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Senate Dems put brakes on Internet cafe ban…almost

Thursday, April 4th, 2013 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate Democrats won’t block the Internet cafe ban from rolling over, after all. The caucus never took a formal vote and several members were absent during a discussion.

Senate Democrats had intended to put the brakes on an Internet café ban that would also shut down “senior arcades” popular with elderly residents in Palm Beach County.

Sen. John Thrasher had hoped to get a floor vote on his bill (SB 1030) today. But the Democratic caucus, with the support of two Palm Beach County senators, balked at rushing the measure through instead of allowing the normal procedure to take place. “Rolling over” a bill to third reading for passage requires a two-thirds majority, or 27 votes, meaning that Republicans need the support of at least one of the 14 Senate Democrats. Despite concerns about the measure, the Democrats aren’t expected to block it from moving forward.

The House last month passed a similar version just 10 days after authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World of running a $300 million illegal gambling ring posing as a veterans’ charity.

The multi-state sting also prompted Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who was a consultant for Allied Veterans during her time in the Florida House, to resign on March 12.

Sen. Oscar Braynon called Legislature’s rush to pass the bills “a knee-jerk reaction to a federal investigation.”

A delay would have given the senior arcades, who have launched an all-out assault in an effort to get lawmakers to exempt their industry from the all-out ban, until next week to try to drum up more support. On Tuesday, the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association bused around 80 seniors, some in wheelchairs and using canes, from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to the Capitol to attend a committee meeting. The elderly patrons made impassioned pleas save the centers that cater to the elderly and where the customers play electronic games that resemble slot machines.

“There’s great concerns in the senior community in Palm Beach County. Quite frankly, if the adult arcades are not taken out of it, I may not be supporting the bill whatsoever,” Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, said during a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting this afternoon shortly before the session began at 2 p.m.

Supporters of the Internet cafes contend that shuttering the storefront gaming centers will put 13,000 people out of work. Two committees took testimony on the measure before it reached the floor today.

“There’s statistics being floated around. I’d like to found out if they’re true, that in one fell swoop 13,000 people, minimum, are going to be out of a job. This has reaching implications for this legislation. I may support it. I may not. But when that many jobs are at stake, that big of an economic impact, allegations being made all different which ways, we need to have this aired out in the open,” Abruzzo said.

Storefront gaming ban headed to Senate floor

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013 by Dara Kam

Delray Beach sisters Anita Silverman and Tobie Berg

A proposed ban on Internet cafes that would also shutter adult arcades is headed to the Senate floor for a vote as early as Tuesday over the objections of dozens of seniors who traveled from Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties to plead with lawmakers to leave them alone.

The proposed ban, already passed by the Florida House, is a swift reaction to a a multi-state sting last month that resulted in 57 arrests and prompted Jennifer Carroll to resign as lieutenant governor. Authorities accused Allied Veterans of the World, a charitable organization Carroll consulted for while a state representative, of racketeering and money laundering charges associated with operating a $300 million illegal gambling ring.
The proposal would ban slot machine-like games at storefront gaming centers, including those that cater to seniors who testified Tuesday morning that they spend hours playing the games for as little as $20.

And, the seniors and arcade operators said, the amusement centers give them a place to and people to hang out with instead of spending their days – and nights – alone.

Many of the seniors were from Port St. Lucie. They complained that the arcades are the only entertainment for them in their community.

“We have lunch. We have dinner. We celebrate our birthday there. So if they close, a lot of us are going to be very lonely,” one Port St. Lucie resident said.

Mike Cannon, who owns Mardi Gras arcade in Port St. Lucie, told the committee that the arcades, which operate under a 30-year-old statute, shouldn’t be punished because of the Allied Veterans wrongdoing.

“You had a big scandal on your hands and we had nothing to do with it,” Cannon said. “We didn’t do anything wrong. We paid our taxes. We do everything by the law and we’ve never had a problem.”

Sen. John Thrasher, the bill sponsor, explained that the measure (SB 1030) would not impact children’s arcades such as Dave and Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese.

That drew the wrath of Gale Fontaine, president of the Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, who owns several adult arcades in Broward County.

“This is nowhere for them to go. They eat lunch together. They eat dinner together. It has nothing to do about the games. It’s their clubhouse,” Fontaine said, referring to dozens of elderly audience members, some with canes or in wheelchairs, and many of whom were clad in white T-shirts imprinted with “Don’t kill amusement centers” in red.
“I think it’s a disgrace that we will take care of the children’s community and not take care of the senior community.”

Delray Beach resident Anita Silverman, 82, traveled on a bus organized by the association along with about 80 others to attend the committee meeting early Tuesday morning.

She said she is a widow who enjoys the camaraderie of the Atlantic Arcade less than a mile from her house.

“Come Saturday night, I’m all by myself. Saturday night is very lonely,” she said.

The ban will shut down about half of the 300 American Legion halls now open throughout the state, Bob Kiley, American Legion District 6 commander, said. Many of the halls run adult arcades, but all of the proceeds go to charity, Kiley said.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved the proposal even as several members expressed concern that it cast too broad a net.

