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Latvala, Republican Senators chip in for Dem commission primary in Palm Beach County

Monday, November 18th, 2013 by George Bennett

McKinlay

The impressive $28,654 that Democratic Palm Beach County commission candidate Melissa McKinlay raised in her first month of campaigning includes a combined $4,000 from state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and five of Latvala’s current or former Republican Senate colleagues.

Latvala

Latvala gave McKinlay $1,500 through two businesses and a political committee. Other Republicans who gave McKinlay $500 through committees or businesses were former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff of Fort Lauderdale and current Sens. Miguel Diaz De La Portilla of Miami, Nancy Detert of Venice, Denise Grimsley of Sebastian and Greg Evers of Okaloosa County.

The Senators are all considered supporters of Latvala’s 2016 bid for the Senate presidency. Latvala couldn’t be reached for comment last week on why he and his network are interested in a local Democratic race in Palm Beach County. But McKinlay-backing Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Atlantis, said the connection doesn’t surprise him. McKinlay is an aide to the county legislative delegation and Clemens said he and Latvala have met with McKinlay to discuss Palm Beach County issues.

Subscribers to MyPalmBeachPost.com can read more about McKinlay’s debut report and the competitive commission District 6 race in this week’s Politics column. Short-term access is available for as little as 99 cents a day.

Ethics complaint filed against Sachs over residency

Friday, June 28th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Sen. Maria Sachs has been hit with an ethics complaint accusing her of lying about where she lives.

Matthew Feiler, a Tamarac resident, filed the complaintcomplaint on Thursday, accusing Sachs, who was elected to the Broward-Palm Beach District 34 seat in November after a brutal election against Republican former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, of falsifying public documents and violating state law requiring that lawmakers live in the districts they represent.

Sachs, whose district office is in Delray Beach, claims she lives in a Fort Lauderdale condo owned by lobbyist pal Judy Stern. But the complaint alleges she actually lives at a $1.5 million estate in Boca Raton owned by the former prosecutor and her husband Peter.

The complaint was filed after a WPLG Miami “Local 10″ investigation by Bob Norman. Private investigators videotaped Sachs arriving at her Boca home and leaving in the morning. The conservative website “Media Trackers” first questioned Sachs’s living arrangements in April.

The dispute about Sach’s living arrangements came up during hearings on Stern’s daughter Barbra’s appointment by Gov. Rick Scott to the state Elections Commission. Barbra Stern is part-owner of the condo Sachs claims is her home.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee signed off on Barbra Stern’s appointment, but only after Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, questioned Stern of Fort Lauderdale — about her ownership interest in the unit. Stern at the time said her mother paid the bills on the unit, that she hadn’t visited the condo for years and she had no idea who lived there.

The Sachs-Bogdanoff battle was one of the most expensive – and ugliest- state Senate races last year. Republicans had hoped to keep Bogdanoff in the Senate in the newly-drawn district, but Sachs’s victory helped Democrats gain two seats in the chamber.

Wednesday’s complaint is Sachs’ latest ethics challenge. The commission found probable cause earlier this month that Sachs failed to properly disclose a Tallahassee condo along with her state legislative income on three years’ worth of financial disclosures. The panel decided not to punish her because she amended the forms.

Senate confirms utility regulator after drawn-out debate

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 by Dara Kam

After more than 30 minutes of at times brutal debate, the Florida Senate reconfirmed Public Service Commissioner Lisa Edgar despite concerns that the regulator sides with utilities more often than consumers.

The Senate voted 26-13 to give Edgar, the longest-serving commissioner on the panel another four years on the panel that oversees utilities and approves utility rates.

Edgar was first appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2005 and reappointed by Govs. Charlie Crist and Rick Scott.

But Edgar’s votes in favor of utility rate hikes, a personal bankruptcy and her involvement in a PSC dust-up involving Blackberry messages prompted a drawn-out debate on the final day of the legislative session about whether she should be replaced.

“My personal belief on this nominee is that she does not do an adequate job of representing the ratepayers and the consumers of the state of Florida,” said Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg. “My personal belief, based on my observations…is that she is fairly consistently on the side of the regulated entities as opposed to the consumers, especially with regard to electric rates.”

Latvala said he had planned not to submit her name for a vote and instead force Scott to either reappoint her or select someone new.

“I’m grateful to Governor Scott and the Legislature and am excited about working with them for the next four years!” Edgar said in a statement shortly after the vote.

Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, questioned Edgar’s rate-making decisions and their impact on “working class people” and the state’s economy.

