators voted to revise their symbol and remove the presence of the controversial flag, one of five flags depicted on the seal. The new version replaces the divisive icon with the official state flag of Florida.

Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the chamber seal cost $350, a little pricier than expected because some metal was needed to afix the wood and vinyl pieces together.

Regardless if senators make further changes, a seal made of more permanent materials will be cast likely in the summer, Betta said. Updates to other Senate seals present throughout the Capitol are expected at that time also.

When senators voted to change the seal, some members called for an entire overhaul of the seal's design, rather than just a swap of the flags. The issue is in the hands of the Senate Rules Committee.

The discussion about revising the seal originally stemmed from the nationwide backlash against the Confederate battle flag, following the racially motivated church shooting in Charleston, S.C., last summer.

Some Republican senators -- dodging the issue of the flag's use by some as a symbol of racism and intimidation since the civil-rights era -- cited a desire for historical accuracy as their motivation for changing the seal. The Confederate battle flag was not one of a sovereign nation, unlike the other banners on the seal, which represent the United States, France, Spain and Great Britain.

January 08, 2016

Abruzzo confirms bid for new south Palm Beach County Senate district

State Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, made official today his plans to seek re-election in the newly drawn Senate District 29, which includes most of the southern half of Palm Beach County.

And in an attempt to boost his chances in a potential primary battle against fellow state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, Abruzzo also announced a flurry of endorsements from local and county officials -- including a few from Sachs' current district.

New configurations for all 40 Senate districts were set in the map approved last week by Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds and awaiting final approval by the Florida Supreme Court.

Both Abruzzo and Sachs had declared interest in the new District 29, which includes much of Abruzzo's current district and part of Sachs'.

Under the current boundaries, Abruzzo represents most of western and parts of northern Palm Beach County, while Sachs represents coastal areas of south-eastern Palm Beach County and north-eastern Broward County.

Abruzzo, who was elected in 2012, announced support today from Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, as well as Palm Beach County state Reps. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth and Broward County Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.

County Commissioners Melissa McKinlay and Shelley Vana, former County Commissioner Burt Aaronson and city officials from Belle Glade, South Bay and Wellington -- many of them Democrats -- also threw their support behind Abruzzo.

Photo credit: Florida Senate

January 06, 2016

Bondi, Putnam, Atwater endorse Wilton Simpson for Florida Senate


All three members of the Florida Cabinet on Wednesday announced their endorsement of Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, in a Pasco County Senate primary race between Simpson and another incumbent, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity.

The announcements from Attorney General Pam Bondi, Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater come just one day after Legg and Simpson both announced their intentions to seek reelection in District 10. The seat, which includes both sitting senators' homes and parts of their current districts, was created last week by Circuit Judge George Reynolds' ruling in a redistricting trial.

"I have known Wilton Simpson for years, both as a close friend and as a partner in the legislative process," Bondi said in a statement released by the Simpson campaign Wednesday. "He is conservative, thoughtful, and diligent in serving his constituents."

The support of three of the state's most popular Republicans would be a huge asset for Simpson, not to mention their combined firepower in raising money for a campaign. It will be tough for Legg to compete.

Still, he does have support of one of Pasco's most prominent Republicans. Longtime legislator Mike Fasano, now the Pasco County tax collector, endorsed Legg almost immediately Tuesday.

"Look forward to helping my longtime friend John Legg in the new SD 10 where I had the honor to represent for 10yrs in all 3 Counties," he wrote on Twitter.

The district covers much of Pasco, as well as all of Hernando and Citrus counties. But the race could determine more than just the area's next senator.

Simpson is in line to be Senate president from 2020-2022, the first ever from Pasco County. And while Legg initially said he would not get in the way of Simpson's presidency, he told the Times/Herald Tuesday that he did not want to move adn that there were other districts Simpson could run in. 

Simpson declared that he would not leave his family farm, which he and his father built.

“This is where I live,” Simpson said.

It could also be a last vestige of an ongoing feud between two Republican factions in the Senate, allied with President-designate Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who came up short in the race to lead the chamber next year. Legg is an ardent ally of Latvala, and Simpson is a Negron supporter.

Florida redistricting shuffle: Gwen Margolis to move to seek re-election in new Senate District 38

Miami Democrat Sen. Gwen Margolis said Wednesday that if the Florida Supreme Court approves the final state Senate map, she will be moving from her Coconut Grove home to seek re-election in adjacent District 38, under the court-approved state Senate map. 