“I would like to see…a carve out just like we gave Chuck E. Cheese bingo,” said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

The arcades pay 4 percent of their gross proceeds to the state and 6 percent sales tax, Sobel pointed out.
“They’re a legitimate business and there’s unintended consequences by putting them into a different category. I don’t think we intended to do that. If there needs to be more regulation…so be it. This is the difference between apples & oranges.”

Acknowledging that the proposal may cast “too wide a net,” Sen. Jeremy Ring chided the arcade operators for fiercely opposing previous efforts to impose stricter regulations on them.

“We don’t need to be here today. This could have been worked out years ago.
But it is here today because there has only been vehement opposition and never any proactive response to try to work together to create the proper regulations that I’m convinced do not exist,” Ring, D-Margate, said.

But Thrasher insisted the bill is designed to close a “gray area” in law exposed by the Allied Veterans sting.

“I don’t believe we’re putting anybody out of business. If… because of existing loopholes…they have moved into areas they shouldn’t have moved into…they may have to adjust some of the games that are out there,” Thrasher said. “But what this bill does is tighten up the gambling laws. I’m not going to back off.”

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.

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.

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 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.

Prison workers decry privatization

Monday, January 23rd, 2012 by Dara Kam

Emotional pleas and threats of questionable savings and a danger to public safety failed to move an elite group of senators who gave preliminary approval to a sweeping prison privatization plan struck down by a judge last year.

Dozens of prison workers from throughout the state packed the Senate Rules Committee and testified for more than two hours on a fast-tracked proposal (SB 2038), pleading with the panel to slow down and warning that the savings for the state from outsourcing are overstated.

The privatization effort coincides with a Department of Corrections decision to shut down seven prisons and other facilities, doubling the prison workers’ worries.

Amanda Abers, 28, told the committee she moved from Minnesota to Florida a year ago to work at Indian River Correctional, a youth offender prison slated for closure.

“Vero Beach is not a big area. This is going to hit the economy very, very hard. You’re putting me out on the street plus their spouses, their kids, everybody,” she said.

Senate budget chief JD Alexander, who included the privatization in the budget last year and sponsor of the proposal, said the outsourcing will force the department to reexamine its spending and questioned its management after the discovery last year that the agency had 12,000 empty beds scattered throughout the system. Shutting down the prisons will save an estimated $77 million annually, Alexander said.

“Competition makes us all better. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not always fun. But I believe that it makes it better,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said.
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UPDATE: Senate prez Haridopolos gives prison privatization bill another committee stop

Friday, January 20th, 2012 by Dara Kam

UPDATE: Senate President Mike Haridopolos’ spokeswoman Lyndsey Cruley issued a correction to the privatization bill committee stops. Haridopolos is giving the bill (SB 2038) reviving last year’s privatization of more than two dozen prisons another hearing in the budget committee – NOT the bill that would allow lawmakers to privatize state functions without public input until after contracts are signed.

Bowing to pressure from prison privatization critics including Sen. Mike Fasano, Senate President Mike Haridopolos has put the brakes – sort of – on a fast-tracked bill that would outsource all prison operations in an 18-county region south of Polk County to the Florida Keys.

But a bill that would give lawmakers the ability to outsource state functions without any public input until after the deals are done is still slated to be heard only in the Rules Committee that gave the measure a preliminary nod earlier this week.

Originally slated to be heard only in the Senate Rules Committee before being sent to the floor for a chamber vote, Haridopolos is now asking the Budget Committee to sign off on the bill (SB 2038) as well.

Fasano, chairman of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, asked Haridopolos to give committees like his more up-to-speed on privatization the chance to scrutinize the proposal.

“These bills deal with potential changes to policy of such a magnitude that they should not have originated in a procedural committee such as the Rules Committee. However, they were and have now been referred back to that very same committee with no further referrals. Only your office would know why that decision was made.

In my opinion a subject as complex as prison privatization should have been referred to the substantive committees that oversee this subject matter (i.e. Criminal Justice, Governmental Oversight and Accountability and Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations). The Senate has a rich history as a deliberative body that examines and allows for full vetting of proposed policy changes both major and minor. I respectfully request that if these bills are acted upon favorably by the Rules Committee on January 23, 2012 that you pull them back into your office and refer them to at least the three substantive and appropriations committees I have suggested,” Fasano, R-New Port Richey, wrote to Haridopolos today.

Shortly after Fasano released his request, Haridopolos issued a memo defending the process in which the prison privatization was vetted last year and announcing additional committee stop for the privatization bill on Wednesday.

“After hearing questions and concerns from my fellow Senators in the Senate Committee on Rules regarding Senate Bill 2036, I have decided to proceed in an abundance of caution,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, wrote.

Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled lawmakers illegally included the privatization of the 18-country region of correctional operations in southern Florida in the budget instead of in a stand-alone bill. The privatization measure would take care of that problem, Rules Chairman John Thrasher said.