“Give her a gold watch and say thank you for your eight years of service…Hit the reset button,” Legg said.

But incoming Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, defended Edgar, pointing out that she had been vetted and appointed by three governors and passed the scrutiny of Latvala’s committee.

“She’s human and fallible and unfortunately she and her husband had to undergo a bankruptcy,” Joyner said. “Nobody’s perfect. Her record is exemplary.”

Edgar weathered a PSC scandal involving BlackBerry messages exposed during a proposed Florida Power & Light rate hike in 2009. Edgar was cleared of wrongdoing by the Florida Commission on Ethics after an investigation into whether she broke state law by communicating through her aide with a Florida Power & Light Co. executive during a hearing. The ethics panel found no probable cause that Edgar violated state ethics laws.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said that the eight-year term limit for lawmakers should apply to Edgar.

“It’s about your constituents who have to pay these rates. I would love to see us put someone a little more consumer friendly on this commission,” he said.

Deal on campaign finance, ethics doubles contributions

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Florida House and Senate leaders have reached a deal on campaign finance and ethics reforms, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala announced on the floor this morning.

The agreement doubles the current $500-per-election cycle campaign contribution limit for local and legislative candidates and hikes the limit to $3,000 for statewide candidates and Supreme Court justices up for merit retention.

The bill (HB 569) also does away with committees of continuous existence, or “CCEs,” and replaces them political committees that can accept unlimited contributions.

The ethics and campaign finance reforms are the top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who wanted the campaign changes, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The Senate had balked at raising the contribution limits after Gov. Rick Scott, who spent more than $70 million of his own money financing his 2010 campaign for governor, indicated he did not support lifting the caps.

But Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said Wednesday his chamber agreed to the changes to get the House to pass the ethics proposal.

The new campaign limits put back caps in place before lawmakers imposed the lower amounts at the urging of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1992.

Latvala called the deal far better than the original House plan, which would have hiked the contribution limits to $10,000.

“You’re not going to be able to take money out of politics,” he said.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing corporate money to flood campaigns with cash means that “we are heading in the direction of unlimited money in politics,” Latvala, a veteran campaign consultant, said. “So the best we’re going to be able to do in the long run is provide the transparency to go with that, to have good reporting.”

The measure would also require more reporting of campaign finances, including daily reporting in the final week leading up to an election “where a lot of the monkey shines go on,” Latvala said.

The proposal would also allow candidates to “rollover” $20,000 after a campaign ends and hold onto that amount for up to two years.

Palm Beach County Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth and Joseph Abruzzo of Wellington cast the only “no” votes in the 37-2 tally.

“I couldn’t see myself going back to Palm Beach County and telling people that I voted to double the campaign contribution limits. I think that puts more money in the system and that’s the opposite direction that people want us to move in,” Clemens said.

And, he said, the allowing candidates to carry over $20,000 “puts challengers at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Lawmakers are expected to take final votes on both measures today and send them to Scott, meaning he would have just seven days to act on the bills. Scott has 15 days to act on bills received after the legislative session ends.

League of Women Voters hears about guns, Louboutins and elections

Thursday, April 11th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The League of Women Voters of Florida heard from both sides on the gun debate and elections and ethics reform during their annual gathering in the Capitol this morning.

National Rifle Association Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer addressed the crowd after Quincy Police Chief Walter McNeil, a former president of the International Police Chiefs Association who’s helped the White House craft a gun control policy.

It’s the first time Hammer’s been asked to appear before the League in her nearly four decades of lobbying.

She told the group, which backs stricter gun control measures, that semi-automatic weapons function the same as traditional guns but look fancier.

“It’s technology that’s been around for over 100 years and the only diffrerence is cosmetics. The cosmetics are new,” Hammer said. She said that a gun with the plastic stock replaced by a wooden stock would fire the same way.

“That’s no different than a lady in an elegant dress and nylon stockings and Christian Louboutin high-heeled shoes and expensive jewelry changing clothes into blue jeans, a sweatshirt, Nikes and a Timex watch. The only difference is the way she looks,” she said.

Hammer also said that Florida’s first-in-the-nation “Stand Your Ground” law does not need to be changed. Gov. Rick Scott appointed a task force to look into the law in response to an outcry over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

“If criminals don’t want to get shot, they should leave people alone,” Hammer said.

Rep. Mark Pafford, celebrating his 47th birthday on Thursday, spoke about elections and health care.
(more…)

Bipartisan lovefest comes to an end over Senate elections reform

Monday, March 18th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala had hoped for a unanimous thumbs-up on a measure designed to fix Florida’s elections woes highlighted by long lines in November.

