Tom Lee Archives - SaintPetersBlog

Joe Henderson: We already term limits. They’re called ‘elections’

I am not a fan of term limits.

I understand the argument from those who say we need a law that limits the power of incumbency. They say the longer a politician stays in office, the more likely they are to accumulate so much recognition and money that it becomes almost impossible to beat them.

What they’re really saying is that voters need protection from themselves. I have a problem with that because it still comes down to this basic fact: We already have term limits. They’re called elections.

No matter how long a politician has been in office, voters still have the final say. If they decide that lawmaker is doing good work, there should be no reason that person can’t stay on the job.

I mention this because of what is happening with the Hillsborough County Commission. Three of the board’s seven members are in a game of musical chairs that on the surface seems a goofy way to stay in office.

There is a loophole the size of the Grand Canyon in the Hillsborough charter that allows a commissioner restart their term-limit clock if they are elected in a different district than the one they currently serve.

That’s how we get this: Sandy Murman and Victor Crist have announced intentions to run for two of the board’s three countywide seats because they are prohibited from running for a third consecutive stay in the single district each represents.

While that is going on, long-serving Commissioner Ken Hagan is mandated to leave the countywide seat he has held for two terms, so he will run in District 2. That’s the district Hagan represented when he was first elected to the Commission in 2002 before he had to run for the at-large chair in 2010 and, oh man … this makes my head ache.

State Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, who has mentioned once or 300 times that he might prefer a Commission seat to the one he currently occupies in Tallahassee, is considering a push to outlaw the chair-swapping that Crist, Murman and Hagan are using.

In theory, that means they could keep jumping from seat to seat and stay on the board until they are called to the Great Beyond. Lee has said the practice violates the spirit of the charter and he is considering a push for an amendment that would stop that.

There is some merit to Lee’s argument, but I think a better idea is doing away with mandated term limits. Voters would still be able to pass judgment at the ballot box and it would stop the kind of silliness we’re now seeing.

Hillsborough lawmakers clash during Tampa Chamber’s Session look-back

As House Minority Leader Janet Cruz notes, the Hillsborough County Legislative Delegation works “as a united front” when representing their community in Tallahassee.

That’s true on issues like the eleventh-hour move by the Florida Senate to push the University of South Florida out of pre-eminent status under a conformity education budget bill that passed in the waning hours of the legislative session two weeks ago.

Over that matter, members acted in unison, denouncing what they said was a fundamental unfairness, leading to USF being denied up to $16 million.

But that unity is not so apparent on several other issues, like the “Schools of Hope” education bill (SB 7069) and the lack of funding for Florida Forever, the conservation land-buying program that 2014’s Amendment 1 was meant to address.

It was those subjects where Democrats and Republicans differed sharply Friday in a post-session review luncheon sponsored by the Greater Tampa of Chamber of Commerce at Maestro’s restaurant in Tampa.

Sen. Darryl Rouson spoke wistfully about the fact that the education bill would have only taken one more vote in the Senate to have been defeated.

“It’s almost an insult to call it a schools of hope bill because every school is a school of hope,” the St. Petersburg Democrat declared, adding that unlike in the House, the Senate wasn’t willing to give tens of millions of dollars to high-performing out of state charter school before offering those funds to existing public schools.

Republican Rep. Jamie Grant of Tampa countered that the $140 million slated to go to charter schools is a better purpose of taxpayer funds than giving it to public institutions graded as “F” schools for three consecutive years.

Grant said House Republicans deserved praise because most of these charters aren’t in their home districts.

Republican Sen. Dana Young of Tampa said the “disagreement and negative feelings” expressed on the panel stemmed more from the process — adding the bill to a conforming bill completed in the last few hours of Session — than the policy itself.

Rep. Wengay Newton argued that the idea of cutting funds to struggling public schools is wrong. The St. Petersburg Democrat blasted the fact that Florida is ranked 42nd in the nation for education funding per student and 49th for the number of instructors per 100 students in public schools.

(Apparently, the public favors the Democrats in this argument. The Miami Herald’s Kristen Clark reported that by a margin of at least 3-to-1 so far, Floridians are telling Gov. Rick Scott via email and phone calls that they want him to veto the bill).

Sometimes the arguments transcended party lines, such as the legislation to completely defund VISIT Florida, the state’s tourism agency.

