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#6 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Wilton Simpson

Wilton Simpson, the 50-year-old Trilby Republican, was named Senate Majority Leader for the 2016-2018 legislative term.

“Wilton is a conservative leader whose tremendous success in the private sector serves as a foundation for his belief in limited government and the supremacy of the individual, values many Senators on both sides of the political aisle share,” Senate President Joe Negron said in the announcement.

First elected to the Senate in 2012, Simpson was re-elected in 2016 after no one else filed for the seat.

Simpson is an egg farmer and owner of Simpson Environmental Services, represents Senate District 10. He previously represented SD 18, but the political boundaries changed last year because of redistricting.

With over a million chickens, Simpson Farms supplies eggs to supermarkets across the state.

In his first year in office, Simpson, a self-described “big-tent Republican,” was recognized by the Nature Coast Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. In 2013, the Florida Farm Bureau named him as both Legislator of the Year and Philanthropist of the Year.

Beyond his business prowess, Simpson is considered a thoughtful legislator and respected as someone who listens to all sides of a debate. He is well-liked even by some natural enemies within environmental groups who often line up against him when it comes to agricultural or land-use issues.

Simpson was sixth in the 2016 survey.

Joe Henderson’s Take

“What a gentleman. He doesn’t seek the spotlight but it seems to find him anyway, and for the right reasons. He is a successful businessman and was re-elected to the state Senate without opposition, and he now serves as Majority Leader. He does so without fanfare, but colleagues will tell you he knows how to get things done.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

#7 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Rick Kriseman

Rick Kriseman, the 54-year-old Detroit native, is feeling confident as he runs for re-election this fall, even though polls show that a November confrontation with former Mayor Rick Baker could go either way.

But Team Kriseman thinks that “The Sunshine City” is much different place than the last decade, and that his progressive agenda is more in tune with a community that continues to flourish.

“Only the most cynical of partisans wouldn’t agree that St. Pete’s continuing renaissance and bright future is in no small part due to his many successful initiatives and bold leadership,” says Progress Florida’s Mark Ferrulo.

The mayor is coming off a rough 2016, with the lack of transparency regarding the city’s sewage system earning the most criticism in his first term in office.

A big bet (that won’t be known until next year) is his administration’s plan to retain the Tampa Bay Rays by luring them back to a redeveloped footprint at Tropicana Field.

The rising costs of the Pier project make that one piece of the puzzle that Kriseman hasn’t figured out as he goes deeper into his re-elect campaign, and Baker is promising to make that an issue all summer.

The mayor moves up from the No. 9 slot in 2016.

Joe Henderson’s Take

“Kriseman will have some ‘splainin’ to do if he hopes to survive what surely will be a bruising re-election battle with Rick Baker. The sewage fiasco last year won’t be forgotten, and his performance during that stinky time wasn’t exactly stellar. That aside, he has presided over a renaissance in St. Petersburg that is truly impressive. I like how he stressed cross-bay cooperation, but I do think his push to build a Rays stadium next to Tropicana Field is delusional. More people don’t come to Rays games because the Trop is bad. They don’t’ come because of where it is located.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

#8 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Kathy Castor

Tampa Democrat Kathy Castor has now been in Washington for a decade, but Hillary Clinton’s loss in November to Donald Trump definitely hurt her ability to change policy in Washington. That’s because this is the first time since she was elected in 2006 that she is in a party that neither controls the House of Representatives or the White House, prompting rumors that she was considering a run for Tampa mayor in 2019 (at press time, Castor declined to respond to that story).

Though Republicans have controlled Capitol Hill since 2010, Castor was influential in working with President Barack Obama in having him re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014.

Although redistricting reduced the number of Democrats in her congressional district in 2016, it didn’t appear that way at the polls in November, as she blew away Republican Christine Quinn by 24 percentage points.

Castor moves up from No. 10 to No. 8 in this year’s survey.

Joe Henderson’s Take

“The only question is how long this unabashed liberal wants to stay in Congress. She has a safe seat, so being re-elected is not the issue. There is a lot of chatter about her running for mayor of Tampa in 2019, and I think she would win easily. She is bright, engaging, informed and focused. What’s not to like, other than the fact Democrats for the moment have little power in Washington.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.


