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Pinellas lawmakers talk 2016 Session, advice for Rick Scott, and who they think will be president

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With the 2016 Florida legislative session now in their rear view mirrors, the entire Pinellas County delegation – sans HD 65 Republican Chris Sprowls – discussed various aspects of what just went on in Tallahassee on Wednesday before a robust Suncoast Tiger Bay Club audience at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club.

The delegation skews heavily Republican, with only Dwight Dudley and Darryl Rouson the lone Democrats on the panel.

Dudley is a committed progressive, and he disrupted the relative bonhomie when arguing about the hot button issues of abortion and school choice with his fellow Republicans.

“Whether it’s private school, public school, whether it’s playing sports – we allow for parents to have more choices…than almost any other state,” exclaimed St. Petersburg state Senator Jeff Brandes. “I’m excited about where we are.”

The issue is one that divides most but not all Democrats from their GOP brethren. Public school advocates in Florida have blasted the Legislature for years for what they say is a slow draining of public schools funding, while the school choice movement continues to receive state dollars.

While acknowledging that there are “some” good charter schools, Dudley said the school choice movement has lost its way, which he says initially was all about innovation.

“What we have today is a bunch of imitation,” he snarled. “We have a horrible lack of accountability with regard to our tax dollars. There is a ripoff to taxpayers. Private equity groups and investors are very happy about treating education as an emerging market to the pain of taxpayers, not to the benefit of the students.”

Another flashpoint is the controversial abortion bill that Governor Rick Scott signed last week. The legislation requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, requires annual licensure inspections for clinics and bans the purchase, sell or transfer of fetal remains. The law also upgrades the failure to properly dispose of fetal tissue from a second-degree misdemeanor to a first-degree misdemeanor.

“The regualtion that was passed was really not to help women, but to try to restrict a woman’s right to choose. That’s what it’s all about,” declared Dudley.

Seminole Republican Representative Larry Ahern disagreed, saying that there is nothing in the bill that prohibits a woman’s right to choose.”All it says is that a doctor must have priviledges at a hospital within a certain distance in order to perform these types of surgical procedures,” he maintained. “So, in essense, it’s protecting her in case something does go wrong. And it does.”

The Legislature failed for the third straight year to come up with regulations regarding ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft. Uber went on a high-profile offensive in the waning days of the session, pressuring Senate President Andy Gardiner to allow for an up-or-down vote in the senate after its companion legislation passed overwhelmingly in the House. Brandes said he looks forward to “regime change” when it comes to Senate leadership next year, when Gardiner will be succeeded by Palm City Republican Joe Negron. 

“Our Senate President was often quoted as saying, ‘don’t be afraid of debate,'” Brandes recounted. “But that didn’t count when it came to ridesharing companies, because for days and days that bill sat on the calendar, and we failed to debate it.”

A lack of communications between Governor Rick Scott and the Legislature has been extensively reported on by the Tallahassee press corps. Moderator Peter Schorsch (the executive editor of Florida Politics) asked lawmakers for a single piece of advice they would give to the governor to alleviate that situation.

“They’re office has not been known for their Legislative Affairs Division,” quipped Senator Brandes. “In fact, at one point in session, I questioned their legislative affairs director if there was lamb’s blood on my door because they kept passing over it,” to laughs from the audience.

State House Republican Chris Latvala said that staffers in the governor’s office shouldn’t take things so personal, while his father, Clearwater state Senator Jack Latvala, said what was vital was that legislators and the executive branch respect the priorities of those that they work with.

Pasadena House Republican Kathleen Peters said the trick in getting some of the mental health legislation that she was able to pass this session was working with department secretaries. “It’s all about relationships,” she said.

As seems to be the case whenever Republicans get together, the question of whether or not they would support Donald Trump if he becomes the GOP presidential nominee was posed to them.

Jack Latvala said that he would support whomever the nominee is, but he admitted that “everyday something comes out of his mouth that disappoints me.”

“I hope as he matures as a candidate, he’ll understand that he’ll need to be more inclusive and recognize all the different things that make our country great,” he said. Latvala added that he could never support Hillary Clinton after viewing, “13 Hours,” the Michael Bay directed film about the attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi that led to the deaths of four Americans.

Chris Latvala expressed similarly ambivalent feelings, saying that he would support whomever the Republican nominee was, though he called Trump “an embarrassment.” He also said Florida Democrats had their own Trump problem with U.S. Senate candidate Alan Grayson.

When asked who they think will be the nominee this fall, Dudley and Rouson said it would be Hillary Clinton, while the Republicans were all over the lot.

Some said Trump, another said Ted Cruz, while both Jack Latvala and Jeff Brandes suggested that it would be a contested convention. Latvala said (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that ultimately Jeb Bush would become the nominee, while Brandes aid it would it would be House Speaker Paul Ryan, who continue to deny any interest in running for president, yet continues to be mentioned as a possible alternative to be selected by the delegates at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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