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Still no decision on Florida Senate’s ‘Five Flags Mural’

With work well underway on renovations of the Florida Senate chamber, there’s still no word on the fate of the decades-old mural that greets visitors to the chamber’s fifth floor public gallery.

Senate spokeswoman Katie Betta said Tuesday no final decision has been made about the artwork’s future. This past October, Betta said the mural will be taken down because it’s showing signs of age, including fading and peeling.

The “Five Flags Mural” also happens to depict a Confederate flag, which the Senate previously voted to remove from its official seal and insignia. Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa had explained that the flag is a “painful symbol of oppression.”

The name of the mural refers to the five flags that have flown over the state: U.S., Confederate, Spanish, French, and British.

The flag is over the shoulder of Gen. Joseph Finnegan, commander of the Confederate forces at the February 1864 Battle of Olustee in north Florida, the largest Civil War battle fought in the state.

It’s not yet clear whether the 10-foot-by-16 foot painting can be relocated, though Senate President Andy Gardiner is committed to preserving it, Betta said.

“Our construction managers have been seeking input from art preservation specialists to determine the best way of removing the mural,” she said. It’s been in place since the Capitol opened its doors in 1978.

It’s still “unclear if we will be able to remove the mural from the wall, or if the wall will need to be removed in pieces with the mural still attached,” Betta added.

Tallahassee attorney Jeff Howell, who led an informal drive to save the mural, had written to Gardiner last year that the work should be “preserved and moved to a place where it can continue to be viewed by Floridians.”

On Tuesday, Howell said he never received a response. “When we have more information regarding (the mural) component of the project, the Senate will reach out to those who have expressed interest” in it, Betta said.

Senate President Pro Tem Garrett Richter, the Naples Republican who leads the Senate’s Chamber Renovations Working Group, couldn’t be immediately reached by telephone.

The mural’s artist, Renee Faure, also could not be reached Tuesday morning. She previously told FloridaPolitics.com she found it “quite hard to believe that this defacement of artwork is being considered,” referring to its removal.

The Senate now is redoing its chamber, which has not been renovated since the building’s construction in the 1970s.

The nearly $5 million renovation, expected to be complete before the end of the year, includes a new ceiling dome and other design elements similar to the exterior of the Old Capitol, such as a pediment on top of columns over the president’s rostrum with the words “In God We Trust.”

House, Senate Republicans to hold fundraiser at Universal Orlando

How do you celebrate the end of a Legislative Session?

If you’re Florida House and Senate Republicans, you do it with a fundraiser at Universal Orlando.

Republican leaders will hold a fundraiser at Universal Orlando on April 9 and 10. The event, first reported by POLITICO Florida reporter Matt Dixon, will benefit the House and Senate Majority Committees, which oversee legislative campaigns.

Among those listed as headliners is Rep. Chris Sprowls, the Pinellas County Republican who may be the House Speaker beginning in 2021.

Last week, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, an Orlando Republican, conceded the 2021 House Speaker race to Sprowls. The move came after state Reps. Paul Renner and Mike Miller said they would support Sprowls. Several other of his colleagues tweeted their support for Sprowls after Renner and Miller flipped.

Sprowls is one of seven House and Senate Republican leaders headlining the event.

Speaker Steve Crisafulli, Speaker Designate Richard Corcoran and future Speaker Jose Oliva will represent the House leadership team, while Senate President Andy Gardiner, Speaker Designate Joe Negron, and Majority Leader Bill Galvano will represent the Senate leadership team.

Property Casualty Insurers “disappointed” by failure to pass ride-sharing regulation

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America said it was disappointed lawmakers capped off the 2016 Legislative Session without passing insurance regulations for Uber and Lyft drivers.

“Twenty-nine other states have passed legislation addressing insurance coverage requirements for TNCs, and it is past time for Florida to do the same,” the group said in a Friday email. “PCI will continue to work with lawmakers on a solution for 2017 so that this is the last year rideshare drivers and passengers operate without the necessary protections in place.”

PCI’s sentiment echoes that of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, which also issued a statement Friday lamenting the failure of SB 1118 and HB 509 this session.

Both bills cleared their committee stops, and HB 509 even passed through the full House by a 108-to-10 vote, though neither bill was heard on the Senate floor.

The trade group, comprised of nearly 1,000 member companies, said that “drivers and their passengers need to know their personal auto policy will not cover them if they are injured or if the vehicle is damaged in an accident.”

Still, PCI thanked Sen. David Simmons and Rep. Matt Gaetz, who sponsored the bills, as well as House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, primarily seen as Uber and Lyft’s biggest opponent in the Legislature

Uber legislation finally flames out

A compromise between Republican lawmakers and ride-hailing firms like Uber was on thin ice Friday afternoon as Session raced to a close, until finally, the bill hit a brick wall.