“I’m not willing to put my name behind anything that is adverting to Syrians that could be invested in education or we could be talking about the rising costs of health care,” said Grant, referring to recent reports of wasted taxpayer dollars spent by the state agency.

But he received strong pushback from both Democrats and Republican on the panel.

“There were problems with transparency, there were problems with contracts, those should be addressed on an individual basis,” agreed Rep. Sean Shaw, a Tampa Democrat. “But for a state that depends on tourism as much as Florida, I am very leery of destroying and eviscerating the entity that is responsible for that tourism.”

“Every product needs marketing to get it out there, and we are going to have our lunch eaten by Utah and Michigan and Austin and all of these other places that advertise if we don’t advertise … particularly in Europe, but not Syria,” Young added.

State Sen. Tom Lee of Brandon joined Grant to defend the Legislature over criticism from environmentalists that they failed to adhere to 2014’s Amendment 1 when it comes to allocating money to properly fund Forever Florida, the state’s conservation and recreation lands acquisition program.

“I think it would be deeply disingenuous to say that a constitutional amendment us to purchase land,” Grant said. He insisted the amendment’s language calls for the Legislature to act as “stewards of that land,” which Grant said wasn’t the same thing as purchasing said land.

“I think it would be equally disingenuous to only say we’re going to manage it and not acquire (land),” Shaw responded, quoting the exact language of the amendment.

Lee alienated the Chamber and other parts of the Tampa Bay area establishment with his stance on several issues during the past session. Though he wasn’t asked (and didn’t volunteer) to discuss his controversial request for an audit of Tampa International Airport, he did speak freely about why he and St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes inserted an amendment on a bill to reconfigure TBARTA.

Lee said he spoke with many officials involved with efforts to increase transit in the Tampa Bay area, and said what he heard back was by no means monolithic. “The truth is, there really wasn’t us among you all about what to do about TBARTA,” he said.

And Lee compared a new TBARTA with the extremely unpopular Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission, the troubled county agency in that lawmakers voted to kill at the end of the year.

“They become their own runaway train, spending millions of dollars at your expense, and these feasibility studies sometimes end up being twice the cost for capturing the ridership,” Lee said. “Nobody’s scrubbing these things except the people whose real estate projects stand to benefit from them.”

Regarding USF, Young put into perspective the disappointment of the school missing benchmarks to quality for pre-eminent status as well as the millions that would have gone into receiving that designation.

The university received $42 million in new recurring operational funds, Young said, as well as $12 million for the Morsani Medical School to be built in downtown Tampa and $3 million for dormitories.

“The future of USF is bright,” she said.

Ken Hagan doesn’t understand why Tallahassee Republicans seemingly ‘loathe’ local government’

Republicans in Tallahassee have left Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan scratching his head.

Plenty of city and county government officials have recently disparaged members of the Florida Legislature for passing a measure to expand the homestead exemption, which could ultimately deprive them of millions of dollars of revenues in the coming years.

As for Hagan, a lifelong Hillsborough County Republican, he doesn’t have that big of an issue with his fellow GOP state lawmakers over that matter.

But Hagan certainly does have a problem with killing Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development organization slated to be completely defunded unless Gov. Rick Scott vetoes that bill in the next month.

Led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Florida House voted to defund Enterprise Florida, which offers tax incentives to lure businesses to the state, decrying it as corporate welfare.

Hagan has trouble understanding that attitude.

“Years ago, the conservative pro-business Republicans were always in favor, because it was job creation, (and) it was the more liberal side that made the case it was corporate welfare,” Hagan said Friday at the Oxford Exchange in Tampa. “Now it’s a 180.”

Hagan was speaking to about 50 people at the event, part of the Cafe Con Tampa series.

“Now you’ve got far right conservative Republicans saying this is corporate welfare and why are we doing this,” he said. “And I really don’t understand.”

More than ever, local city councils and county commission members up and down the state have criticized the GOP-led Legislature this spring for seemingly attacking the idea of “home rule,” including numerous attempts to take power away from local governments, and bring control back to Tallahassee.

In some cases, they were successful; others, not so much.

“It’s been my impression through the years that there are certain members of the Legislature … that really appear to loathe local government, and I don’t really quite understand that,” Hagan said.

Some Democrats say that they believe Tallahassee is biased against local governments, in part because they’re controlled by Democrats.

But that’s not universal throughout the state.