Instead, St. Petersburg Republican stormed out of the committee meeting room after a strict party-line vote, with all Democrats – including Vice Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood – voting “no.”

Democrats said their objections to the bill shouldn’t come as a surprise. They filed numerous amendments late last week and held a press conference two weeks ago highlighting their wish-list for the bill (SB 600).

The House passed its version of the bill (HB 7013) on the first day of the legislative session, with just one Republican voting against the measure.

Like the House plan, the Senate bill allows elections supervisors to choose from eight to 14 days of early voting, offer early voting from eight to 12 hours each day and expands the types of early voting sites.

In 2011, the Republican-dominated Legislature passed an elections package (HB 1355) that shrank the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 and imposed new requirements along with stiff penalties for third-party registration groups. A federal court overturned the third-party voter registration portion of the law.

But Democrats said the early voting changes don’t go far enough to undo the damage created by HB 1355. Republican consultants and former GOP officials said that bill, signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, was designed to suppress Democratic turnout in reaction to the 2008 election when minorities helped President Obama’s victory in Florida.

This year’s measure does not require that supervisors offer early voting on the Sunday before the election, a day national organizers have made “Souls to the Polls” to encourage minority voters to cast their ballots after church.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also wanted to do away with a new provision in the law requiring voters who move from one county to another to cast provisional ballots if they don’t update their address before Election Day.

Other Democratic-backed amendments would have required at least one early voting site for every 47,000 residents, required supervisors to open an early voting site nearby one that has a wait time of more than an hour and required all counties to have the full 14 days of early voting.

All of the Democrats’ amendments either failed or were withdrawn, as Latvala grew increasingly more impatient.

Latvala said he would consider some of their changes at another time “in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation on this committee if we can get to that point on this bill.”

But they did not.

The provisional ballot changes were designed to “keep college students from voting,” Clemens, who served in the Florida House in 2011, said. College students helped boost Obama to victory in 2008.

“The genesis of this language was discriminatory. It remains discriminatory,” Clemens said.

That drew a rebuke from Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who implied that the Democrats’ amendments were contrary to the Senate’s protocol.

“Your comments takes away from deliberative body that we are. We tend to do things a bit different,” Gardiner said.

Later, Latvala said the Democrats blind-sided him with their amendments, filed Friday, and should have reached out to him last week.

“There were a couple of those that were in there today that i’d seen them and we could have worked on them, we could have probably put them in,” he said.

He called the Democratic opposition to the bill a political ploy.

“It’s hard for me to understand how every Democrat in the House could vote for the bill. We improved a couple of areas in the Senate bill in the issues they’re concerned about and the Democrats voted against it. It’s just politics pure and simple,” Latvala said.

But Clemens said it was “naive” to expect the Democrats to support the measure without the changes they held a press conference demanding just two weeks ago.

HB 1355 “took us from Point A to Point Z and now they want to go back to Point M and say that it’s enough,” Clemens said. “It’s just simply not. We’ve been very clear about the things we want to see in the bill. So it should be no surprise to anybody. For members of that committee to somehow believe that we were going to roll over when they didn’t meet any of the requests, it seems somewhat naïve to me.”

Florida Senate unanimously approves President Gaetz priority ethics reform

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Calling it the most comprehensive reform in Florida in three decades, the state Senate unanimously approved a sweeping ethics package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Gaetz said he skipped the traditional president’s speech to take up and pass the bill.

“You have made your mothers and fathers proud of you today,” Gaetz said after the bill passed. “You have brought by your vote today honor to this Senate and to the people who you serve with. You have changed the code of public conduct in Florida forever and for the better and I thank you.”

The measure (SB 2) would give the ethics commission more teeth to the Commission on Ethics, bar legislators from voting on bills that would inure to a special private gain for them and ban lawmakers from getting special jobs at public institutions such as universities just because of their position.

The plan would also close the “revolving door” that allows lawmakers to lobby after they leave office. An amendment approved on the floor Tuesday afternoon would make that provision apply to all lawmakers instead of the original version that only applied to those elected after 2014.

“You can look any constituent in the eye with conviction and tell them that you have taken a firm stand for improved ethics in government,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said while explaining the bill on the floor.

The Senate bill also includes something not in the House’s companion measure: Closing the loophole in the lobbying gift ban.

