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Autonomous vehicle bill advances in House Committee

In just the past few years, Florida has emerged as a state willing to go all-in on autonomous vehicle technology.

Legislation that removes a requirement that the person operating a vehicle in autonomous mode possess a valid driver’s license — and instead make the autonomous car itself the licensed entity — easily moved Tuesday through the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

“It clarifies when engaged, the autonomous technology installed on a vehicle, is deemed to be the operator of a vehicle, regardless of whether or not a human is physically present in the vehicle, ” said Sanford Republican Jason Brodeur when explaining the bill (HB 725) to the committee.

Brodeur said the bill was mostly technical in nature, since most of the laws on the books simply never contemplated a society with self-driving vehicles.

Orlando attorney Rich Newsome said the legislation would be an absolute “game changer,” joking that driverless cars will make the roads so much safer that trial lawyers will be put out of business. However, he said he had concerns about the fact that the legislation was moving faster than the car companies producing such technology.

“You’re essentially giving a car who doesn’t know yet how to drive a driver’s license, without passing a test, without really knowing how to drive yet, ” Newsome said. “There is no safety standards or other standards right now for autonomous vehicle technology.” He said a testing program would give the auto companies an incentive to make sure the cars are as safe as possible.

St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton expressed concerns about a driverless car being “hacked,” but Brodeur didn’t seem prepared to address those issues. “If it were to get hacked … that would fall under product liability law, no different than anything you currently operate gets hacked, but there’s liability on the part of the provider there,” Brodeur responded.

“I embrace the technology, but your inability to answer my question about hacking is a little disturbing to me,” Newton added.

Coconut Creek Democrat Kristen Jacobs said one of the things that she was excited about is that driverless cars “need”only nine feet of road in 12-feet wide, which she says could more possibilities for sidewalks or bike lanes on streets.

St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes is sponsoring the Senate version of the legislation.

Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform formed as Legislative Session formally begins

With numerous criminal justice reform bills already moving through Florida House and Senate committees this year, a nonpartisan coalition called The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform announced Monday its formation on the eve of the 2017 Legislative Session.

The Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform includes the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU of Florida, Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, League of Women Voters, R Street Institute, Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Florida Public Defender Association, Florida Legal Services, Florida Immigrant Coalition, New Florida Majority, Florida Council of Churches, Farmworker Self-Help, Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF and Southern Legal Counsel.

“Legislators should take notice when public interest organizations representing an extraordinarily broad ideological spectrum come together to urge long-overdue reforms in our criminal justice system,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. “Reforms are needed in our prison system that is already nearing 100,000 inmates, the 3rd largest inmate population of any prison system in the country.  Our state’s habit of imposing mandatory minimum sentences has loaded up our prisons in a way that threatens the safety of inmates as well as correction officers.  Continuing to use incarceration in Florida prisons as a substitute for drug and mental health treatment is not financially sustainable.”

The coalition listed six separate bills that they are focused on as the session begins, starting out with legislation sponsored by St. Petersburg Republicans Jeff Brandes and Kathleen Peters  (SB 458 and HB 387) that would create a task force to review the state’s criminal justice system and recommend reforms prior to the 2018 Legislative Session. Members would represent elected officials, the judiciary, law enforcement, academia, faith groups, advocacy organizations and formerly incarcerated people.

Other bills the coalition will be following closely this Session:

Children Tried as Adults – Florida prosecutes more children as adults than any other state. CS/SB 192 would grant judges oversight of prosecutor’s “direct-file” discretion, remove certain nonviolent offenses from eligibility for adult charges and retain voting rights for children convicted as adults.

Juvenile Civil Citation – Children without arrest records have more opportunity for education, employment and civic engagement. HB 205 and CS/SB 196 would expand the use of civil citations – instead of arrests – for non-violent, common youth misbehavior.

Adult Civil Citation – Tough-on-crime policies have bloated Florida’s jail and prison populations, locking up many non-violent offenders. HB 367 and SB 448 would give law enforcement officers discretion to issue civil citations to adults committing certain low-level misdemeanors, allowing them to complete diversionary programs and avoid arrest records.

Elderly Release – Many prisoners are elderly, require costly medical care and pose no threat to public safety. HB 535 and SB 606 would lay the groundwork for expanding compassionate release programs.