For years, the Hillsborough County Commission has been a dominantly conservative Republican board, and Hagan said it’s been as fiscally conservative “as any in the state. ”

“Yet it seems like some members, for whatever reason, think that local government just wastes money away, and I really don’t understand that.”

“I’m a fiscal conservative,” Hagan continued, “and it’s always been my opinion that conservatives believe in devolving power from the federal level to the state level to the local level, and some of their actions appear to be inconsistent with that core conservative philosophy.”

“I don’t understand where it’s coming from.”

The 49-year-old Carrollwood-based legislator sponsored a number of ordinances that have captured the attention of the public over the years. That includes this week’s ban on commercial puppy stores opening in the county, in an attempt to crack down on puppy mills.

Initially elected in 2002, he’s been re-elected four different times, serving in two separate districts; he’s hungry to stay involved in county politics, announcing last month he will run next year for the District 2 North Hillsborough. It’s a seat he previously held for eight years (2002-2010).

That’s prompted some grumbling from Democrats and Republicans such as Tom Lee, who say that it violates the spirit of term limits in the county which call for a maximum of two terms in one district.

But the fact is, Democrats haven’t been able to beat Hagan in five different elections to date.

One issue that the Legislature recently approved that has irked local lawmakers is the vote to expand the homestead exemption by another $25,000 on the November 2018 ballot.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said that could bring a financial hit of up to $36 million annually to the county, but Hagan doesn’t have an issue with it.

“Whenever we can offer our citizens property tax relief we should, but it’s going to require us to continue tightening our belt,” he said bluntly.

When it comes to tax incentives for luring Hollywood productions to the county, Hagan has been an unflagging champion of the concept.

However, because state lawmakers have declined to replenish that incentive program in recent years, Hollywood producers wanting to film in Tampa went to states like Louisiana or Georgia, as was the case of the recent Ben Affleck-directed “Live By Night.”

The producers of last summer’s “The Infiltrator” wanted to film extensively in the Tampa Bay area, but couldn’t because of the lack of a state incentive. Led by Hagan, the County contributed $250,000 to the producers to convince them to shoot some scenes here.

“When properly executed and we can show a return on investment, and you’re offering your incentives after the fact, after they’ve created the thresholds, it’s a sound investment and a strong return on investment,” he says.

Hagan believes the problem with incentives are when they are offered before a company actually meets the metrics such as how many jobs they will bring to the area. He remains hopeful that Tallahassee will change their policy on providing film subsidies, though that certainly won’t happen under the current regime.

Hagan has also been well known for championing sports to the region, and he’s been the number one cheerleader/strategist in trying to lure the cross-bay Tampa Bay Rays to Tampa.

Admitting to being frustrated about how long the process has gone on, Hagan sounded optimistic that the Rays would announce their choice of a stadium sometime in 2017, and hinted that it would be somewhere in the Ybor/Channelside area.

“I think that they will be able to come up with something special that’s going a long way toward transforming downtown, Channelside-Ybor area, where I don’t mind saying that it’s going to be in that geographical swath,” he said. “It’s going to go a long way toward transforming downtown Tampa and the entire Tampa Bay area.”

#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.

Tampa City Council wants lawmakers to explain bill that would have gutted CRA’s

A proposal by Lithia Republican Jake Raburn (HB 13) calling for an end to all community redevelopment agencies (CRA’s) died in a legislative committee in the Florida House last month.

And members of the Tampa City Council are happy about that.

Raburn’s bill didn’t go as far as a related proposal by Brandon Republican Tom Lee in the Senate (SB 1770). That bill would have placed much stricter requirements on CRA’s, but it also stalled in a committee as well.

At Thursday’s Tampa City Council CRA meeting, Councilman Mike Suarez expressed annoyance about the proposal and that Hillsborough County lawmakers never informed them about it.

That prompted Councilman Frank Reddick to suggest that the council invite the two GOP lawmakers to attend an upcoming CRA workshop, so that board members could inform them about all of the positive aspects of what those agencies do for Tampa. The Council voted to hold that workshop on August 10.

CRA’s are geographic areas that meet certain physical and economic conditions and thus receive special designation and attention by local governments. That usually results in receiving tax revenues from increases in real property value, referred to as “increments” that are deposited into a CRA Trust Fund and dedicated to the redevelopment area.

