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After 10-month wait, Scott looks poised to name lieutenant governor

Monday, January 13th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott plans a ‘major announcement tomorrow’ with all signs pointing to his naming a new lieutenant governor.

Scott said he will unveil his choice via Facebook. But he also has scheduled a Department of Children & Families budget event in Miami — home to Miami-Dade Property Appraiser Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a former state House member seen as a likely choice.

Scott’s office posted the comment “Be the first to know who the lieutenant governor will be” on his official Facebook page Monday evening. The Florida Republican Party quickly tweeted a link to the page.

Lopez-Cantera, 40, became property appraiser last year after serving eight years in the state House, the last two years as majority leader. Born in Spain, Lopez-Cantera initially rose in influence in the House under former Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami,  now a U.S. senator.

While touted by Miami-Dade Republican activists as a Scott running mate, Lopez-Cantera remained for months out of favor with Scott’s chief-of-staff, Adam Hollingsworth, who also was angling for the lieutenant governor’s job.

But Hollingsworth’s star has dimmed since he acknowledged last month having falsely claimed a college degree while working for a former employer.

Besides, having an Hispanic as his running mate  could help Scott with a powerful voting bloc that so far seems cool to the Republican governor. A Quinnipiac University poll in November showed Scott trailing Democrat Charlie Crist, the former Republican governor, by 7 percentage points among all voters — but down 15 percentage points to Crist among Hispanic voters.

Scott’s first lieutenant governor, Jennifer Carroll, was the first black to serve in that role. But she was forced out of the administration last March for having earlier worked as a consultant to a charity operating internet cafes criminally accused of skimming cash. The Legislature soon after outlawed internet cafes and many of the leading figures in the investigation have been convicted or pleaded guilty to running a wide-ranging criminal enterprise.

Since then, a host of possible replacements have been mentioned — some by the governor’s office, which acknowledged having prepared a short-list. Still, many of those cited by the governor’s office quickly took themselves out of the running.

Among them were Orange County schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins, St. Johns County schools Superintendent Joseph Joyner and Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger. Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman have been interviewed by the governor’s representatives, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, also loomed last fall as a possible lieutenant governor choice.

Scott, though, showed few signs of being hurried with his choice. Last week, Tallahassee Democratic activist Barbara DeVane filed a lawsuit in the Florida Supreme Court maintaining that Scott is breaking state law by not having a lieutenant governor.

For his part, Lopez-Cantera has been a Scott loyalist, even in a Florida House that at times has tussled with the governor and his priorities. After a rough start with lawmakers, Scott by his second year in office won praised from Lopez-Cantera in 2012 for his tax-cut plans and his leadership.

“It’s not too much, not too little. I think it’s just right. Like The Three Bears,” Lopez-Cantera told the Palm Beach Post. “His influence and presence is just right.”

 

Gardiner elected next leader of turbulent Fla Senate

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Orlando Sen. Andy Gardiner was elected Senate President-designate Tuesday by his fellow Republicans, positioning him to lead the chamber for two years following the 2014 elections.

Gardiner, elected to the Senate in 2008, after eight years in the Florida House, would succeed current Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who will oversee his second and final regular session of the Legislature next spring.

But a still-smoldering leadership fight makes the Florida Senate a combustible place. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, are in a bitter clash for the top spot after Gardiner.

Gardiner sought to downplay the possibility of leading a sharply divided Senate.

“This is probably one of the greatest groups of senators that’s ever been put together,” Gardiner said. “Our caucus and the Democratic caucus, we thoroughly enjoy spending time together. When we say there’s a family atmosphere, in my opinion, there really is.”

But when asked by reporters about the “family feud,” Gardiner headed toward the exit.

The outcome of that fight, Gardiner said, “will be determined by the caucus at a later date. Not today.”

Swift action in Senate on storefront gaming center ban

Monday, March 18th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Florida Senate is moving quickly on a ban on storefronts gaming centers in the aftermath of a multi-state sting that led to nearly 60 arrests and prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign as lieutenant governor last week.

The Senate Gaming Committee unanimously approved the ban despite protests of owners and workers at adult arcades and Internet cafes and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, who said the measure (SB 1030) casts too wide a net. Several veterans groups and other charities said the measure would also impact their businesses.

Palm Beach County storefronts that serve mainly senior citizens who play games that look like slot machines would be shuttered under the measure that would ban stand-alone businesses (with some exceptions) that run gambling operations and prohibit them from giving out gift cards or accumulating points. Sachs said she intends to try to remove the prohibitions on gift cards or accumulation of points.