Sentencing and Offense Parameters – Several proposed bills would change how certain offenses are charged and provide judges more discretion in sentencing. HB 693 and SB 1102 would revise property crime thresholds. SB 608 would alter how certain driving offenses are treated. HB 641 and CS/SB 290 would revise possession of controlled substance offenses; expand eligibility for non-prison sanctions and diversionary programs; allow judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent crimes and drug possession offenses, and create a Sentencing Commission to oversee sentencing practices.

Members of the Florida Campaign for Criminal Justice Reform say they will be at the Capitol this Thursday, lobbying legislators to approve these reform measures.

Parenting plan bill that skip courts, lifts court overload gets unilateral support in Senate committee

A bill heard by a Florida Senate committee Monday seeks to streamline the process of setting up a parenting plan for unmarried parents, according to its sponsor.

The proposal in the Senate’s Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee – SB 590 – was introduced by its lead author, Sen. Jeff Brandes, with members voting in the end to forward the bill.

After that, the bill still must go through several more committees, then heard on the floor of the Statehouse before it becomes law.

The bill looks to authorize the Florida Department of Revenue to establish parenting time plans agreed to by both parents under Title IV-D child support actions of the Social Security Act, as permitted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Title Iv-D is a federal public welfare program that took effect in 1975. It is a conduit for states to enforce child support programs on parent’s delinquent in such responsibilities, etc.)

“The bottom line is that this bill is not just about money, it’s about spending quality time with kids,” Brandes told the committee.

He was asked what costs the bill would incur to the state, responding there would be a one-time, non-recurring cost of $419,000, with annual recurring costs of $20,000.

“It’s a very economical way for kids to see their dads,” Brandes said.

Brandes’ bill also looks to encourage frequent contact between a child and a parent, or parents, for the positive development of children.

The committee peppered the senator with questions, with one came from Sen. Victor Torres, vice-chair of the committee, who wondered whether it affected parents who lived in other states or under nontraditional conditions. He also mentioned he thought it might need a little tweaking before a vote on the floor of the Florida Senate.

Brandes said if a child is under 3-years old, or if one of the parents has committed a crime – like not paying child support or having been convicted of domestic violence – then the custodial parent wouldn’t have to agree to a parenting plan.

In the event the parents can’t agree on a parenting time plan, they would be referred to a circuit court in their district for the establishment of a program. In these instances, parents wouldn’t pay a fee to file a petition to determine a parenting time plan.

The bill would go into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

It has long been agreed upon by child development experts and those in the psychiatric communities that closer parent-child relationships can often lead to emotional and behavioral stability in adulthood, and overall better mental health, according to the online journal Psychology Today.

The article also noted when parents and children fall out of timing with each other, either of the parties may become mentally distressed.

However, there was a voice of dissent.

Beth Luna, a Jacksonville-based attorney who spoke to the committee about her opposition to the measure, said it SB 590 needs improvements.

“It’s a long-standing policy of this state to do what’s best for a child,” Luna said. “You just can’t implement a plan that’s a one size fits all approach. … Not every child is the same. A child at 16 or 17 is going to be different than a child who is 3 or 4 – the same goes for a special needs child.”

All parenting plans are approved in Family Court in the state of Florida.

Her concerns elicited a host of questions by the committee members, who considered her viewpoint.

But in the end, there was unanimous support for Brandes’ bill.

Veterans group releases priorities ahead of 2017 Legislative Session

Veterans advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America announced its priorities for the 2017 Legislative Session, including support for bills that would help veterans by giving them tax breaks and helping them hold down jobs after leaving the military.

“Florida should welcome veterans and military families, instead of pushing them away with burdensome taxes and regulations that put special interests first,” CVA Director Diego Echeverri said in a statement. “When veterans or service members hang up their uniforms, our state government should make their transition into civilian life as easy as possible.”

“This year, Concerned Veterans for America will work tirelessly to support measures that would ease burdens and expand opportunities for the military community here in the Sunshine State,” he continued. “We look forward to working with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to get these important pro-veteran measures across the finish line in 2017.”