Sen. David Simmons, the Senate Rules Chair, had worked on the bill (SB 1118) for months. It would have mandated minimum commercial insurance requirements for drivers with Uber and similar app-based companies, known as “transportation network companies” in Capitol-ese.

The House — which favors a more Uber-friendly approach — passed its own bill (HB 509) last month that addressed insurance but also included a provision that is anathema in the Senate: Blocking local authorities, such as the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, from regulating the services and instead reserving that power to the state.

The two sides, with Uber at the wheel on behalf of the House, engaged in a heated and increasingly personal battle.

Simmons said he met “hours upon hours” with Uber, Lyft, and taxicab companies, insurers, and made “massive amounts of attempts” to come up with language that worked for all. It didn’t happen.

Uber made a last-ditch campaign urging the Senate to take up the House language via a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes. They even went so far as to deliver a three-feet-high stack of some 32,000 petition signatures to the desk of Senate President Andy Gardiner on Thursday, but to no avail.

In the end, after Sine Die, neither Simmons’ nor Brandes’ bill passed the Senate.

Meanwhile, the state of Florida continues to operate on a patchwork basis with some local governments allowing so-called “ride-sharing” apps, and other prohibiting or limiting it.

The issue is practically guaranteed to come back in Tallahassee next year.

Florida poised to approve a nearly $82.3 billion budget

Putting behind a year’s worth of rancor, the Florida Legislature on Friday will approve a more than $82.3 billion budget that includes a slight boost in money for schools but also rejects many of Gov. Rick Scott‘s main priorities.

Just a few months ago the Republican-controlled Legislature was rushing to pass a budget to avoid a state government shutdown. This time the House and Senate put together a spending plan for this year that increases the state budget by roughly 5 percent without the arguing and finger-pointing that had consumed most of 2015. The vote guarantees that legislators end their session on time.

But along the way legislators forged a budget that ignored much of what the GOP governor wanted. They shot down his bid for a $250 million fund to lure new companies to the state. Scott’s tax cut package, a centerpiece of his 2014 re-election bid, was scaled back significantly. Instead of using a budget surplus to give tax cuts largely to businesses, legislative leaders instead steered money to a small trim in local property taxes.

Both Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli insisted that their approach was a reaction to recent news that showed that Florida’s economic recovery may be faltering and that tax collections aren’t growing as robustly as once forecast.

“There’s a reality to how much money you have available and the resources you have and we had to recognize that,” Crisafulli said this week.

There are other places that legislators also bucked Scott. They agreed to borrow money in order to set aside more than $700 million in school construction projects. Florida in the past would routinely borrow money for building projects, but they had stopped due to continued opposition from Scott.

Crisafulli defended the practice, saying that it makes sense to use bond proceeds for construction with interest rates so low. Still the move could risk a veto from Scott, who last year slashed nearly $500 million from the budget before signing it into law.

Democrats have usually been sharply critical of the annual budget. But this year they said they would vote for the budget to “send a message” to Scott. This means that the Republican-controlled Legislature should have enough votes to override Scott in case he vetoes the budget or spending items within it. It takes a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

“We have a governor who refuses to govern and that has enabled us to cross party lines,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat.

Some legislators, however, said there were shortcomings in the budget. They complained it doesn’t include an across-the-board pay raise for state workers or boost spending enough in Florida’s troubled prisons system. A push by Florida’s prison chief to hire enough correctional officers to switch from a 12-hour shift to an 8-hour shift was not approved by budget negotiators.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, a North Florida Republican who is leaving this office due to term limits, harshly criticized GOP leaders for refusing to set aside more money for state workers and prison employees.

“We have the money, but we are cheating our employees,” said Van Zant.

Despite saying they didn’t have money for pay raises, legislator still spread throughout the budget tens of millions for hometown projects. Some of the same projects were vetoed by Scott last year, leading to rampant speculation that legislative leaders may have already agreed to override Scott. Crisafulli and Gardiner have continued to insist they don’t have any agreement on overrides.

“There’s going to be things in there the governor doesn’t like, there’s going to be things in there the governor likes,” said Crisafulli.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

In series of Tweets, Hillary Clinton slams Rick Scott on abortion rights

It’s been a very Florida-centric day for the Hillary Clinton campaign. The Clinton press shop has sent out reminders of Bernie Sanders‘ comments from 1985 on Cuba and Nicaragua, popular points of defense among the left at the time.

However, most of Clinton’s push has been about 2016 issues. And in her sights: Florida Governor Rick Scott, as a few Tweets, signed “H” so you know they are from her, indicate.

At issue: the Governor potentially signing into law HB 1411, which includes several provisions that critics say will limit Florida women’s ability to access abortion care.