Historically they were created to focus attention and resources in a particular area characterized by blight and disinvestment. But a 2015 Miami-Dade grand jury report from 2015 came down hard on local CRAs, saying that they acted almost like a “slush fund” for the elected officials who were in charge of doling out millions in property taxes diverted from general revenue for the purpose of eliminating slum and blight.

“Some of these CRA’s around the state are an absolute embarrassment to me as a public official, and as someone who really believes that there ought to be an opportunity to direct some of this revenue into blighted areas to help improve the living conditions of the people who live there,” Lee commented at a Senate committee discussing the bill last month.

Tampa has seven separate CRA’s. St. Petersburg has four, with more than 200 overall in Florida.

“This is both alarming and disturbing that this was even brought up at the state level for CRA’s,” said Councilman Guido Maniscalco.

Councilman Harry Cohen applauded the move, but said that city also needed to be concerned about the Legislature’s approval of a 2018 voter referendum that would increase the homestead exemption by another $25,000, which would effectively cut local property taxes and make a major negative impact to cities and counties throughout the state who rely on those taxes to fund their governments.

“Whatever guests that are coming to the City Council this year from the Legislature, I would also talk to them at the same time about why they view it as being a good idea to take more money out of the hands of local governments,” Cohen said.

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill told the Tampa Bay Times this week that the county could lose as much as $30 million annually if the measure is approved by the voters next year.

 

Joe Lopano: Tampa International master plan is about living up to George Bean’s legacy

As Tampa International Airport’s master plan expansion moves through Phase One, the Hillsborough Aviation Authority is now looking toward Phase Two.

This week, the Authority approved more than $132 million to pay for construction of a retail and office space area near the airport’s new rental car facility, which is also still under construction.

Over the past month, TIA CEO Joe Lopano has been making the rounds in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, keeping various local governments and agencies informed of all the latest developments.

On Friday, the road show took Lopano to the Oxford Exchange, where he spoke with approximately 70 people assembled as part of the weekly Cafe Con Tampa lecture series.

He began, as he usually does, by praising the man behind the creation of TIA, George Bean, who Lopano said possessed two qualities sadly missing with leaders today — vision and courage.

Lopano, referring to how the original cost for the airport came in one-hundred-percent over budget, said Bean “not only had the vision to say this is where we’re going to go, he had the courage to march through that and get it done … even though he got a lot of bad press and a lot of criticism.”

In calling for his TIA master plan, Lopano challenged planners to transcend what Bean envisioned in the late 1960s. Those planners came back with a “cheap” plan, he said, one that was unsatisfactory to him.

“I could have kicked the can down the road and did nothing if I wanted to, but it wasn’t responsible,” Lopano said, adding it wouldn’t be living up to the legacy of TIA.

“We’re doing what we said we would do.”

That includes adding direct international flights, one of the mandates the Aviation Authority was looking for when they hired Lopano in 2010. He accomplished that, in part, by offering economic incentives to the airlines, a tactic eschewed his predecessor, Louis Miller.

As an example, Lopano talked of how incentives helped attract one carrier, Edelweiss Airlines.

“You remember the naysayers said, ‘they’ll be gone after the incentives are over, this is another crazy idea. You know, this guy from Dallas,'” Lopano told the audience. “Well, after a year, when the incentives were over, they doubled their capacity to two a week. Now they’re at four a week.”

Lopano also lavishly praised key members of his team, including Vice-President of Marketing Chris Minner and Janet Zink, who he called “the best public relations government vice president in the country.”

Last month, Tampa Bay area Republican lawmakers — including Dana Young and Jack Latvala — appeared stunned when state Sen. Tom Lee went on the Senate floor to request a state audit of the TIA master plan. Lee, a Brandon Republican, pointed to allegations of “public corruption” made in the Tampa Bay-area media.

Lee cited one report from WFLA-News Channel 8 in March, which claimed the airport was four months behind in the billion-dollar-plus master plan.

To that, Lopano basically said: And your point was, exactly?

“An investigative reporter just recently said we were behind schedule,” Lopano said. “The investigative reporter discovered that I had told my board a month before that, that we were four months behind on a four-year project.”

“So, that’s really Pulitzer Prize winning stuff,” he added sarcastically to laughter in the crowd.

The airport is, in fact, currently under budget, Lopano reported. He expects the public to begin riding the people mover — part of that grand master plan to take people from a newly constructed rental car building to the main airside — by February 2018.

In addition to the WFLA piece, Lee told FloridaPolitics.com the source who put some “meats on the bones” on the story was none other than former Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Board Member Martin Garcia. 