Lawmakers aren’t going after “legitimate business models” like Chuck E. Cheese or Dave and Busters, Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said.

“We are attempting to close down illegitmate businesses that operate and sound like a gambling operation. If it’s a duck, we’re calling it a duck. They are illegal,” he said.

But Gale Fontaine, the head of the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association who owns senior arcades in Broward County, said her strip mall sites are operating under a section of Florida law. Fontaine was acquitted several years ago of charges of running an illegal gambling operation.

“We are not a gaming center,” Fontaine told the panel. “We are the same as a children’s arcade only our children are 80 or 90 years old.”

The arcade operators, who operate under a different section of law than Internet cafes but would be treated the same under both the House and Senate plans, asked lawmakers to impose more regulations instead of shutting them down.

But the bill sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he believes the games are illegal.

“This is about gambling. It’s about a loophole that has been created due to incredibly new technology that frankly has outpaced the will of this Legislature to do something about it,” Thrasher said. “It’s not about regulation. It’s about a policy decision It’s about closing loopholes perceived or otherwise that have been used to create…illegal gambling.”

The measure could go to the floor for a full vote within one week, the bill’s sponsor, Thrasher said. The House version passed its first committee on Friday and is expected to get a floor vote as early as Thursday.

Sting that led to Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resignation fuels push for Internet cafe ban

Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 by Dara Kam

A federal gambling probe that led to the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll last night may fuel support for a ban on the “casinos on the corner” after lawmakers have for years refused to act.

Carroll stepped down amid fallout from the investigation by the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service and other Florida law enforcement agencies into Allied Veterans of the World, a non-profit organization that operates dozens of internet cafes in Florida.

Allegations against Allied Veterans include money laundering, siphoning from a nonprofit for personal gain and misrepresenting the amount donated to charities. The IRS obtained search warrants to pursue the case from a federal judge in Oklahoma City.

Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican who called Carroll a long-time friend, said he intends to use the corruption probe to push for a ban on the Internet cafes. Thrasher, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, has sponsored a measure that would place a moratorium on the cafes, but said this morning he wants the Legislature to move faster and go farther.

“Now I believe that the evidence has come out that indicates these things are exactly what we thought they were. They’ve been corrupted. There’s a problem with them. Counties and cities are having problems. Law enforcement people are having problems,” Thrasher told reporters.

Eight lobbyists who represent International Internet Technologies before the legisalture and governor’s office also withdrew their registration on Wednesday. IIT is a software company that is part of the investigation of Allied Veterans of the World. Lobbyist Sarah Bascom told The Palm Beach Post they had been “misled” by IIT.

Palm Beach County banned new Internet cafes from opening in unincorporated areas last year, and the West Palm Beach city commission moved forward with a moratorium this week. More than 1,000 of the cafes have popped up throughout the state. Cafe customers purchase Internet time, which they can use to browse the Web or play free “sweepstakes” games, in which computer credit or time is won. Those credits can be redeemed for cash.

Thrasher said Volusia County Ben Johnson, who will participate in a multi-law enforcement agency news conference regarding the sting later today, told him that officials had confiscated $50 million from Allied Veterans of the World and affiliated Internet cafes.

“These things are skimming things off. They’re not doing what they’re suggested to do. It’s a system where they have to go and justify their existence and I don’t think they can do that,” Thrasher said.

Thrasher refused to speculate about a possible replacement for Carroll but said her resignation may help Scott in his reelection bid.

“The governor now has to pick, frankly, somebody that he believes can help him in the campaign. So I think it will be a benefit to him, frankly, down the road,” he said.

Scott’s budget gets another gentle review — this time from Senate

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

A day after the House budget committee gave Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $74.2 billion state spending plan a mostly gentle review, its Senate counterpart followed suit Wednesday — although a few stylistic differences emerged.

Senators seemed more concerned than the House about the state maintaining fat reserve funds — a particular focus of Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, also extracted an acknowledgement from Scott budget director Jerry McDaniel that the Legislature could move forward with a funding boost for Florida State University similar to the $15 million extra the governor wants for University of Florida to help it achieve top 1o ranking by academic reviewers.

McDaniel also pledged that Scott’s plan for $2,500 pay increases for teachers would not interfere with local collective bargaining agreements between union representatives and county school boards.

Several counties have reached deals that require raises to be based on performance standards — which may affect how counties dole out the pay hikes sought by Scott.

“We recognize that some teachers may get $4,000; some may get $1,000,” McDaniel said.

Otherwise, the Senate panel followed a course similar to that cut Tuesday by the House budget panel. Democrats’ questions pivoted mostly on school funding and why Scott was not endorsing the Medicaid expansion authorized under the Affordable Care Act.