Under the plan approved by the trial court, Margolis is paired in District 37 with Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, while it follows the boundaries of the City of Miami, it is now nearly evenly divided politically.  District 38 runs from Miami Beach to Aventura.
Margolis, 81, was first elected to the Legislature in 1981 and served for 12 years, including serving as the first woman Senate president in 1990. She was elected again to the Senate in 2010 and re-elected under the current redistricting map in 2012.
"She looks forward to continuing to meet with her constituents and voters who have long supported her as their state senator,” said Christian Ulvert, Margolis' campaign advisor. 

January 05, 2016

Sitting Miami-Dade senators pitted against each other in November election -- unless 2 move


When Circuit Judge George Reynolds approved a new state senate map last week, lawmakers’ political careers were suddenly thrown into flux. Much of that chaos hit in the middle of Miami-Dade County, where two pairs of sitting senators found themselves living in districts together.

It poses a tough choice: Move, perhaps to a more politically friendly district, or face another well established incumbent in the November election.

Two Miami-Dade lawmakers were much luckier. Sens. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, will run for reelection in very similar districts to those they represent now. However, because of random district numbers drawn Tuesday and the Senate’s staggered terms, both will face term limits two years earlier than they would have under the previous plan.

Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Sens. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, who were both drawn into District 40 near Kendall.

Most of Bullard’s current district lies to the south and west, stretching down to the Keys and in the expanses of western Miami-Dade County. Either could be a good place for Bullard — a household name in the area after his mother, Larcenia Bullard, spent 20 years in the Legislature — to run. Both districts voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

But District 40 is heavily Hispanic, and that could offer an in for Flores.

Bullard said Tuesday that he hasn’t yet decided where he will run. He hopes “diplomacy” can be used to avert a full-on collision with Flores.

“Flores needs to decide what is better suited for her,” he said.

If Flores moves, it’d only be for a two-year stint before she would face term limits. But she is close with Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the next Senate president, and is a likely pick for a top spot in the chamber’s leadership.

On the county’s Atlantic coast, it’s likely a showdown between Sens. Gwen Margolis, D-Coconut Grove, and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, could be averted by a convenient move.

The map approved by Reynolds put both senators in District 37, the area around the city of Miami. It’s territory Diaz de la Portilla and his relatives have won for years, but it also favors Democrats during presidential elections.

But just to the north lies District 38, stretching from Miami Beach to Aventura, a lock for virtually any Democrat and especially for Margolis, who has represented the region for decades.

Would she move, though, for just two years in office? Margolis didn’t return Times/Herald calls for comment.

Still, it sounds like she might. Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, plans to run for that seat as soon as Margolis is done in the Legislature. And he doesn’t plan on running in 2016.

“The senator has told me she is going to run for reelection in that seat, that she is moving from Coconut Grove and she is going to move up into the district,” he said.

Tampa Bay area state senators on collision course for GOP primary because of new redistricting maps


State Sen. Wilton Simpson is not moving under any circumstances, saying suggestions he might move to a new district to avoid facing another incumbent and preserve his status as a future Senate leader “nonsense.”

Simpson, R-Trilby, said he will run for re-election in a the new district where his present home and farm is located, but which also includes the home of Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, who also plans to seek re-election. Legg said he's running for re-election and suggested Simpson could move south into a different district to avoid a primary fight that has been made possible because of the latest turn in the state’s years long redistricting saga.

"I've raised my family here," Simpson said. "I've spent a lof of my life here. My intention is to run where my seat has been drawn. This is a good seat."

A state court adopted new redistricting maps last week that put Legg and Simpson into the same district. On Tuesday, the Legislature assigned district numbers to the 40 districts adopted by the court, putting Simpson and Legg into what is the new 10th District. That district will include all of Citrus and Hernando counties, plus most of central and northeastern Pasco County.

A Simpson-Legg Republican primary battle could have a lot more riding on it than just who represents Trinity, Land O’Lakes and Trilby. Simpson is in line to become the Florida Senate President in 2021 - marking potentially the first time ever Pasco County would have a resident in that powerful position. But if Legg were to defeat Simpson in a primary, that possibility would be over.

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Purely by chance, Florida Senate recasts political landscape for 2016

The Florida Senate on Tuesday renumbered all 40 of its districts to comply with a judge's order, and in doing so keeps alive the goal of a Pasco senator, Republican Wilton Simpson, to be Senate president in 2020.

But the wealthy egg farmer's path to the the presidency got a lot more complicated. He'll have to either face a fellow GOP senator, John Legg, or move south and build a new political base in parts of two other counties.