Tampa to face new financial challenges even before potential 2018 ballot measure hits

The Florida Legislature’s approval of a constitutional amendment for the 2018 ballot that could severely reduce the level of revenue coming to local governments is just the latest challenge to Tampa’s fiscal health, Chief Financial Officer Sonya Little told the City Council Thursday.

If passed by voters, the measure would expand the state homestead property tax exemption to $75,000. Over 4 million Floridians currently receive the current homestead exemption, which lowers the taxable value on a primary residence by $50,000.

“We’re projecting a roughly $6 million hit to our general fund with the loss of those revenues,” Little told Councilman Mike Suarez.

The potential hit to Hillsborough County would be much worse. County Administrator Mike Merrill says the county would have to cut or make up over $30 million a year if voters approve the additional $25,000 homestead exemption.

The city allotted $153.4 million for the current FY 2017 budget that goes through September. That’s still down from the pre-recession budget under former Mayor Pam Iorio in 2008, which was at $166 million.

Going back to that high-water mark of 2008 in terms of revenue coming into the city, Little said that cumulatively the city has lost a total of $287 million.

Discussions for the fiscal year 2018 will begin next month, and Little said that there will be several issues that will present a clearer picture of what that will look like, mentioning preliminary estimates of the property tax revenues for next year, as well as preliminary estimates on the city’s pension contribution requirements and a clearer gauge of what the city’s health care costs are going to be.

In response to a question from Councilman Frank Reddick, Little said everything will be on the table, including a consideration of raising millage rates.

“That is obviously one of the mechanisms in which we can address the city’s needs for FY18,” Little said.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn is scheduled to present his FY 2018 budget to the Council on July 20.


#9 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Chris Sprowls

Chris Sprowls, the 33-year-old Palm Harbor attorney, easily defeated Democrat Bernie Fensterwald in November to win his second term in office, and he remains a strong contender to lead the House in the 2021-2022 Sessions, increasing his clout in the Capital.

In 2017, Sprowls and fellow Republican state Rep. Jamie Grant were the driving force behind the landmark ride-sharing legislation passed in the House. The law, recently signed by Gov. Rick Scott, creates statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft, which pre-empts local ordinances and rules on transportation network companies.

This year, Sprowls was also named the chair of the Tampa Bay Area Legislative Delegation, providing him yet another platform to demonstrate leadership in what is the region’s most important issue, transportation.

After seven years at the Pinellas-Pasco County State Attorney’s Office, Sprowls left for a role in the private sector last year, where he now focuses on business law with the law office of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney.

This is Sprowls’ second time on the survey. He placed No. 14 in 2016.

Joe Henderson’s Take

“I might have even moved him up a place or two. Sprowls clearly is a man on the move in the House and his Pinellas district can only benefit. So can everyone else. Here is another rising star who not only sees the need for improved transportation in the Bay area, but has the forum and the drive to do something about it. My guess is that next year he will be in the top 5 in these rankings.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Joe Henderson: Be wary of consultant’s report on St. Pete Pier project

The new St. Pete Pier – stop laughing – was originally supposed to cost around $45 million, give or take a couple of grouper. We know how that goes though. It’s kind of like when your cable company promises to provide a million channels for 99 cents, or something like that.

Then you get handed the bill.

Anyway, as the back-and-forth went on and cost estimates increased, former Mayor Bill Foster famously said, “For $50 million, the people will get a pier.”

That was in 2012.

That also may help explain why Foster is the “former” mayor, because the cost has risen to $66 million, except that the St. Pete City Council voted 5-3 recently to request $14 million in “enhancements” from a special taxing district that was supposed to go toward a transportation hub.

So, what’s a civic-minded, Pier-preachin’ group of elected officials to do when faced with a project carrying a sticker now approaching double the original cost?

Hey! I’ve got it! Let’s call a consultant!

The Lambert Advisory consulting firm produced a report that told St. Pete officials and residents not to worry (paraphrasing here) about the cost because the Pier and spin-off development will generate $80 million from eating, shopping and hotel nights.