“We believe we have too many questions than answers,” McDaniel said, echoing comments he made a day earlier.

But McDaniel may have given some hope to health care advocates who have been looking for signs that Scott’s resistence is waning.

“He does not yet propose expansion,” McDaniel told the committee.

Kinder, gentler GOP in FL?

Saturday, January 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida Republicans want to get back to basics after losing the presidential race, four congressional seats and super-majorities in both the state House and the state Senate in November.

And, mirroring national Republicans’ post-election introspection, Florida GOP leaders say they need to change their tone to broaden their appeal.

“It’s got to reinvent itself,” said Tom Slade, said of the Republican Party of Florida, which he chaired for three consecutive terms until 2000 and ushered in an era of GOP dominance.
Elected officials, state party staff and consultants repeatedly point back to Republican icon Ronald Reagan even as they look forward to instituting high-tech methods to spread the message of a softer, gentler GOP.

For some — including Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry — that means moving away from hot-button social issues such as abortion and refocusing on the principles of lower taxes and smaller government that earned broad support in a state where voters are almost evenly split between the parties.

“The Republican Party I grew up in is the party of Reagan. That was, ‘it’s morning in America, the shining city on the hill.’ It’s about optimism and it’s about hope. And for whatever reason, we have allowed folks that maybe aren’t even our party to poison the well. And somehow we’ve gotten this reputation that we’re ‘the party of ‘no,’ and that’s just not true,” Curry said. “That’s just not the party that I fell in love with.”

Read the rest of the story here.

Senate bids Haridopolos adieu

Thursday, March 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate gave President Mike Haridopolos a country club membership and heartfelt, bipartisan and lengthy send-off before the unveiling of his portrait, marking the end of the Merritt Island Republican’s two-year tenure at the podium and his 12-year legislative career.

“I’ll miss being in the arena,” Haridopolos, accompanied by his wife Stephanie, children and parents, said. “I’ll miss some of you. But I’ll love being home and I think you can all understand why.”

Haridopolos’s colleagues heaped praise on Haridopolos for two hours, including a “tribute video” starring GOP icons Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, under whom Haridopolos served when Rubio was Florida House Speaker.

Haridopolos acknowledged his tenure has been at times contentious, including a blow-up a year ago on the final night of the legislative session.

“I know I agitated some. Too bad,” he said.

And Haridopolos, who was responsible for the creation of the state’s Innocence Commission now examining ways to preventing people from being wrongly incarcerated, spoke of two of his priority issues: getting compensation for William Dillon, who spent 27 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, and Eric Brody, a Broward County man left severely disabled more than a decade ago after a sheriff’s deputy crashed into him.

He failed to accomplish those goals last year, but launched a semblable effort this session. Gov. Rick Scott, who also attended part of the farewell, last week signed into law the $1.35 million restitution for Dillon. But with one day left until the session is scheduled to end, the two chambers have yet to agree on compensation for Brody.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker and former House Speaker, lauded Haridopolos for being unafraid to bring up controversial issues – including a parent trigger bill up for a vote on the final day of session – during the last days of the session that ends tomorrow.

“It’s not about that kind of stuff with Mike Haridopolos. It’s about ideas. It’s about challenging the status quo. It’s about shaking things up and giving this body the opportunity to look at those very, very tough issues and make a decision,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “And that you have been a champion.
Don’t ever leave thinking that wins and losses is what this is about. It’s not about that. You, you are a winner in the highest sense of the word.”

Session likely to end on a sour note – again

Tuesday, March 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A testy Senate Special Order Committee meeting over a controversial “parent trigger” measure late Tuesday night set the stage for what will likely be an ugly end to the legislative session for the second year in a row.

But in a departure from the more typical animosity between the House and Senate, Senators can expect intra-cameral hard feelings before Friday’s sine die.

Intense bipartisan wrangling over the parent trigger measure peaked Tuesday night when Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, and Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich tried to remove the proposal (SB 1718) from a list of more than 50 measures being sent to the floor on special order on Thursday.

But committee chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, backed up by Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner and Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, refused to grant the pair the option of voting solely against the “Parent Empowerment” measure, which they both oppose.

Near the end of the meeting, Lynn repeatedly tried to ask Thrasher to allow her to vote no on the bill. An increasingly angry Thrasher finally cut Lynn off and, speaking over her, ordered the vote on the entire package, which passed by an unusual 4-3 vote, setting the “special order” calendar for Thursday. Lynn, Rich and Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, rejected the entire list rather than sign off on the parent trigger bill.

Lynn called the block vote a “political maneuver” that was “inappropriate and incorrect.”