“States like Ohio, Utah, and Florida that attack Planned Parenthood are attacking women’s health, and they’re part of a dangerous trend….If efforts to roll back women’s rights seem relentless, you’re right: States have enacted 282 abortion restrictions since 2010….., all eyes are on you. Buck the trend: Do the right thing and protect a woman’s right to make her own health decisions.”

Including Ohio in the mix, another big March 15 primary state, is no accident; it reminds the Clinton base where she has been on the abortion issue since the beginning.

Bernie Sanders Tweeted along similar lines on Wednesday, reports our Mitch Perry.

As is typical, Scott has not comment on whether he supports this bill. Clearly, only a veto would satisfy Secretary Clinton.

That would put him at odds with the Legislature, including Senate President Andy Gardiner.

“It was mentioned earlier that over the last 16 years, it seems like every year we do a pro-life bill” said Gardiner.

“I’m leaving and I’m glad we did that.”

Uber delivers to Andy Gardiner thousands of pro-ridesharing petition signatures

A representative for Uber personally delivered what he said was 32,588 petitions to Senate President Andy Gardiner on Thursday morning, continuing the intensifying fight between Senate leadership and the ride-hailing industry over insurance regulations and the preemption of local ordinances.

The two parties are locked in a heated debated over whether the Senate should vote on a House-approved pro-“ridesharing” plan sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, or whether to take up a more modest bill that would settle outstanding sticking points on insurance crafted by Senate Rules Chair David Simmons. Uber favors the former, while the latter appears more likely at this stage.

Simmons represents the Orlando area as does Gardiner, who has ties to the traditional taxi and limousine firm Mears Transportation. Pro-Uber critics of the Senate have made much of that fact in recent days.

As he delivered the three-feet-high pile of signatures, Uber’s Director of Public Affairs for the Southeast Colin Tooze said the signatures gathered from Uber riders and drivers across the state shows the public is behind their cause.

The show of support is in addition to the will of the Florida House, who passed the bill 108-10 with bipartisan support, said Tooze.

Tooze added major stakeholder groups like The Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and several Florida mayors have also voiced their support for what he called “comprehensive ridesharing legislation.”

“All they’re asking for is one simple thing – for a vote on ridesharing in the state Senate.

“On Monday Senate President Gardiner said the best advice he ever got was not to fear the debate,” said Tooze. “That’s all that the 32,588 Floridians who signed this petition… are asking for.”

Uber continued to add a pointed personal bent to their argument with Gardiner, creating a hashtag – #DontFearTheDebate – and urging supporters to tweet at senators appending the tag. The firm says thousands of people have done so in the last day.

“It’s time for the voices of the people of Florida to be heard and it’s time for a vote on ridesharing in the Florida Senate today,” concluded Tooze.

Legislature passes new strictures on abortion clinics

The Florida Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that critics say would curtail women’s access to safe and legal abortions, while supporters say it simply “gets Florida out of the abortion business.”

The measure to increase medical requirements on abortion clinics, sponsored by Lakeland Republican Sen. Kelli Stargel, passed 25-15 after nearly half an hour of debate.

After the Senate removed language pledging the state’s commitment to an “unborn child’s right to life,” which many legal observers could have added further constitutional complications,” the House then approved the same measure 76-40.

House Democrats used the request to accept the Senate’s changes to once again call on lawmakers to oppose the legislation.

Just like the yesterday’s successful discussion on the bill, which also removes funding for any state contract with women’s health providers that also provide abortions, the debate brought out deeply personal sentiments.

Democrat Sen. Bill Montford spoke about counseling pregnant high school students and their families when he was principal of a high school in Tallahassee.

“It was the most personal, most difficult decision a young woman could make. And I don’t think we ought to sit here and dictate to them how they ought to make it,” said Montford.

Fellow North Florida lawmaker Republican Sen. Alan Hays had an equally adamant but diametrically opposed point of view. He likened abortion to murder, and the United States Supreme Court’s policy of allowing it to mass murder.

“If any world leader called for the killing of 10,000 people in their country, we’d be up here screaming ‘genocide!’ Hays exclaimed. “But here in America, millions of babies have been killed in the womb. If abortion isn’t genocide, I don’t know what it is.”

While House debate on the bill focused more strictly on the requirements on clinics written into the bill – they must have admitting privileges to or a “transfer agreement” with a nearby hospital – some senators like Hays and Sen. Rob Bradley among others couched the debate in terms of outright opposition to abortion.

Sen. Jeff Clemens thanked them for their candor, which he said helped reveal to the public and to future courts reviewing the bill its true intentions.

“They were brave enough to get up here today and let everybody know this bill is about restricting a woman’s right to choose. And I think that’s going to be important because when the Supreme Court rejects this bill – like they’ve rejected bill after bill after bill in the past 16 years – the court is going to be able to look at intent and understand that,” said Clemens. “So I appreciate that honesty.”

Stargel said Clemens was essentially knocking on an open door when it comes to supporters’ intentions.