Since his mysterious departure from the board after just six months in 2014, Garcia, who heads a Tampa-based investment firm, has been a constant critic of  airport management, and, along with a few other South Tampa residents, frequently complained at Aviation Authority meetings about the jet noise from planes landing on the runway nearest their homes on the southeast side of the terminal.

But as Lopano frequently repeated over the years, the airport has no control over those flights.

“The airplanes land on the runway that the control tower tells them to land on. I have no discretion on where an airplane lands,” he said. “My responsibility is to provide a runway, markings and lights. The captain decides where he wants to put the airplane down.”

Ninety-six percent of the time, Lopano said, airlines don’t even land on the southeast side.

Tom Lee quietly files unfriendly amendment affecting Uber, Lyft

State Sen. Tom Lee on Wednesday filed an amendment for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles bill that would regulate the operations of ridebooking services like Uber and Lyft.

The language would prohibit local governments and governmental bodies, including airport authorities, from cutting deal with “transportation network companies” (TNCs) to operate exclusively in their jurisdictions.

The amendment for the bill (HB 545) also prohibits agreements “that provides disparate treatment” to any TNC.

The prohibitions wouldn’t “apply to contracts existing on July 1, 2017,” nor if any deals resulted from “a competitive solicitation process.”

Requests for comment were sent to Lee, who was in a Senate floor session Thursday morning, and to spokespeople for Lyft and Uber.

Also this session, Lee called for an independent audit of the Tampa International Airport‘s expansion project, saying there are too many unanswered questions about how the airport is being run. Airport officials said they’d welcome any audit.

Updated 11 a.m. — The Senate temporarily postponed the bill after Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala warned against overpacking the transportation bill.

Lee had first said he wanted to “ensure the free market we were trying to set up under the original bill.” That refers to the TNC regulatory bill passed this session.

That bill’s sponsor, St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, then said he was “deeply conflicted” over the language because it didn’t address taxi companies.

Finally, Latvala warned: “Just keep loading it up and there will be no highway safety or transportation bill this year. I’ve seen it, over and over and over again,” he said.

“The merits of Sen. Lee’s amendment — we could probably talk the rest of the day about it,” Latvala added.

“One thing I do believe is that …  taxi companies and transportation networks ought to be treated equally. If this amendment doesn’t provide that, then we shouldn’t adopt it.”

Uber spokesman Javi Correoso said the company “thanks Senator Lee for his support in creating a permanent home for Uber in Florida.”

But, he added, the amendment “can limit access to airports and seaports by requiring a burdensome bidding process that taxi companies and other vehicle for hires would not be subject to.

“In addition, the amendment would eliminate the practice of innovative pilot programs where the ridesharing industry has worked with public entities to create transportation options for hard working, lower income residents traveling back after late night work shifts.”

TBARTA bill passes unanimously — now goes to Rick Scott for signature

By a vote of 117-0, the Florida House passed a bill to revamp the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA).

With the Senate approving the bill last week, it now goes to Gov. Rick Scott‘s desk.

Although Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson sponsored it in the House, that chamber actually substituted his bill with the Senate version, sponsored by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala (SB 1672).

The legislation would downsize TBARTA from seven counties to five (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando), and it would change TBARTA’s focus to transit (and not merely transportation).

“It is the beginning of a long journey,” Raulerson said, acknowledging that by itself, the bill does not change the lack of transit options in the region. “But hopefully it will be a fruitful journey, and one that will improve the transportation process in Tampa Bay.”

“I look forward to a new and improved transportation system in Tampa Bay,” enthused Tampa Republican Shawn Harrison, who made suggestions to Raulerson for improving the bill.

“We have quite a challenge in Tampa Bay in getting our transportation problems fixed,” said St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond. “I think this bill is an important first step to do that in creating a regional authority.”

Two weeks ago, an amendment filed by Tampa Bay area Republicans Tom Lee and Jeff Brandes made it harder for the region to push for light-rail, but Latvala was able to make changes to that amendment last week, which appeared to have satisfied supporters of the bill.

However, the measure still requires that if the TBARTA board opts to pursue state funding for commuter, heavy rail or light rail transit projects, they will first need a majority vote of each Metropolitan Planning Organization where such investment would be made, in addition to approval by the Legislature.

