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Jeff Brandes leaves Tallahassee with impressive bill record

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Florida state Sen. Jeff Brandes is home from Tallahassee with a list of accomplishments this session. Of bills he proposed, at least nine are on their way to the governor for a signature.

One of the bills Brandes is most excited to see make its way to Rick Scott’s desk is the Local Government Pension Reform bill. Senate Bill 242 is what Brandes says “looks like a minor bill, but will have a huge impact.”

If the House version of the bill, HB 1309, is signed by Gov. Rick Scott, it would require local governments to regularly update mortality tables. The data is a key determining factor in actuarial valuations used to determine funding for pension programs. The requirement would more accurately fund government pension programs.

“Most municipalities are probably underfunded the way it’s calculated,” Brandes said.

Another of Brandes’ key accomplishments this session is the Flood Insurance Reform Bill. The legislation is expected to save those who take advantage of it hundreds of dollars on flood insurance policies by creating “customizable” options for those seeking a policy.

Under SB 1094, previously adopted changes to the state’s flood insurance system would be expanded to allow the insured to decide how much insurance they want to carry. For instance, a homeowner could opt to not cover the contents of their home to keep flood insurance costs down.

Both bills from last year and this year are an answer to rising flood insurance costs in Florida incurred as a result of mandatory rate hikes for keeping the nation’s National Flood Insurance Program solvent.

The new law, if signed by Scott, circumvents federal law as long as both parties – the insured and the insurer – agree on terms.

In addition to providing custom policies for homeowners, the bill also would require engineers for any new development to take flood risk into consideration and use that info for mitigation.

The other top-three bills headed to Scott’s desk after being authored by Brandes is the Right to Try Act.

“It’s a big deal for Florida,” Brandes said. “We’re now the 16th state.”

The bill would allow terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs as long as they are under the care of a physician and other approved medications have proven ineffective.

The experimental drug would have to have passed at least a Phase One clinical trial, but would not have to have FDA approval. The bill does not allow for any kind of assisted suicide.

Other wins for Brandes this year includes his controversial Concealed Weapons in Emergency Evacuations bill. SB 290 would allow people with or without concealed weapons permits to lawfully carry concealed, licensed firearms during mandatory evacuations. A similar bill died last year in session after being dubbed the “Zombie Apocalypse” bill.

Other bills passed pertaining to veterans, patents, unclaimed property and property insurance.

Brandes’ omnibus highway safety package is also headed to the governor’s desk. That bill authorizes state agencies to pay up to $5,000 to cover funeral costs of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty. It would also allow certified emergency medical technicians with proper training to administer emergency allergy treatment and would streamline regulations of the size and width of some loads transported on state roadways. It also would extend and revise the Pilot Rebuilt Motor Vehicle Inspection Program.

Brandes said that bill would have likely been more inclusive had the Legislature had more time to vet other components.

Brandes didn’t win all of his battles. At least six of his bills were left on the table this year, including medical malpractice reform, a bill relating to bad-faith insurance claims, added transportation legislation, reimbursement rights for utilities, a bill helping to regulate rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft and a medical marijuana bill.

“We could have had a few more had we actually had the next three or four days,” Brandes said, frustrated that the House adjourned sine die three days before the session ended.

Brandes’ medical marijuana bill never made it out of committee, but was instead replaced by a similar bill by state Sen. Rob Bradley of Fleming Island. Bradley’s bill won’t be signed into law this year. It failed to get support in the House.

Regardless, Brandes remains hopeful the state can tend to marijuana reform legislatively instead of looking to a constitutional amendment to get it done. He points out that Bradley’s bill originally contained a maximum THC potency of 0.8 percent, but later changed that to 15 percent, effectively opening the door for nearly all strains of marijuana.

“But with higher THC you have to fix the regulatory structure,” Brandes said. “And that’s where we broke down.”

The Bradley bill would have addressed more comprehensive medical marijuana in the state. The Legislature passed the Charlotte’s Web bill last session. It allows non-high-inducing medical marijuana in a non-smoked oil form. That program has yet to be regulated and those waiting could be waiting for some time.

Brandes, however, expects regulation for Charlotte’s Web to be sorted out soon. As far as other types of marijuana, Brandes expects the Legislature to adopt it eventually and still maintains a legislative solution is better than one decided at the ballot box.

“It’s sort of like coming out of Prohibition,” Brandes said. “How would you set a structure coming out of Prohibition.”

The group United for Care has said it plans to gather enough petitions to put another medical marijuana referendum on the 2016 ballot. Its 2014 measure failed by just 2 percent even though it got more than half of voters’ support.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for Patch.com and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email janelle@floridapolitics.com.

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