The measure would ban lawmakers from accepting contributions from lobbyists in their political committees, or CCEs, and using the money for swank dinners or parties.

Latvala urged his colleagues to convince the House “that we want real, meaningful ethics reform in the Florida Senate and we don’t want it watered down.”

Gift ban tweak stays out of Senate ethics reform

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

Seven years ago, then-Senate President Tom Lee pushed a gift ban that essentially barred lobbyists from giving gifts of any kind – except flowers and plaques on the opening day of the legislative session – to lawmakers.

Lee, a Brandon Republican, wanted to put an end to what he called lawmakers out-of-control wining and dining at the expense of lobbyists perhaps looking for a payback for lavish meals.

After returning to the Florida Senate as a freshman this year, Lee is willing to modify the ban after hearing “a parade of horribles” from lawmakers who say the gift ban bars them from participating in receptions held by groups as innocuous as the Boys and Girls Clubs because they fear violating the ban.

Lee had hoped to include the tweak in an ethics reform package, a priority of Senate President Don Gaetz, headed to the floor after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously signed off on the measure this afternoon.

But Lee said including changes to the gift ban in the ethics bill was “a non-starter from the president’s perspective” and will instead file a stand-alone bill to deal with the issue instead.

Gaetz didn’t want his fast-tracked priority ethics reform, expected to get a Senate floor vote possible on the first day of the legislative session in two weeks, to get bogged down in a debate over whether the Legislature was watering down the gift ban.

“I would have been happy with it being in this bill. But it’s just taken a while to get it together. And this bill is moving pretty rapidly. So we’re going to make sure he’s got a bill spot for that,” Sen. Jack Latvala, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the ethics package (SB 2), said.

Lee said he’s trying to “find a way to ensure that the public and organizations get access to legislators but that that access isn’t clandestine and it isn’t in violation of the law, which was predominantly what was going on at the time” his signature legislation was passed.

But any rewrite of the gift ban is a “briar patch,” Lee cautioned.

“It is very, very difficult to create exemptions to the gift ban that you can’t drive a truck through. And therein lies the problem,” he said. “And while a lot of people are talking about the bottle of water or the cup of coffee, I guarantee you an amendment to the gift ban that allows them to take a bottle of water and a cup of coffee will not satisfy them.”

Lee said lawmakers may be skirting the gift ban already.

“I really wanted to get through one session before I had this discussion. But I’m trying to be accommodating. Some of this has resulted in behavior being driven underground into lobbyists’ homes and into the Governor’s Club. There’s a point at which you can’t legislate morality,” he said.

Lee said he’s sympathetic to lawmakers who say they run into trouble particularly in Tallahassee when groups from home who have lobbyists hold receptions. He’s open to allowing lawmakers to attend those “highly public” events provided there is a record of attendance and “as long as the gift that’s being received by the legislator is de minimus.”

Senate field trip: Behind-the-scenes look at Leon County elections

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013 by Dara Kam

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Leon County elections office Tuesday morning as the panel mulls voting changes.

The trip to Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho’s office gave the bipartisan panel a glimpse of the entire voting process from early voting to absentee ballot canvassing. Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said he wanted the members to make the site visit to see what elections operations are all about. Sancho, a veteran elections supervisor and an independent, has been a harsh critic of the 2011 election law (HB 1355) that shortened early voting and required more voters to cast provisional ballots if they move.

“I thought it would be helpful for some of the members of the committee of actually seeing what goes on to process the ballots both outgoing and incoming. So it was very interesting. A very good experience,” Latvala said.

But the tour didn’t appear to change Latvala’s proposed election law changes. He still favors making it easier for absentee ballots to be counted by loosening the requirement that absentee ballot signatures must match a voter’s registration application. Many voters don’t update their applications but their signatures change, and once an absentee ballot is rejected, voters don’t have an opportunity to change it.

Supervisors should be able to verify signatures using precinct registers, Latvala said.

“The example they showed us today was a lady that registered to vote in 1974 and so that’s almost 40 years ago. her signature was not the same in 1974 as it is now. Well I bet mine’s not either. So it’s just a learning experience. We want to try to do the best job we can and we just need to have all the facts at our disposal.”

The panel is unlikely to undo the part of the 2011 election law that required voters moving within a county to cast provisional ballots if they are not at their correct precinct and banned voters who move from one county to another from casting ballots at all.

Sancho said that while the number of provisional ballots grew in Leon County after the 2011 election law change, the percentage of rejected provisional ballots – between 30 and 40 percent – remained about the same.