Haridopolos insists that although the prison outsourcing never was included in a bill, it was debated throughout the session at various committees and includes a timeline of the discussions in his memo.

“With that in mind, I believe that this additional committee reference will ensure a thoughtful debate on prison privatization, and I am hopeful that this will alleviate any concerns my fellow Senators may have,” he wrote.

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.

Lawmakers give casinos bill first thumbs-up

Monday, January 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A sweeping gambling bill that would allow up to three casinos in Florida passed its first hurdle late Monday with a 7-3 vote in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

The measure (SB 710) would allow voters in any county to sign off on the “destination resorts” and allow pari-mutuels in to have whatever games the casinos offer, including blackjack and baccarat – if state regulators grant a casino permit in the county. And it would bar any new dog or horse tracks or jai-alai frontons from opening anywhere in the state.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that the future of her proposal – dealing with everything from a new gambling commission to the casinos to Internet cafes – is anything but certain.

“Yeah, this is a big lift and there’s a lot of stuff in here. Call it what you want. Call it an expansion. Call it a reform. Call it a redirection…My hope is that we would stop the proliferation of gaming through clever lawyering or loopholes,” Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said before the vote.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos appeared to have fast-tracked the bill – it received its first committee vote the day before the legislative session opened – and said he wants an early floor vote on it. But that may not happen, said Sen. John Thrasher, chairman of the Rules and Calendar Committee, the bill’s final stop before it goes to the full chamber. First, it heads to the Senate Budget committee.

But the House has yet to hold a single hearing on its version, Thrasher pointed out.

“They have not had the first peep over there in terms of listening to the arguments about this bill,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “I’ve got a feeling that…they’re going to have to show some movement in the House before we take it any further.”

Session ends with hard feelings after major meltdown

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Lawmakers approved a $69.7 billion spending plan and quietly ended the 2011 legislative session at 3:35 a.m. without any pomp and circumstance.

Instead, the 60-day session ended with Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon publicly rebuking each other over with Haridopolos accusing Cannon of playing “silly games” and Cannon claiming to “take the high road” by rejecting a controversial Senate tax break.

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, called his members back after 2 a.m. this morning to take up a tax-break proposal that includes a three-day sales tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers after the House stripped out a tax break for at least one greyhound dog track in Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher’s district.

Haridopolos apologized for asking them to return about an hour after he sent them home and instructed them the session would reconvene at 10 a.m.

Shortly before Haridopolos recalled the Senate, Cannon gaveled down the House without passing two claims bills that were Haridopolos priorities. Eric Brody was set to get $12 million from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for an accident more than a decade ago that left him severely disabled, and William Dillon was slated to get less than $1 million after being wrongfully imprisoned for nearly three decades for a crime he didn’t commit.

“They should have been served today by this legislature. Politics got in the way today and I’m embarrassed,” he said.
Gov. Rick Scott left the building around midnight as the legislative session devolved into chaos. Scott had been scheduled to participate in the ceremonial white hanky drop but instead went home to bed because he had a busy schedule this weekend, his spokesman Brian Burgess said.

The House approved the budget shortly before 2 a.m., about two-and-a-half hours after the Senate and following some very hard feelings between the two chambers.

The House then took up the disputed tax break bill (CS/SB 7203).

But the House remained angered by the Senate’s killing a pair of professional deregulation bills earlier in the night — with House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, saying that move broke an agreement between the two chambers.

“In light of the Senate’s inability to meet that obligation, I’ve decided that our chamber would take the high road…and send it all to the Senate tonight, and leave no ambiguity,” Cannon said.

The House took up the tax-break bill, voted to remove the Jacksonville track provision, repackaged the measure as HB 143 and sent it back to the Senate. With the budget behind them, and the tax-break package structured to their liking, Cannon and House members adjourned at 2:07 a.m., Saturday.

(more…)

Fact check: Would E-Verify have prevented 9/11?

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by Dara Kam

An Arizona-style immigration law is off the table in Florida, and any immigration overhaul is likely doomed, GOP lawmakers said yesterday after the Senate killed a watered-down E-Verify amendment.

During debate on the amendment, its sponsor John Thrasher argued that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks may have been avoided had the federal verification system been in effect at the time.

“I want to remind everyone in here that 10 of the 19 terrorists who attacked our country, directed by Osama bin Laden in doing that, lived in the state of Florida. I wish we would have had the E-Verify system … we might have saved the lives of 3,000 Americans,” Thrasher, a St. Petersburg Republican and one-time House speaker who recently served as the Republican Party of Florida chairman.

Thrasher prefaced his comments by asserting he wasn’t being “overly dramatic” but was he?

The St. Petersburg Times PolitiFact gave Thrasher’s assertion a “Pants on Fire” rating:

“Hijackers did live in Florida and obtain Florida driver’s licenses. But in order to potentially be flagged by the E-Verify system, they would have had to work in the state. There is no record that any of them ever tried to get jobs here. And as such, E-Verify — had it been used by Florida employers as Thrasher wanted — wouldn’t have found them or stopped their plotting. We rate this claim Pants on Fire!”

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