CVA said it was backing a proposal by Rep. Paul Renner and Sen. Jeff Brandes that would make it easier for service members and their spouses to hold down jobs after they relocate by waiving certain licensing requirements some occupations. Neither the House version, SB 615, or the Senate version, SB 1272, has been heard in committee.

The group also favors Renner’s HB 487, which would give veterans and their families a break certain business and property taxes. The bill hasn’t been heard in committee, nor has its Senate companion, SB 330 by Sen. Greg Steube.

CVA also said it was on board with the plan to eliminate Enterprise Florida, which it says “hands out taxpayer funds to a few, large benefiting companies at the expense of many hardworking Floridians.”

Jeff Brandes and Kathleen Peters file legislation to limit the release of sewage discharges

Following the dumping of millions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Tampa Bay, Clam Bayou and other waterways by local governments in 2016, two state lawmakers filed legislation Thursday to incentivize local governments and private utilities to dedicate more resources to improving their sewage infrastructure.

St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes and Pasadena Representative Kathleen Peters‘ bill (SB 1476) creates within the state Environmental Regulation Commission, the Blue Star Collection System Assessment and Maintenance Program to limit the unauthorized releases or spills of treated or untreated wastewater and the unauthorized discharge of pathogens. 

“This legislation gives utilities an incentive to improve their infrastructure assets and prevent harmful discharges into our waterways,” said Brandes. “With this bill we are able to recognize those utilities that implement industry best practices and encourage continued upgrades to limit future discharges.”

“I have given my commitment to working on solutions for Florida as they relate to our sewer systems,” added Peters. “I believe this bill is a first step to ensure our public and private utilities are operating optimally state wide and an effort to prevent another storm from resulting in more overflows or dumping.”

Certification under the program requires a utility to engage in detailed assessments of their sewer infrastructure, reinvest resources into maintenance, identify strategies to improve infrastructure to meet state requirements, as well as several additional requirements. To incentivize participation in the program, the department may reduce penalties for a future sewer overflow based on a utility’s status as a Certified Blue Star Utility. The bill allows financially constrained counties to apply grants to implement the requirements of the Blue Star certification. The bill also authorizes existing grant funds to assess the vulnerability of wastewater infrastructure to identify needed improvements to prevent future discharges and overflows.

Peters has also filed legislation requesting $5.5 million for sewer improvements in St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach. Of that, $3 million in state funding would be earmarked for St. Petersburg to smoke test sewer pipes for leaks, install and seal manholes, among other work. The remaining $2.5 million would go to St. Pete Beach for the engineering, construction and permitting of the city’s sanitary sewer system. There is no Senate companion for that yet.

Sewer systems in South Pinellas were the focus of extensive news coverage last year after the repeated sewage discharges into Tampa Bay by local governments. St.Pete’s sewage system discharged more than 200 million gallons of waste into waterways, roadways and neighborhoods in the over the past two years.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has pledged to spend $304 million to fix the city’s sewers by 2021.

House splitting legislation on incentives, tourism funding

In a letter to fellow members, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz says House leadership now is planning to bifurcate its legislation to eliminate Enterprise Florida and to overhaul VISIT FLORIDA.

The Senate, however, so far still intends to keep Enterprise Florida as part of its economic development tool chest.

On Monday, Diaz – the Miami-Dade Republican who chairs the House Commerce Committee – wrote an email titled “Accountability – Everyone is for it, Right? We’ll see…” about his chamber’s proposal (HB 7005).

“We have heard from members and stakeholders that they would prefer if Enterprise Florida and VISIT FLORIDA were addressed in separate bills,” he wrote. “Dividing the issues into separate bills allows for more engaged and meaningful debate while putting VISIT FLORIDA on a path to real reform.”

Originally, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican, aimed to abolish both the state’s economic development organization, dispenser of many of the state’s business incentives, and its tourism marketing agency, both public-private endeavors.

The speaker had threatened to sue VISIT FLORIDA after it refused to reveal a secret deal with Miami rap superstar Pitbull to promote Florida tourism, later revealed to be worth up to $1 million. The ensuing controversy cost former agency CEO Will Seccombe his job.

But Corcoran later decided to salvage the tourism agency from the legislative wrecking ball, though stripping it down to a bare $25 million yearly budget from nearly $80 million.

As is, the combined bill cleared its review panels and was ready to be considered by the full House when the 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7.