Under the new reorganization, the TBARTA board will be made up of 13 members, which includes a county commissioner from each of the five counties making up the new agency. Two members shall be the mayors from Tampa and St. Petersburg. PSTA and HART will also select a single member. The governor will name the remaining four members.

The bill was a huge priority for the Tampa Bay area business community.

“For years, the members of our legislative delegation have asked the community to provide a unified voice on the issues that matter most to our region,” said Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “This session, our regional business leaders did exactly that, stepping up in a big way to champion this bill, and the result is a huge win for Tampa Bay.

“This legislation will transform TBARTA into a streamlined and effective regional transit authority, which is a critical first step toward the development of a regional transit system in Tampa Bay; one that connects our residents to new job opportunities and our businesses to prospective employees.”

TBARTA bill one step closer to going to Rick Scott’s desk

Legislation to revamp the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) by reducing its footprint passed Tuesday a second reading on the Florida House floor.

One more vote in the House, and the bill goes to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

Sponsored in the House by Plant City Republican Dan RaulersonHB 1243 would downsize TBARTA from seven counties to five (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee and Hernando), and change the TBARTA’s focus to transit (and not simply transportation).

Two weeks ago, an amendment filed by Tampa Bay area Republicans Tom Lee and Jeff Brandes made it much harder for the region to push for light-rail, but Senate sponsor Jack Latvala of Clearwater was able to make changes to that amendment last week, which appeared to have satisfied supporters of the bill.

There was little discussion about the bill Tuesday on the House floor.

St. Petersburg Democrat Wengay Newton asked Raulerson what were the differences between his bill and Latvala’s bill in the Senate? Raulerson said the main difference was that the governor would have four picks to put on the TBARTA board, whereas the House bill limits his power to two choices.

The bill now goes to the full House Wednesday for a third and final reading. The Senate bill passed last week.

Homestead exemption expansion wins supermajority vote in Senate

The Senate approved a proposed ballot measure Monday to raise the value of Florida’s homestead exemption, improving chances that separate legislation to expand gambling would survive the Legislative Session.

The vote was 28-10, within the required three-fifths majority.

House leaders, who have been reluctant to open Florida to additional gambling options, have made approval of legislation to do that contingent on passage of the homestead exemption increase.

Several senators referred to those stakes, but sponsor Tom Lee maintained that the resolution was about keeping people in their homes.

“Let’s respect property rights. Let’s give the people the opportunity to make this decision,” Lee said. “They will make the right call.”

Amendments to scale back the increase to $12,500, to let county commissions opt out, and to shift the effective date to 2022, failed on voice votes.

HJR 7105 would raise Florida’s homestead exemption to $75,000 on property values of as much as $125,000, effective Jan. 1, 2019.

The increase would not apply to school taxes. And it would be subject to approval by at least 60 percent of Florida voters.

A companion measure, HB 7107, would shield financially strapped small counties by promising state money to backfill any losses in revenue.

The Senate language would cost $644 million. The original House version was priced at nearly $795 million.

Opponents argued that Florida already is a low-tax state, and that raising the exemption would force local governments either to raise tax rates or cut back services, especially to lower-income Floridians. Renters would pay more, too, they said.

“If we think that we need to cut taxes … why don’t we just do it, instead of pushing it off on local officials and then blaming them with they increase the tax rate?” Sen. Jeff Clemens said.

Sen. Gary Farmer complained that no a committee of substance ever studied the wisdom of the proposal. Rather, it was rushed through the Rules Committee last week.

“I know we’re toward the end of the session, and things start getting a little funky,” Farmer said.

“I think it’s hard for us to fully understand the fairness of this change when the issue has not been fully vetted though the committee process,” he said.

Sen. Perry Thurston said every local official in his Broward County district opposed the rollback. “This is going to pass if we approve it. But who’s it going to hurt?” he said.

Sen. Denise Grimsley expressed reservations about the potential for budget cuts for police, firefighters, and other first responders, but concluded the voters would make the right decision.

While conceding the potential for harm, Sen. Darryl Rouson expressed faith in the voters.

“I expect to take some heat,” he said. But he offered: “Strip every project I have from the budget. It’s not about the projects. It’s about a fundamental belief that do the people deserve the right to speak.”

“They will figure it out. And I trust whatever decision they’re going to make,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson.

Lee said it wasn’t true that the bill was never heard in a committee of substance — the Community Affairs Committee debated it on March 22.

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