But Gardiner, R-Orlando, chimed in, reminding Lynn that it was a procedural maneuver on the part of a bipartisan coalition led by Rich and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, that kept the measure from being withdrawn from a committee and sent to the Senate floor and instead required a special – and very rare – Saturday morning budget meeting to move the bill along. (Thrasher and Gardiner are an odd coalition, considering they are locked in a fight over the 2014-2016 Senate presidency.)

Gaetz, R-Niceville, agreed, accusing the bipartisan group of an “effort to stymie the process so the bill could not get to the floor.”

(more…)

Anti-abortion measure likely off the table this session

Monday, March 5th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate Republican leaders are predicting an anti-abortion measure will not get a floor vote after a bipartisan coalition blocked its withdrawal from a committee Monday afternoon.

The Florida House had already signed off on the measure (HB 277) and added controversial “fetal pain” language requiring abortion providers to inform patients that fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks, something critics call “junk science” because it is under dispute.

With four days left until the session ends, Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher called the bill dead after the 23-16 vote to remove it from the Senate Budget committee, which required a two-thirds majority, or 26 votes, to pass. It is unlikely the procedure will be invoked again, Thrasher said.

“I don’t think so. That’s was a pretty definitive vote,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said.

Lawmakers last year approved five anti-abortion measures, and moderates are not prepared to go to the board again, Rich said. The proposal would impose tough regulations on abortion clinics, impose a 24-hour waiting period before a woman can get the procedure in a state that abortion providers say already has the most restrictive laws on the books.

“We’re tired of focusing on right-wing social issues like abortion. We did more than enough last year to curtail women’s reproductive rights,” Rich, D-Weston, said.

The bill’s sponsor Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she was disappointed that the chamber won’t debate the issue on the floor.

But Rich said it might be better for Republicans to avoid drawing attention to abortion, tied up in a national firestorm over Planned Parenthood, contraception and government funding.

“If the Republicans thought about it, they would realize that not having this raw debate on the floor actually will help them,” Rich said. “Because any time we’re going to have this type of discussion now, in light of what’s happening with contraceptives and Rush Limbaugh and all that’s going on in this country, the polls are beginning to show that’s hurting the people who are trying to reduce women’s reproductive rights.”

‘Parent trigger’ bill triggers passion, procedural maneuvering

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

A controversial “parent trigger” bill backed by powerful GOP leaders and education reform icon Jeb Bush is headed to the Senate floor for a vote in the final week of the legislative session over the objections of the measure’s critics over the way it is being handled.

The Senate Budget Committee signed off on the bill (SB 1718), already passed by the Florida House, largely along partisan lines with a single Republican – Sen. Evelyn Lynn of Ormond Beach – joining Democrats in opposition.

Lynn and Democrats on the committee complained that GOP leaders were railroading the bill after Democrats and a cadre of Republicans led by Jack Latvala blocked the it from being yanked from the committee and sped to the Senate floor. Read about the Latvala-Thrasher leadership struggle – leaving its imprint on the final days of the legislative session – here, here and here.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St.Augustine, set two hours for the rare Saturday morning meeting to hear the bill. No one objected then, but that was before another measure was added to the agenda, eating up nearly 45 minutes this morning.

After Thrasher ordered a 9:59 “time certain” vote on the bill, the grumbling began.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, a former Senate president, asked that the time be extended to hear from audience members. The “Parent Empowerment” legislation is being pushed in 20 states by the Los Angeles-based “Parent Revolution” organization but is opposed in Florida by a coalition of parent-led groups including the PTA.

Thrasher said that was impossible because Senate rules prevented the meeting from being extended except on the Senate floor.

The irascible Lynn piped up, reminding Thrasher, a former House speaker close to Bush, of a questionable 4-3 committee vote she intended to challenge because she believed the vote came after another “time certain” vote by the Senate Education Committee this week. She did not fight the vote, and Thrasher ruled that it was legit.

This morning’s vote came after heated debate and after less than five minutes of public testimony during which a parent from Gainesville voiced her opposition.

After the votes were cast and he adjourned the meeting, Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, allowed members of the audience to continue the dialogue.

Shirley Ford, a Los Angeles parent and one of the founders of Parent Revolution who still works for the group, told the panel why Florida needs the process, approved in California by voters two years ago.

Lynn didn’t buy it. She pointed out that Florida has a variety of measures to help turn around failing schools, including vouchers that allow students to attend any school their parents choose. And, she said, Florida just last year launched a sweeping education reform that among other things did away with teacher tenure. It’s too early to know what the impact of those changes will have on low-performing schools, she argued.