Let’s see … 66 plus 14 … adding cost together, carry the 1 … hey, that’s $80 million!

The study says the income and the outgo will balance because of the 1.7 million visitors it estimates the Pier will attract in its first year.

Uh huh.

But, hey, these are professionals and the study says, the project, “is estimated to generate considerable expenditures directly within the Pier District, as well as off-Pier in the surrounding downtown area of approximately $30 million in food and beverage expenditures, $10 million in additional miscellaneous retail expenditures, and $15 million in annual hotel expenditure.”

It also ESTIMATES the Pier will generate, “1,080 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs within Pinellas County, creating $33 million in total direct and indirect wages.”

Go on …

Well, there is this qualifier: The study estimates the POTENTIAL annual demand for 102,000 hotel room nights from the Pier. In sports, there is a saying that “potential” is just “production” that hasn’t happened.

What could go wrong?

A lot of things.

Just look a few miles to the east at the Florida Aquarium in downtown Tampa. Built in the mid-1990s, it never came close to meeting original projections of attendance of 1.8 million the first year. Consultants also said it would make about a $3 million profit that first year.

Instead, it lost money – and kept losing money.

It took decades and millions of extra dollars to turn the Aquarium – derided locally as a glorified fish tank – into something people actually wanted to see.

Then again, consultants always have a get out of jail free card when their ESTIMATES go sour. They can blame a changing economy, bad weather, or Donald Trump. Without trying to disparage the noble profession of consulting, in the end, they are playing with other people’s money and producing glorified guesses subject to human nature.

How can anyone say people who were planning a trip to the Grand Canyon decided to change course because St. Pete spent millions on a Pier. Maybe they were coming to St. Pete anyway to visit grandma. If so, they might drop by the Pier. And how many of those 102,000 hotel room nights would have been filled anyway because of an improving economy and the fact that St. Pete has a lovely beach and other attributes?

I am not against the Pier. If St. Petersburg is determined to build a Pier, then officials should do it because they think it will make the city better.

But if those same officials think of it as a something that will send visitors stampeding downtown waving their platinum gold cards in the air, proceed with caution.

#10 on list of Tampa Bay’s Most Powerful Politicians — Tom Lee

Brandon-based state Sen. Tom Lee enjoys a solid reputation on both sides of the aisle, while speculation about his political future continues to be fodder for local political junkies.

The 55-year-old Republican flirted with ditching Tallahassee for the Hillsborough County Commission last year after redistricting eliminated his Senate District 16 seat.

Instead, he ran for the newly drawn and uncontested District 20 seat.

Lee has an extensive amount of experience in the Legislature, having initially served in the Senate from 1996-2006, before losing to Alex Sink in the race for chief financial officer.

He returned to the Senate in 2012. In the most recent session, he chaired the Community Affairs Committee, and in March, he was named to the powerful Constitution Revision Commission.

“Tom Lee serves his constituents well and is very well liked by the business community,” says Republican consultant April Schiff. “He’s a moderate Republican who is a strong fiscal conservative supportive of tax cuts and takes the lead moving projects and public policy forward, especially on ethics reform, health care and business issues.”

Lee did not have the most stellar legislative session this past spring, it must be noted. He alienated some of his fellow Republican colleagues by publicly referring to allegations of “corruption” involving the spending of the master plan at Tampa International Airport, and his amendment (with Jeff Brandes) on the TBARTA bill was also frowned upon by the Tampa business/political establishment – not that they would ever go on the record as saying so.

In the 2016 poll, Lee was tied for No. 6 (with Wilton Simpson).

Joe Henderson’s Take

“He fell four spots from last year’s ranking but still ranks in the top 10, and that’s appropriate. Here is another guy who will tell you exactly what he believes and isn’t afraid to get his nose bloody in the process (like when he questioned spending at Tampa International Airport). He didn’t have overwhelming success in this year’s Legislative Session, but I wouldn’t count him out for next year and beyond. He is a survivor.”

For a complete explanation of how this list was created and who made up the panel that amassed it, please read here.