Its sponsor, Republican Paul Renner of Palm Coast, has instead filed new legislation (HB 9) that addresses VISIT FLORIDA on its own. It will first be heard March 6 by the Rules & Policy Committee, the House website shows.

It “contains the accountability and oversight provisions introduced last week,” Diaz said. “The bill also tightens private matching requirements and clarifies that VISIT FLORIDA funding will be addressed in the budget.

“HB 7005 will also be amended in the Rules and Policy Committee to focus solely on Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs,” he added.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development, last week filed his own economic development legislation.

It would leave VISIT FLORIDA alone, and overhaul but not get rid of Enterprise Florida and incentive programs.

It’s official: John Legg not running in 2018

It’s time for the Leggs to enjoy it being “Quiet Uptown.”

Former state Sen. John Legg said Monday he will not run for Senate in 2018, quashing rumors he might considering a comeback in the coming years.

“After 12 years my family and I need a break,” he said.  “Also, I am enjoying working on education issues and innovation both national and statewide. I feel like I can make a bigger difference in education right now outside of the Florida Legislature. However, that may change in time.”

Legg was first elected to the Florida House in 2004, serving there eight years. He was elected to the Florida Senate in 2012, but a court order redistricting forced him make a difficult decision in 2016: Run for re-election and challenge Sen. Wilton Simpson, who is in line for the Senate presidency, or step down at the end of his term.

The father of five decided not to run for re-election, telling the Tampa Bay Times at the time he was “not worried” about his future.

Many pondered whether Legg was considering in 2018 in Senate District 16, the seat currently held by Sen. Jack Latvala. Legg backed during the contentious leadership battle, and Legg indicated in the past the the north Pinellas seat was one of several options he had been considering.

But Legg said there is no state race in his immediate future, saying Monday “we are not running in 2018.”

Ed Hooper, a former Republican state representative and and Clearwater City Commissioner, filed to run for the seat last year. A fundraiser is scheduled for March 6 in Tallahassee, and Latvala, Bill GalvanoWilton SimpsonDana Young and Jeff Brandes are among those listed on the host committee.

Jeff Brandes goes mobile; to hold mobile office hours Monday

State Sen. Jeff Brandes is going mobile.

The St. Petersburg Republican announced Friday he will be holding mobile office hours Monday in St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg.

In a statement, Brandes says his mobile office hours will allow constituents an extra opportunity to meet with him and discuss issues in the community.

Brandes’ mobile office hours are open to the public; no appointment is necessary.

Monday, Feb. 27
TIME: 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Regatta Room, University Student Center
University of South Florida St. Petersburg
200 6th Ave. South
St. Petersburg, FL 33701

Monday, Feb. 27
TIME: 1 p.m. – 4 p.m.

Tampa Bay Beaches Chamber of Commerce
6990 Gulf Blvd.
St. Pete Beach, FL 33706

Brandes serves as Chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development.

 

Jeff Brandes bills keep Enterprise Florida, but with tight leash

State Sen. Jeff Brandes‘s new economic development proposal would continue operations of the embattled Enterprise Florida and state Department of Economic Opportunity, but on tight leashes.

Senate Bills 1110 and 1112 spell out a new way of doing business for two of Florida’s major economic development programs that have been under fire for accountability, particularly through their spending and penchants for luring out-of-state business with incentives in cases that go awry.

Brandes’s bills focus more on fostering small businesses and startups already in Florida, with tighter controls on EFI’s spending and salaries. That includes creating a grant program for new business incubators and accelerators.

The plan behind the bills calls for full funding for Gov. Rick Scott‘s budget recommendations for Enterprise Florida and protection for current incentive programs. After that, though the rules will change.

Brandes’s bills could become the counter offer to what may come out of the House of Representatives, where Speaker Richard Corcoran is targeting Enterprise Florida for elimination due to concerns over its lack of accountability. House Bill 7005, introduced Tuesday, would abolish Enterprise Florida and strip to bare-bones another state-chartered economic development corporation, VISIT Florida.

Brandes is calling for redirection for Enterprise Florida. It does not address VISIT Florida.