In addition, the state Board of Education this week approved a new school grading system that will nearly triple the number of failing schools.

“For somebody from California to come here and tell us what we should be doing is a laugh and a half,” Lynn said after the meeting.

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich and her caucus will hold a press conference Monday morning before the floor session begins to voice their objections to the proposal, also opposed by the state teachers’ union.

Senate budget committee to meet Saturday morning for ‘parent trigger’ bill

Friday, March 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Unable to withdraw a controversial ‘parent trigger’ bill approved by the Florida House yesterday, Senate GOP leaders instead scheduled an early-morning meeting Saturday to hear the measure, supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush and Senate President Mike Haridopolos.

The “Parent Empowerment” (SB 1718, HB 1191) would allow parents to determine the fate of troubled schools and convert them into charter schools or turn them over to private management companies. Parents could even reject school boards’ recommendations for low-performing turnarounds.

A coalition of parent groups, including the Florida PTA, oppose the measure, saying it makes parents at low-performing schools vulnerable to lobbying by for-profit charter schools and management companies.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, was involved in a dispute in a Senate committee earlier this week. Critics of the proposal said a 4-3 vote on the bill came after the “time certain” ordered by Senate Education Appropriations Committee Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

But Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican close to Bush, approved the vote and tried to withdraw the bill from the budget committee, which was supposed to hold its final meeting this afternoon.

Removing the bill from a committee and sending it to the floor requires a two-thirds majority vote. Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich objected, D-Weston, objected and asked for a vote. Democrats joined with a group of Republicans led by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, to kill the withdrawal with a 20-19 vote.

That prompted Thrasher to announce an unusual, 8 a.m. Saturday morning Budget Committee meeting to take up the bill.

“I think it’s important to a lot of members that we have a hearing on it,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said after the session ended shortly after noon.

Latvala said he had concerns about the measure’s fiscal impact because, with new grading formula approved by the state Board of Education this week, many more schools may be deemed failing and be eligible for the parent takeovers and become targets of the for-profit charter school industry.

“It’s going to be like union-organizing with petition cards, going to parents and getting them to sign,” the perspicacious Latvala said. “I know how the political process works and they can go out and get signatures. Then they can just add to their empires. I think it needs to be carefully looked at…It’s within our rights to require it to go through all the committees that it’s assigned to.”

But Thrasher – Latvala’s nemesis in a Senate leadership struggle – defended the measure.

“Look, parents want their kids to have a good education. And some people have a different view of where that should take place or how it should take place. And I don’t fault them for that. Any more than I fault folks who believe passionately in the public school system,” he said.

Gardiner: I’m it in ’14. Thrasher: It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

A GOP leadership pact that emerged after three days of closed-door wheeling, dealing and cajoling proves that politics makes strange bedfellows.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner – a die-hard conservative and anti-abortion stalwart – and veteran lawmaker Jack Latvala – a veteran lawmaker and campaign consultant far to Gardiner’s left on social issues – joined forces in a presidency pact preserving Gardiner’s 2014-16 presidency.

Latvala allegedly abandoned his challenge against Gardiner and instead agreed to take the gavel after Gardiner’s term ends.

Latvala and a coalition of moderates and conservatives helped Gardiner beat back a presidency challenge by former House Speaker John Thrasher and Stuart’s Joe Negron, who tried to usurp the throne from their opponents on Wednesday.

Negotiations dragged on over three days, and on Thursday the leadership battle played out in the Senate chambers as the members debated the state’s proposed $70.7 billion budget.

At the end of the day, a weary Gardiner told reporters he had secured the pledges to assume the helm after Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz is in line to take over after current Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ tenure ends after the November elections, in which a dozen new senators will enter the chamber. Eight term-limited Republicans are leaving, and another is running for Congress.

“There’s been a lot of speculation. I am confirming that I have enough signatures of the sitting members and the returning members for the Senate presidency in ‘14. It’s extremely, extremely humbling,” Gardiner said.

Gardiner denied that he and Latvala had struck a deal – “I can assure you there were no deals” – but said his former foe is a candidate for the 2016 presidency.

But Thrasher, rushing to leave the Senate after the session ended near 7:30 to attend a Florida State University basketball game, insisted the political game was still afoot.

He said the discussions about the future presidencies will continue throughout the summer as he tries to get more conservatives elected.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Thrasher, who had hoped to become the second lawmaker to serve as leader of both chambers.

And the elder statesman needled Gardiner without naming him.

“It’s something I’m not going to discuss in the press. I think anybody else who does…that’s their choice,” Thrasher went on.

But he did say the race is not yet over.