Sean Shaw bill for 2018 would stop raiding of Sadowski Housing Trust Fund

For the tenth year in a row, Florida lawmakers raided the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund to balance the budget that currently sits on Governor Rick Scott‘s desk. One state representative says that needs to stop.

Democrat Sean Shaw says he will file legislation for the 2018 Legislative Session to block what has become an annual ritual of the Legislature, even if the likelihood of the bill’s passage is dubious.

“I’m willing to dedicate one of my six slots to that, just to have the discussion,” he says, referring to the rule that House members can only file six bills in a legislative session.

Sadowski funds come from a locally collected document stamp on real estate sales transactions that are sent to the state. Seventy percent of that is sent back via the State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP) to all 67 counties, based on population, to primarily aid low-to-moderate-income residents with buying a home. The other 30 percent goes to the State Apartment Incentive Loan (SAIL), which the state uses as an incentive for developers to build affordable apartments.

Last year, lawmakers took $200 million out of the trust, cutting Scott’s original proposal of almost $240 million. The year before, the Legislature allocated $175 million of the $255 million that should have been spent on affordable housing.

“The Sadowski Fund isn’t the only one that gets swept,” Shaw told FloridaPolitics earlier this week. “It’s the one that means the most to me, but there are tons of funds that get swept into general revenue that are taken for specific amounts of money.”

Shaw says the Legislature has its priorities out of order when it comes to issues such as affordable housing.

“For us to keep giving tax cut after tax cut, and then to make up for it with money from the Sadowski Fund, is ludicrous,” he says.

Chris King, the Winter Park businessman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate, is also making the raiding of the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund an issue in his campaign.

“It’s not fair that we have huge tax cuts to the biggest corporations in America while were raiding the affordable housing trust fund to the tune of $1.7 billion over the last 15 years, which has been an all-out attack on seniors, on law enforcement, on recent college graduates, anyone who wants to make a life here in Florida” he said earlier this week in Tampa.

Meanwhile, Shaw is slated to co-host a clinic on voting rights restoration this Saturday in Tampa.

The clinic is designed to help former felons regain rights they lost when convicted of crimes. Clinic participants will receive information and access to resources to help put them on the path to the restoration of their rights.

Co-sponsored with the Florida Rights Restoration Project, the clinic is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday (May 20) at Middleton High School, 4801 N 22nd St., Tampa.

Citizens address gamut of issues at Tampa meeting of constitutional panel

Florida’s vicennial Constitution Revision Commission made its first stop in the Tampa Bay area Wednesday.

Members of the public came before the 37-member council — organized to get together every 20 years — and were allowed only two minutes to discuss what amendments should, or should not, be placed on the 2018 ballot.

The first speaker, 18-year-old graduating high school senior John Alvarez, said one of the best ways to overcome income inequality in Florida would be to implement a state income tax, getting rid of the sales tax.

“We rank second for regressive and abuse of bottom income earners,” he said.

Andrew Vila didn’t want the Commission to make any changes, but if they did, he asked for them to ratify school choice into the state’s Constitution.

Mark Klutho blasted the Legislature for failing to implement recently passed constitutional amendments regarding solar power, the environment and medical marijuana that have been held back in part by the Legislature. “What are these amendments mean if the Legislature won’t do a damn thing when the taxpayer says this is what our vote is? ” he asked.

“The way I see it, this is just a big farce,” Klutho added, eliciting large cheers from the audience.

Hillsborough Clerk of the Court Pat Frank took an opportunity to (once again) complain about how the Legislature failed to abide by a 2004 constitutional amendment transferring responsibility of funding clerks offices from counties to the state of Florida.

Frank said that collectively, clerks took in nearly $777 million in 2016, yet only $409 million went back to their offices.

There was lots of talk about guns both from Second Amendment supporters and gun control advocates. Each side warned the commission not to allow changes to the constitution supporting the other side.

“Any changes are an abridgment to liberties of the citizens,” said Nicholas Malone.

Sarah Johnson, with the anti-gambling advocates at No Casinos, said gambling groups have violated the state constitution for years by no longer going through the people to expand gambling, going directly to state legislators instead.

“We believe this shift violates Article 10, Section 7 of Florida’s current constitution,” Johnson said, adding that the power to allow building casinos in a community should be left to the voters.