Elections, McDonalds and immediate gratification

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Four weeks after the presidential election, a Senate committee began delving into what went wrong in Florida.

A host of potential culprits include the media, select county elections supervisors, stingy county commissions and possibly the legislature itself, according to testimony from Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Ron Labasky – the general counsel of the state supervisors of elections association – and Pasco County Elections Supervisor Brian Corley.

Detzner said he will meet next week with supervisors he’s targeted as “underperforming” because of lengthy waits during early voting and on Election Day and other problems he did not identify. Those counties are: Lee, Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Lucie, he said. The supervisors from those counties will also be called to appear before the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said today.

Latvala said the committee may hold public hearings in South Florida sometime in January.

One senator proposed giving Detzner more authority to suspend county supervisors, pointing to problems experienced in Palm Beach County without identifying PBC by name.

“We heard a lot of complaints regarding a ballot…they were making copies of ballots because they were originally wrong,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “I’m all for independence and local control…But…at what point is there an intervention? If it becomes so apparent that a county has not made the appropriate decisions or the ballots were sent out wrong…There’s really no recourse.”

But Latvala, a veteran legislator, said later that the governor already has the authority to remove a supervisor for wrongdoing, recalling that Gov. Jeb Bush once suspended a Broward County elections supervisor.

Latvala said he didn’t think the committee would likely give Detzner more power, but said that some counties repeatedly have problems.

“if the shoe fits, Palm Beach County should wear it,” he said.

Committee members frequently used McDonald’s or other restaurants as an example of how election should be run.

But Sen. Tom Lee, a former Senate president elected in November, posed a critical question.

“What is an acceptable length of time for somebody to wait to vote?”

Detzner said he would know what an acceptable time is if he ran a restaurant and his customers left.

“If people have to wait too long to vote, they may go home and not vote,” he said.

Detzner complimented the voters who waited in line and were “civil” and had political conversations while biding their time.

“It was a wonderful thing to see people having that kind of dialogue,” he said. “But to wait in line four or five or six hours is unacceptable.”

Gaetz taps Senate leadership team

Monday, November 26th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Senate President Don Gaetz announced his top lieutenants for the next two legislative session, tapping Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Ft. Myers, as Majority Leader and picking Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, as budget chief, a position he also held in the Florida House.

And in a possible nod to President Lincoln, who staffed his Cabinet with one-time adversaries, Gaetz named Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. Gaetz has made ethics reforms one of his top priorities and lawmakers are being pressured to address a contentious elections overhaul passed last year (HB 1355) that some blame for long lines and other problems during this year ‘s presidential election. Latvala was in a leadership battle against Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, earlier this year. Gardiner is expected to take over the Senate in two years but whether his successor will be Latvala or Negron (or someone else) remains undecided.

As expected, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, will keep his post as head of the powerful Rules Committee. Thrasher is a former House speaker and also served as chairman of the state GOP.

Returning Sen. Tom Lee, R- Brandon, will be Deputy Majority Leader and Whip, also not a surprise since Lee is a former Senate president.

Negron served as chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee for the past two years and has represented Gaetz in talks with the Obama administration recently over how to handle the federally-mandated health care exchanges.

Gaetz is also setting up a special committee to deal with the health care law but hasn’t yet named its chairman.

It’s a king thing: Thrasher drops out of Senate prez race, backs Negron

Friday, June 15th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart

Uniting to shape the Florida Senate, John Thrasher has dropped out of a race for president in 2016 and is now backing Stuart Republican Joe Negron.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine

Former House Speaker Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, spilled the beans about the leadership race to his hometown paper, The Jacksonville Times-Union, this morning.

Thrasher, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, and Negron led a botched coup this spring in an attempt to displace Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, slated to succeed incoming president Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, in two years.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a veteran lawmaker and wily campaign strategist, put down the mutiny with the aid of a bloc of Republican senators, many of whom are leaving office this year due to term limits.

The Senate leadership battle is playing out in the Senate campaigns this summer between the more moderate Latvala, who helped kill a number of priority leadership issues including a prison privatization effort, and conservatives Thrasher and Negron.

“This election cycle will go a long way toward determining the future of the Senate, including the Senate presidency in 2016,” Negron said, echoing Latvala’s sentiments about the summer campaigns.

One of those key races is Jacksonville’s District 4 seat, where Thrasher, Gardiner and Negron are backing Aaron Bean, a former House representative with whom Negron served before his election to the Senate in 2009.

Latvala is supporting Mike Weinstein, also a former House member and a prosecutor with the Jacksonville state attorney’s office.