“I don’t think anybody has pledges until the day they get designated. In a year like this, when we have a big summer with a lot of elections, a lot of things can change,” Thrasher said.

But in what could be a blow to the Treasure Coast, Negron’s probable future as powerful budget chief under Gaetz is now in question.

Negron is clearly in Thrasher’s corner, at least for now.
“All of us who want the opportunity to serve in any leadership capacity, will support candidates that share our political perspective,” he said.

One-time foes Latvala – a portly, hot-headed, political powerhouse – and Gardiner – a soft-spoken, laid-back, triathlete – put an end to speculation about their challenge, at least temporarily.

But the unlikely union raises questions about which direction the Senate will take, after Haridopolos crowed that he had successfully moved the chamber farther to the right.

Roping in moderates seems an unlikely maneuver for Gardiner, an Orlando hospital executive.

And holding hands with conservative’s conservative seems an odd strategy for Latvala, a Clearwater political consultant who made his fortune in the direct-mail business.

But politics makes strange bedfellows.

Senate president-designate Gaetz’s time at the podium in question?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz anticipated time with the gavel may be in question after a leadership coup staged by Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker who also served as head of the state GOP, failed yesterday.

Gaetz said he played a “very, very limited” role in the still-unraveling presidency power play in which Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, tried to strip Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner of his expected ascendency to the throne in two years. Thrasher was joined in his effort by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who is angling to take over in 2016.

Gaetz told reporters this evening that who will follow in Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ footsteps will be determined after the November elections. Eleven senators – including eight Republicans – are leaving the chamber this year because of term limits.

“I’ve been designated as the next Senate president. Depending on the results of the 2012 election, the Republicans may or may not control the Senate. At that time, the Senate as a whole will elect its next president. I will be a candidate,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said. It’s virtually impossible that Republicans won’t control the chamber with their 28-12 lead majority, but the outcome of the elections could very well impact his future.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is challenging Gardiner, R-Orlando, for the 2015-2016 presidency. Latvala supporters joined with Gardiner backers yesterday to prevent Thrasher, a veteran lawmaker, from replacing Gardiner in that battle.

The machinations turned sour for many in the GOP caucus, especially on the heels of intense pressure from Haridopolos and his lieutenants who failed to contain a GOP uprising against a prison privatization bill.

“Members on both sides rose up in support of Andy because of outrage over how this was handled,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said, without adding who she’s supporting.

Many in the fractured GOP caucus hope the drama will be resolved before the session ends in two weeks. But the Senate palace intrigue will likely play out for some time with shrewd tacticians Thrasher and Latvala pulling strings.

And the disarray could bring Democrats into play. A bipartisan coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans joined forces in 1986 to unseat Sen. Ken Jenne, a liberal Hollywood Democrat who was replaced by more conservative Democrat Jon Vogt of Cocoa Beach.

Senate panel OK’s new limits on lawmakers working for universities

Monday, January 23rd, 2012 by John Kennedy

In the latest swipe by public officials at the state higher education system, a Senate panel Monday narrowly approved a measure to bar legislators from working for Florida colleges or universities while in office — and for as much as two years after they leave office.

The legislation (SB 1560) was approved in a 7-5 vote by the Ethics and Elections subcommittee. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, has joined Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and other lawmakers who have been turning up the heat on Florida schools for how they spend their money.

Thrasher said having lawmakers on the payroll of colleges and universities has the “perception” of a conflict-of-interest, especially when they vote on legislation or budget matters that effect a school that employs them.

“It’s been the subject of a lot of concern,” Thrasher said. “It’s something that needs to have this conversation.”

Several House and Senate members work for colleges and universities — the most prominent being Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, an instructor at the University of Florida. But Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, was among several lawmakers who questioned how far Thrasher wanted to go in restricting legislators’ outside employment.

“I have a real problem with this bill,” Detert said.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said, “I believe this is discrimination against a whole class of people. What’s next?”

Colleges and universities have been under the microscope since last summer, when Scott first started questioning whether schools were putting enough focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs, saying such STEM disciplines were the key to building a future workforce. Scott also posted online the salaries of State University System employees.

Lawmakers currently employed by colleges or universities would be allowed to retain their jobs, under the bill. But it would clearly affect those who might be angling for work once they leave office.

Defending his call for the measure, Thrasher cited a 2010 statewide grand jury report which questioned the scope of the state’s current ethics’ laws, and suggested ways to toughen them.

 

Gingrich picks up future Senate President’s support, Romney backers say Perry departure no biggie

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Rick Perry’s departure from the GOP presidential race is almost certain to help Newt Gingrich in the Sunshine State’s upcoming primary as many of Perry’s conservative supporters – including the next Florida Senate president – defect to the former Speaker of the House.