“The focus of economic development should be on Florida’s small businesses,” Brandes stated in a news release. “Fostering a startup culture in our state and encouraging small business development will create a better ecosystem where opportunity can thrive. This legislation provides greater oversight and safeguards over our current economic development programs. This bill recasts our focus on new businesses that breathe the entrepreneurial spirit and diversify Florida’s economy.”

Among the proposals, Brandes’s bills would:

— Require the return of $117 million currently held in escrow for the Quick Action Closing (QAC) Fund to the State Economic Enhancement and Development (SEED) to increase the rate of return on those funds.

— Sanction businesses that relocate from the state within three years of receiving final incentive payments, and prohibit the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) from making material amendments to incentive contracts.

— Restructure Enterprise Florida Inc.’s board to be broader based, including reserving seats for the president of CareerSource Florida and someone from the Small Business Development Network, and requiring it to include at least one member with expertise in rural economic development.

— Prohibit any employees at Enterprise Florida from being paid more than the governor, and restricting bonuses, while requiring Senate confirmation for the president of Enterprise Florida.

— Establish a “Startup Florida Grant Program” within DEO, providing $50 million per year for the development and operation of small business incubators and accelerators throughout the state. The grants would be limited to $5 million a year.

— Establish the Small Business Information Center (SBIC) within the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) Network Lead Center of the University of West Florida. It would serve as a clearinghouse for small businesses seeking help from DEO.

— Require the DOE to provide, to the governor and the Florida Legislature, annual reports on the estimated contractual obligations of the state’s Quick Action Closing Fund.

— Require two-thirds board votes for any contracts involving any board members who might have conflicts of interest with the companies involved.

— Limiting new incentive contracts to ten years.

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition pushes for statewide bill to get passed this year

Last year in the Florida Legislature, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a bill to create statewide regulations regarding ridesharing, but the bill died ignominiously in the state Senate.

Similar bills are winding their way through committees in both chambers already in 2017, and on Wednesday, the group Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition announced their support for that legislation, being sponsored in the House by Palm Harbor Republican Chris Sprowls and Tampa Republican Jamie Grant and in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes.

“We fully support legislation that embraces innovation, and legislation that creates predictable regulatory climate across the entire state for ridesharing companies,” said Frank Walker, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Florida Chamber of Commerce on a conference call.

Florida is one of only 12 states in the nation that has yet to create a statewide law regarding ridesharing, or transportation network companies (TNC’s) as they are also known.

In 2016, the drama was in the Florida Senate, where Uber blamed Senate PresidenAndy Gardiner for the inability for the ridesharing legislation to advance. He’s been succeeded by Palm City Republican Joe Negron, who has praised the current legislation.

“I think you’ve got two different bodies then you had last year,” said Walker, when asked why he’s more optimistic that the bill will pass this year. He also said that there is simply more demand for Uber and Lyft. “Environment plays a big role, and so does demand,” he said.

No region of the state has more interest in seeing a ridesharing bill passed than in the Tampa Bay area. That’s because of the large unpopularity with the body charged in Hillsborough County to regulate Uber and Lyft, the Public Transportation Commission.

Over the years, PTC officers have cited numerous Lyft and Uber drivers for operating illegally. Those actions ceased after the PTC finally passed a bill last fall bringing the two companies into compliance.

“Local regulations at best have been problematic and dysfunctional, and have not been helping to foster and grow the local economy, and that’s why we need a statewide regulation,” said Bob Rohrlack, President/CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

Rohrlack blamed “the status quo,” meaning the taxicab industry predominantly, for putting up roadblocks to protect, and not grow markets. “The local regulations penalize entrepreneurs. That’s something that none of us should be accepting,” he said.

In previous years, there has been criticism that the ridesharing companies have not been accommodating towards the disabled. But Kim Galban-Countryman, Executive Director of Lighthouse of the Big Bend, says the TNC’s are helping people with disabilities, especially those living with vision loss.

“Convenient transportation options are an absolute necessity for people with vision loss, and ridesharing introduces a simple affordable means to get around,” Galban-Countryman says.”Through various voice activated systems and services, individuals with visual impairments who otherwise would not have access to convenient transportation options can maintain their independence, and call a Lyft or Uber driver to take them where they need to go.”

Floridians for Ridesharing Coalition was formed before the 2016 legislative session.

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