“Would I like a bill that bans abortion? Sure. But we can do that because it’s unconstitutional,” said Stargel.

Democrat Sen. Maria Sachs reminded her colleagues that legal abortion is the law of the land in the U.S. under Roe v. Wade, and that by limiting Florida women’s access to the procedure, they are only placing a burden on women. She pointed to Texas and other southern states, where inquiries into unsafe homemade pregnancy terminations are on the rise.

Having already passed the House, the bill now moves to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott for his likely signature.

Following the debate, Senate President Andy Gardiner made a rare comment from the rostrum, thanking Stargel for carrying the bill.

Though known by Tallahassee standards as a relative moderate on policy issues, he is strongly opposed to abortion.

“It was mentioned earlier that over the last 16 years, it seems like every year we do a pro-life bill” said Gardiner.

“I’m leaving and I’m glad we did that.”

Mitch Perry Report for 3.9.16 – Sanders stuns in Midwest

Although Bernie Sanders and his supporters have to be feeling great after the Vermont senator stunned everyone Tuesday night by defeating Hillary Clinton in Michigan, Clinton’s victory in the richer delegate state of Mississippi won her more delegates for the night, 86-69.

Nevertheless, it’s certainly a stunning rebuke to the pollsters and pundits, some predicting Clinton could win by nearly 30 percentage points. On the Bloomberg Channel’s “With All Due Respect” Tuesday night, the dean of conventional wisdom, Mark Halperin, said the only way that the Sanders could “spin” that they did OK was if he came within 4 percentage points.

He won by 50%-48%.

How big a victory was it? No less than FiveThirtyEight website calls it one of the “one of the greatest upsets in modern political history.”

When Jesse Jackson won Michigan back in 1988, his fans actually thought he might take the nomination, freaking out the DNC leadership.

They ended up nominating Michael Dukakis.

So now what? There are two  huge prizes next week, Ohio and Florida, and again the polling shows Sanders trailing big-time in those states.

I like his chances to surprise better in the Buckeye State than down in Florida, where the reputation as “Clinton Country”seems to be well deserved, until otherwise noted.

Sanders has been so busy trying to win the earlier states that Wednesday will be his first campaign stump this year in Florida, and who knows whether he’d show up if there wasn’t a debate in Miami?

Nevertheless, he does have a very vocal group of supporters in the Sunshine State who are very much into his message, as I can attest covering a couple of events the campaign has had with campaign staff members (as well as the listeners on my weekly radio show).

Although Clinton fans are undoubtedly still feeling smug about her chances of capturing the nomination, perhaps they shouldn’t feel so terrific. The fact is, the majority of states she’s winning in the South are destined to go Red in November. So Sanders’ success with whites in particular could prove troublesome in some of the states where Donald Trump thinks he can compete that other Republicans haven’t in recent elections, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and perhaps a few others.

In other news …

House District 59  hopeful Rene Frazier says she knows it’s a a lot about negotiating with the other party to get things done as a Democrat in Tallahassee.

• • •

A Survey USA poll done for Bay News 9 is making Florida look ominous for Marco Rubio next week.

• • •

Orlando area U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson says the U.S. Deptartment of Justice won’t look into the circumstances regarding the death of 14-year-old Andrew Joseph III at the Florida State Fairgrounds two years ago. However, he says they may look at the Hillsborough County Sheriffs Office’s practices.

• • •

Speaking of the HCSO, it had a message for the media Tuesday regarding the apparent exuberance among some reporters to find out when the Go Hillsborough investigation is due out.

• • •

And Uber is now going after Senate President Andy Gardiner regarding the holdup in voting for a bill regulating TNCs in Tallahassee.

Andy Gardiner still considering whether to bring up John Armstrong’s confirmation

Don’t count out Surgeon General John Armstrong quite yet.

Senate President Andy Gardiner said he is still debating whether the Senate will consider Armstrong’s confirmation. Gardiner said if the Senate were to take up Armstrong’s confirmation, it could come up on Thursday.

But, Gardiner said, that’s still a big if.

“I’m not sure we’re there yet,” said Gardiner. “We are not whipping. For me, it’s more of a procedural (question). If we bring him up, what’s the sense of the Senate.”

The Senate Ethics and Elections committee did not take up Armstrong’s confirmation. The committee postponed the hearing several times. Naples Republican Sen. Garrett Richter, the committee’s chairman, said at the time that Armstrong’s confirmation was postponed because members still had questions.

Armstrong’s confirmation has been an uphill battle. His leadership has been criticized, and lawmakers have questioned the state’s growing rate of HIV/AIDs and the slow implementation of the state’s medical marijuana law.

The Senate did not confirm Armstrong during the 2015 legislative session. If it fails to confirm Armstrong this year, the state’s top doctor will be out of a job.

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