Johnson then called for support of the Voter Control of Gambling Amendment.

“Deciding whether Florida becomes the next Las Vegas or Atlantic City shouldn’t be up to the legislators, it should be up to the voters of Florida,” she said.

As was the case in several other CRC public meetings, members of the public called for open primaries, allowing independents to vote in Democratic and Republican primary elections.

“I’ve been a Republican for over 45 years,” said Penny Hunter, “and I can’t imagine why we closed our primaries.”

Hunter lamented about how phony write-in candidates prevent voters from a different party to run in the primaries.

Citizens at the meeting also advocated for ranked choice voting, public financing of campaigns and the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.

Several members of the League of Women Voters repeated similar talking points, each calling for the commission to act with full transparency in their meetings.

Mickey Castor was concerned that the Commission would change the Fair Districts Amendment voters passed in 2010.

Gerald White requested that the Commission place a measure on the ballot to make the Secretary of State an elected Cabinet position. A bill sponsored in the Senate by Fernandina Beach Republican Aaron Bean looking to do just that died on the last day of Session.

After most of the crowd repeatedly applauded statements made by progressives, Commission Chair Carlos Beruff castigated the audience, admonishing them to keep quiet.

Audience members then flashed green cards in support of statements, red cards in opposition.

The meeting was held at the Dale Mabry Campus of Hillsborough Community College.

Hillsborough Commissioners consider limiting medical marijuana dispensaries to 13 countywide

Hillsborough County Commissioners intend to restrict the number of medical marijuana dispensaries to 13, reversing a decision made two months ago that would have opened the door for unlimited dispensaries throughout the county.

In March, the board voted 4-3 to back a proposal by Commissioner Pat Kemp, which reversed an earlier decision to limit the number of sites that those with a legal prescription could purchase medically approved in the county, once it becomes legal in October.

But on Wednesday, Commissioner Ken Hagan said he regretted that decision, proposing a motion to hold public hearings on the matter June 7, possibly limiting the number of dispensaries to 13 countywide.

“The way our ordinance is written, there are no caps on the number of dispensaries that can open in Hillsborough County,” Hagan said. “I do not believe this is a prudent approach to take for an untested industry, and I also do not feel that the intent of the board was to allow for an unlimited number.”

Both Hagan and Commissioner Sandy Murman made unfavorable comparisons to the dispensaries resembling the state’s notorious “pill mills” that ran rampant in the late aughts throughout Florida that contributed to the opioid crisis that has spread across the country.

The board’s decisions come less than two weeks after the Florida Legislature ended the Regular Session without agreement on a bill creating statewide rules on medical marijuana.

If lawmakers do not return to Tallahassee to address the issue with a Special Session next month, it will be up to the state Department of Health to promulgate the regulations starting in July.

Hagan’s proposal would limit the number of dispensaries to one for every 67,000 residents in unincorporated areas — 13 in all. However, Hagan insisted it was a “starting point, not an ending point.”

“If we need or want to add more dispensaries later, we can always add them,” Hagan added.

Murman also wanted to add an amendment to prohibit selling smokable pot. Neither bill that was working its way through the Legislature this spring allowed for that, which would have Florida join only New York and Pennsylvania as being the only states that have legalized medical pot, yet do not allow it to be sold in smokable form.

Neither bill that progressed through the Legislature this spring allowed for that. If either bill passed, Florida would join only New York and Pennsylvania as the only states that legalized medical pot but banning it in smokable form.

“Young kids are experimenting with marijuana at a very young age now,” Murman said. “They think it’s no worse than alcohol and you can’t die from it, but I think limiting the number of dispensaries will actually be good for us in enforcing our message that we are restricting it to medical needs and medical use.”

Hagan’s motion passed 6-1, with Kemp being the lone dissenter. She maintained that the board was still getting ahead of itself, as some key leaders in the Legislature continue to say that they need to come back and pass a bill on the issue before July 1.

“All the states that have made legal medical marijuana — not one of them has put into place a system that limits the dispensaries like this is,” said Kemp.

The board will hold a public hearing June 7 to vote on the proposal.

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