“Sen. Gardiner has made it one of his top priorities for Aaron Bean to win. So we’re working together…We’re all in for Aaron Bean,” Negron said from Washington, D.C., where he is part of a multi-state group of lawmakers huddling about Medicaid costs.

The leadership race “transcends any individual competitor,” Negron said.

“For me it’s about two things. Making sure every senator has an opportunity to have a platform for his or her views to be heard and considered. Two, is my goal is to continue the Senate in the direction of pursuing a pro-business, pro-growth agenda,” he said.

Senate surprise: Ronda Storms won’t come back

Friday, May 25th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Republican firebrand Ronda Storms is dropping her state Senate reelection bid and instead will run against embattled Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Rob Turner.

Storms, a lawyer and former Hillsborough County commissioner, had two years left before she was term-limited out of the Senate. But she said the porn scandal surrounding Turner prompted her to abandon the legislature and instead try to oust her fellow Republican.

“As a Republican I have a responsibility to make sure that he has an opportunity to be held accountable to the Republican voters,” Storms, R-Valrico, said.

Storms’ exit makes her District 10 seat another battleground for a Senate leadership battle between Republicans John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Although Storms is a conservative Christian who consistently supported anti-abortion efforts, she bucked Thrasher and other Senate leaders and joined forces with Latvala and moderates on several key issues, and was instrumental in helping to kill a prison privatization effort.

Storms, chairwoman of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Services Committee, has been an ardent advocate for children and a harsh critic of the Department of Children and Families. Among other battles, she has waged a war against the administration over its use of psychotropic medications on youth in state custody. She intensified her scrutiny of the agency in the aftermath of the tragic death of Nubia Barahona, whose adoptive parents are accused with her murder and the abuse of her twin sibling Victor.

Storms said the caustic atmosphere created by the leadership maelstrom over who will succeed incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, contributed to her decision to leave the chamber early.

“I was going to have to find an exit ramp at some point. So this was the point. It would be dishonest for me to say that it hasn’t been difficult to have this swirling tension all the time,” the passionate Storms, adding that “believe it or not, I don’t like conflict,” said.

“It is wonderful to think that I can go in and make changes and be an administrator and manager and say, ‘Here’s the way we’re going to behave’ and carry it out and cause it to happen all from the top without 10 people above your or ahead of you saying ‘no’ or creating dissension,” she said.

Storms said her possible replacements include former Senate President Tom Lee, state Rep. Rachel Burgin, R-Riverview and Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa.

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 GOP leadership scramble

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 by Dara Kam

Former House Speaker and powerful Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher may have tipped his hand too soon in a bid to make history as the second lawmaker to serve as leader of both chambers.

Thrasher is embroiled in a fight with Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner over the 2014 Senate presidency. Gardiner had already assembled the pledges to assume the leadership role after incoming Senate President Don Gaetz. But Sen. Jack Latvala, a political mastermind who returned to the Senate last year, launched a play for the 2014 top spot.

The drama played out in the Senate Office Building late Tuesday evening. Talk around the Capitol had Gardiner handing over his presumed presidency to Thrasher, who would be followed in 2016 by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

But a tired-looking Thrasher left the Senate Office Building around 7 p.m., and more than an hour later, Gardiner was still holed up in his office.

“I am very humbled and very happy. It’s been a real eye-opening thing for me,” Gardiner, R-Orlando, said, emerging from his office for a bathroom break. “I’m a happy warrior.”

Gardiner credited Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, with helping gird his support, calling Simmons “a rock star.”

Thrasher apparently was unable to convince enough of Gardiner’s pledges to switch over. But before going home, the veteran legislator – who also served as chairman of the Republican Party of Florida – did not exactly concede.

“If I got enough votes, I guess I would be” Senate president in 2014, the St. Augustine Republican said. “I don’t know. We’re going to wait and see what happens. I think it’s premature to talk about that right now.”

Negron called the “leadership discussions” normal.

“There have been discussions today as there were yesterday and will be tomorrow and next month and next year among the family caucus on how we want to proceed,” the Stuart Republican said. He said the future presidency was still up in the air. “We’re talking about that.”

And he said he’s been “quietly been gaining support” for his 2016 bid.

“We’ll have to see how the rest of it plays out,” he said.

Thrasher played down what may have been a tide-turning loss Tuesday.

“I’m taking over the last three weeks and throwing Mike Haridopolos out and then I’m taking over from Gaetz and all that,” he joked.

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