The Senate called on the staff of the state auditor general's office to randomly sort the 40 districts into two groups of 20 even-numbered and 20 odd-numbered districts. The districts had been given temporary numbers on a map approved by Circuit Judge George Reynolds III that had been drawn by the League of Women Voters. Senate staff members then assigned new numbers to all 40 districts, and those are the numbers that will be used until the 2022 redistricting.

Purely by chance, the last of the 20 even-numbered districts given an even number was tentatively numbered District 18, which was renumbered as District 10 and could play an important role in Tampa Bay politics.

Legg, R-New Port Richey and a popular fixture in Pasco politics, immediately said he would run for the new District 10, which includes parts of Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

"It's kind of my old stomping grounds, where I grew up," Legg said.

Simpson would have to run against Legg in that district or move to the new District 20, which includes portions of Pasco, Hillsborough and Polk counties.

-- With reporting by Jeremy Wallace, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

December 31, 2015

Miami Republican to court donors at Monday's Heat game


State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, plans to host a fundraiser for an upcoming state Senate run during Monday's Miami Heat game at American Airlines Arena.

According to an email invitation to the event, Fresen is hosting a suite during the game against the Indiana Pacers with entrance costing $5,000 for one ticket or $10,000 for three tickets.  Download Fresen-Heat Game

Individual or corporate donations to candidate committees are limited to $1,000, under Florida law. However, Fresen also has a political committee, "Floridians for a Strong 67," where he's raising money as well.

Guests at Fresen's fundraiser are asked to make contributions to "Erik Fresen Campaign."

Fresen started raising money in July toward a 2018 bid for the state Senate seat currently held by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who would ordinarily have been termed out that year from seeking re-election.

But with new Senate districts finalized in a court ruling yesterday, some sitting lawmakers and future Senate contenders are re-evaluating their options. All 40 Senate seats will be on the ballot in 2016, with a lottery deciding which seats will be for initial two-year terms or for four-year terms.

Fresen, chairman of the House education budget committee, cannot run for his House seat again because of term limits. He told the Herald/Times on Thursday that he plans to run for the new District 35 whenever Diaz de la Portilla either is term-limited or chooses not to seek re-election. Fresen and Diaz de la Portilla both live within that new district, as does Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami.

"I would never run against my good friend, Sen. Diaz de la Portilla," Fresen said via text message. "He represents our district very well. I will, however be running for the new District 35 whenever it becomes open and/or he is not running."

With all seats on the ballot next year and depending on the term set for the new District 35, Diaz de la Portilla could pursue another two or four years in office -- scenarios that could affect which election Fresen will target his ongoing fundraising efforts.

December 04, 2015

Senate budget panel preparing alternative ways to boost dollars for K-12 education

Don gaetz


The chairman in charge of crafting the Senate's education budget proposal signaled again Thursday that Florida Gov. Rick Scott's plan to increase K-12 education dollars primarily off the checkbooks of local taxpayers isn't going to fly.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is preparing his fellow senators to consider other options including ones that would require a greater share of state support -- something that's not likely to be met well by Scott, who's also seeking a $1 billion tax cut in 2016-17.

The initial presentation by Gaetz came as no surprise. The former school board member and elected school superintendent in Okaloosa County has been critical of Scott's intentions dating back to September, when Department of Education officials first broached the idea with their legislative funding request.

Scott's proposed budget, released last week, goes farther than that original ask. As one of his core priorities, along with the tax cuts, Scott aims to boost funding for K-12 schools by more than $500 million.

But only $80 million of that is extra state dollars, while $427.3 million -- or 85 percent -- would come out of property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay, revenue that’s increasing thanks to rebounding property values.

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December 03, 2015

Florida Senate could consider stand-your-ground changes in January


Proposed changes that strengthen Florida's “stand your ground” law are headed to the full Florida Senate in January, after passing a third and final committee hearing Thursday.

But the new version of Senate Bill 344, which was endorsed unanimously by the Senate Rules Committee, is more tempered than previous drafts due to a sweeping amendment offered by chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

The compromise is intended to make the proposal more palatable to critics. Gun-rights advocates -- such as the National Rifle Association and Florida Carry -- said they "can live with" the changes but preferred the original version, which offered defendants even greater protection from prosecution.

The bill filed by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, shifted the burden of proof in a preliminary hearing to prosecutors, requiring them to show "beyond a reasonable doubt" why a defendant is not entitled to a stand-your-ground defense.

The revised bill keeps that shift but requires prosecutors to prove only "clear and convincing evidence" -- a lower threshold.

"There are reasons a prosecutor shouldn’t have to bear the burden beyond all reasonable doubt in a preliminary hearing because there are unforeseen and complicated circumstances of doing that," Simmons said, citing double-jeopardy implications as one example.

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