But how much that matters depends on how well Gingrich, distrusted by many tea party activists, performs in South Carolina this weekend, Republican legislative leaders say.

Senate President-Designate Don Gaetz, a Perry backer, said he’s leaning towards Gingrich, not because the Texas governor has endorsed his former opponent, but because he, like many others, believes Gingrich would handily outshine President Obama in debates.

“I’ve respected Newt Gingrich for years,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville. Gaetz said he’s read Gingrich’s books and met with the historian on several occasions, “more than just casually.”

But, he said, “I’m happy with either Romney or Gingrich but I’m leaning toward Gingrich,” although “I can support Romney and support him with enthusiasm.”

Gingrich’s performance in South Carolina will influence how relevant Florida will be in determining the Republican candidate, some political insiders, including Gaetz, say.

The outcome of Florida’s winner-take-all-delegates primary could whittle the race down to contest between Romney and Gingrich or crown Romney as the all-but-inevitable nominee.

“It’s important for Florida to be relevant. So for parochial reasons, I hope that the contest goes on through the end of January at least because I want Florida to be important in selecting the Republican nominee,” Gaetz said. “So Gingrich would have to do well in South Carolina to keep hope alive among those who are unsatisfied with Romney.”

Perry dropping out of the race may have little impact on Florida voters, said Sen. John Thrasher, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida and Mitt Romney supporter.

“I don’t think it makes a lot of difference. I think Newt’s where he is. I think Gov. Romney’s where he is. Most people still believe Gov. Romney’s the best choice, particularly in Florida. He’s got an incredible organization. He’s got a lot of troops on the ground all over the state. I think he’s got the resources to really put forth his message by Jan. 31,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said.

Perry made the right decision, Gaetz said.

“There comes a point when you look around and you realize that it’s hopeless. And I think that Gov. Perry has gotten to that point,” he said.

Haridopolos fast-tracks privatization bills

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos has fast-tracked two privatization bills, referring them to a single committee before they head to the floor for a full vote.

Haridopolos sent the bills to the Rules Committee that yesterday agreed to allow the measures to get a full vetting.

One of the measures (SB 2038) resurrects a prison privatization plan shot down by a Tallahassee judge last year because of the manner in which lawmakers ordered the outsourcing of the 18-county region of southern Florida’s corrections operations.

The other proposal (SB 2036) deals with Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford’s ruling in the prison privatization case. Under that bill, lawmakers would be able to privatize any state functions by including the outsourcing in the budget state and without having public input until after the deals are done.

Although the privatization effort was not heard in any committees last year, the budget committee debated the proposal after it appeared one of the spending bills, Thrasher pointed out. He said he’s scheduled his next meeting, when the bills will be heard, to run for nearly four hours.

“It will get a full hearing,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “We will take those bills up first and we will take whatever time is necessary.”

Lawmakers have not, however, before taken time to debate the measure giving them the ability to include privatization directly in the budget.

“Because we hadn’t had the court decision. Now we’ve got the court decision,” Thrasher said.

Senate looks to maintain minority districts as map-making advances

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Maintaining the current number of districts electing black and Hispanic lawmakers to the House, Senate and Congress from Florida was named the top priority Tuesday of the Senate’s Reapportionment Committee, a potentially powerful political and legal stance which could blunt Democratic efforts to regain seats.

Backing a motion by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former Florida Republican Party chairman, the GOP-dominated panel agreed to set priorities, or “tiers” as some lawmakers described, as they begin redrawing the state’s political boundaries.

The once-a-decade process has become complicated after voters last fall approved a pair of constitutional amendments which require that lawmakers not work to protect incumbents or party influence when drawing the lines.

Safeguarding seats that have elected black or Hispanic lawmakers, however, has become another story.

The federal Voting Rights Act requires that lawmakers not take steps that could prevent minorities from electing a candidate of their choice. The Reapportionment Committee interpreted that provision Tuesday as urging they start map-drawing by reinstating districts currently held by minority lawmakers.

“Racial protection is clearly paramount,” Thrasher told the committee.

On the tiers outlined by the panel, creation of districts that are compact or respect geographic boudaries — such as city or county lines — are lesser priorities, although they were central parts of the voter-approved amendments.

“Compactness will probably be decided by the courts, because we have no standard definition,” said Committee Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Indeed, there are few definitions guiding redistricting — only past court opinions, beginning with those stemming from the U.S. Supreme Court. But Tuesday’s determination by the committee could prove an influential milepost as lawmakers engage in line-drawing, which is expected to dominate next spring’s legislative session.

The campaign resulting in voter approval of Amendments 5 and 6 last fall was financed by Democratic-leaning organizations, individuals and unions. The new standards are aimed at discouraging the formation of multi-county districts, including those with voting populations roughly 50 percent black, who usually vote Democratic.

Ruling Republicans have helped their own numbers with these minority-access districts, since concentrating Democratic voters often allows the GOP to  win neighboring districts. With the committee agreeing to use current minority districts as the starting-off point for map-building, Republican dominance could endure — even with Democrats holding a 600,000 statewide voter edge.

Democrats on the committee offered little resistence Tuesday. Only Rep. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, challenged the committee’s theme, pointing out that voters in Jacksonville recently elected a black mayor, Alvin Brown, who had support from all corners of the community.

Braynon said voting performance — not just the raw numbers of voting population — is what the committee should consider.

 

Scott, Haridopolos name new chiefs

Friday, June 24th, 2011 by John Kennedy

A shuffle at the highest reaches of state government began Friday, with Gov. Rick Scott naming a veteran legislative insider as his chief-of-staff and Senate President Mike Haridopolos also choosing a well-known Capitol name to manage his office.

As expected, Scott chose Steve MacNamara to succeed retired Army Col. Mike Prendergast as his chief-of-staff, plucking MacNamara from Haridopolos’ office, where he served in a similar capacity. Prendergast, who had been working for the first time in state government, earlier this week was named executive director of Florida’s Veterans’ Affairs Department.

MacNamara, though, brings to the governor’s office a wealth of Capitol experience. With polls showing the governor’s popularity at a stunningly low levels and the state’s economy still sluggish, MacNamara will likely be tasked with initiating policies that help Scott elevate his political game — and support from Floridians.

“My goal is to make Florida the number one state in the country for job creation and I believe Steve MacNamara is the best choice to direct my team in that endeavor,” Scott said.  “His experience and political skill will be an asset to all Floridians as we continue to position Florida as an economic leader.”

MacNamara is a former chief-of-staff to then-House Speaker John Thrasher, and served as an agency head under former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez. He also earlier served as a Senate staffer on redistricting — the once-a-deacade process lawmakers began again this month — and is a tenured professor at Florida State University.

Succeeding MacNamara in Haridopolos’ office is Craig Meyer, another longtime Capitol staffer who, most recently, was director of the Senate’s budget committee as it worked to offset a nearly $3.8 billion budget shortfall.

Scott’s office lost two key players this week, with adviser Mary Anne Carter also announcing she was leaving the administration by the end of June.  It’s uncertain whether Carter’s position will be filled, but other changes could be coming within the executive office and Senate president’s shop.

 

GOP uses session to muscle-up for 2012 elections

Monday, May 2nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

There’s been tough talk. Ignored priorities. Charges of flip-flopping. Even a lawsuit.

But the political marriage of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature may yet end its rocky honeymoon stage with the first-year executive claiming some big victories and the party powerfully positioned for next year’s elections.

And, in the nation’s biggest toss-up state, the sharply right policies advanced by Scott and Republican super majorities in the House and Senate also will give Democrats potent weapons for next year’s campaigns.

“It’s been mean-spirited and an overreach by the Republicans,” said Rich Templin, a spokesman for the Florida AFL-CIO, a labor union allied with Democrats. “I think we’re going to be able to say to voters, ‘Look what they did. Who do you think cares about working families of Florida?’ “

But House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he’s not worried.

“Two-thirds of the legislative branch is Republican so clearly, the people have sent a more Republican group of representatives to their government,” Cannon said. “So I think it’s only natural that you would see initiatives or proposals that will reflect that.”

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Latest pension overhaul shows how political wind has turned against unions

Sunday, April 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The municipal pension rewrite now advancing in the House — and headed to the Senate Budget Committee next week — has a history rooted in Republican politics, having emerged as a payback to unions that supported Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998.

But the political wind in Tallahassee has shifted sharply this spring.

And for Florida’s police and fire unions, one-time allies are now enemies, with the pension overhaul the latest in a series of what labor sees as union-busting moves by the GOP leadership.

“Did we go too far? Yeah, maybe we did,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who as House Speaker in 1999 led the legislation sought by Bush. “But we were pretty flush back then. We can’t afford this now.”

As for Bush, he’s apparently changed, too. In January he and presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich co-authored an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times. In it, the pair urge that states consider declaring bankruptcy to reorganize their troubled finances.

Why do they need to take such a drastic step?

To get out from under sweetheart pension deals for greedy unions, the former deal-maker turned reformer now writes.

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