Adding to the political drama of the 2018 legislative session, Sen. Tom Lee said he is getting ready to launch his second campaign for a state Cabinet seat.
Lee, a Republican who served as Senate president during the 2005 and 2006 sessions, ran for state chief financial officer in 2006, losing to Alex Sink, a Democrat. He is now raising money and lining up consultants for another bid for the chief financial officer's post.
“My plan is to move forward with a campaign next year,” Lee said in an interview this week as he attended meetings in Tallahassee as a member of the state Constitution Revision Commission. “It's the right time for me.”
Lee said the “last piece of the puzzle” is making sure he will have enough financial support for a successful Cabinet bid, which he estimates will cost some $10 million, including a primary campaign that could exceed $5 million.
Lee, a home builder from Hillsborough County, said his fund-raising has been good, with his political committee, The Conservative, reporting about $1.8 million in cash on hand through Sept. 21.
Lee likely will face Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis in the August Republican primary. Patronis has not formally announced a campaign but is expected to run and is raising money through a political committee.
Patronis was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in June to replace Jeff Atwater, who left the Cabinet to assume an administrative post at Florida Atlantic University.
Lee said he did not expect the campaign to alter his relationship with Scott, whom Lee supports.
“I talked with the governor very early on about my desire to run,” Lee said. “I love the governor, and I think he has done a good job and I will continue to support him. I wouldn't expect it to change a thing.”
Lee will be one of several high-profile lawmakers running for statewide offices next year, potentially complicating the annual legislative process.
In addition to Lee's Cabinet race, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is running for governor, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, is also interested in making a gubernatorial bid.
Also, Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, are running for agriculture commissioner, and Rep. Jay Fant, R-Jacksonville, is running for attorney general.
Lee said political agendas present “challenges,” but he said it will be no different than 2006 when he was running for the Cabinet as the Senate president and two top Democratic senators were running for governor and another Cabinet seat.
“I've seen this movie before. It requires a lot of discipline on behalf of the members to separate policy from politics,” Lee said. “It can be done, but it's definitely an added dynamic.”
HOUSE, VISIT FLORIDA REMATCH
Tourism officials are pointing to a $5 million emergency effort to promote the state in the wake of Hurricane Irma as they anticipate another legislative fight about funding for Visit Florida.
The Legislature approved $75 million for Visit Florida this year, but only after months of criticism from Corcoran about spending on tourism promotion.
During a news conference this week at the Key West Marriott Beachside Hotel to announce the reopening of Key West after Irma, Visit Florida board member Carol Dover, the president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, recalled the battle to keep state funding from being cut.
“Many of you helped us when it was time to get the Legislature to understand the importance of $75 million,” Dover said. “Who would have ever thought that we were going to need it as bad as we're going to need it. So don't forget that next session. We have to do this again.”
The House during the 2017 session initially sought to eliminate Visit Florida and the business-recruitment agency Enterprise Florida and later pushed to cut funding for the public-private agencies.
Lawmaker agreed to maintain funding for Visit Florida, while imposing a wide-range of transparency and spending requirements on both agencies.
When the post-storm marketing campaign was announced Sept. 20, Corcoran said the Legislature could support such spending.
“That is the kind of expenditure that I think, as a legislative body, that we would warrant,” Corcoran said at the time. “They should go out and do it, and benefit the entire state. In that, we know that they do have value.”
GROUP TARGETS UTILITY REGULATORS
The state Public Service Commission has been “captured” by the power companies it is supposed to oversee, the Tallahassee-based group Integrity Florida said in a study released Monday.
"Investor-owned utilities regulated by the PSC have an extraordinary degree of influence on the governor and the Legislature, and they have used that influence to pursue favorable decisions by the PSC, at the expense of the public," said Ben Wilcox, research director for Integrity Florida.
In a report titled “Florida's Public Service Commission? A Captured Regulatory Agency,” Integrity Florida questioned if the commission truly balances the needs of utilities with customers.
"Many contested rate-hike requests by utilities are resolved through settlements. However, utilities seem to be gaming the settlement process," said Alan Stonecipher, Integrity Florida research associate. "The companies enter negotiations in rate cases much like a used-car dealer who marks up the initial asking price knowing that they will eventually agree to a lower amount."
Among Integrity Florida's suggestions:
--- Public Service Commission members, currently appointed by the governor from a list of candidates supplied by a nominating counsel, should be elected or be a mix of elected and appointed members.
--- The nominating counsel should include representatives from consumer groups.
--- The Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, should be an independent entity like the Florida Commission on Ethics.
Public Service Commission spokeswoman Cindy Muir responded to the report by saying the commission balances the needs of consumers with those of utilities.
“The PSC vigorously stands to ensure that Florida's consumers receive reliable, safe service at a reasonable cost,” Muir said in a statement.
Florida Power & Light spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood derided the report as “another error-riddled stunt from a group with a history of accepting money from special interests to promote their viewpoints.”
TADDEO OFFERS ADVICE TO FELLOW DEMOCRATS
Hispanic voters in Florida are increasingly dissatisfied with President Donald Trump, which could carry over to other Republicans, according to a survey by the Washington, D.C.-based Latino Victory Project.
But Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who won a closely watched special election last month in a Miami-Dade County Senate district, said her party must still offer more than being anti-Trump.
“Opposing Republicans isn't enough. Democrats must be clear about the principles we represent,” Taddeo said during a conference call Wednesday announcing the results of the survey. “We need to give Latinos and all Americans a reason to vote Democrat. We need to make the case that Democratic values are Latino values.”
That means a deep dive into differences on issues such as health care and education, she said.
“It's not just enough to have Donald Trump constantly tweeting about this or tweeting about that, it's also about why us and why your specific candidacy,” Taddeo, who will be sworn in Tuesday, said.
The survey, with a 3.57 percentage-point margin of error, looked at the Trump administration in its first eight months. The survey was conducted before Trump's controversial comments about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico.
“We expected Florida to be an outlier,” said Cristobal J. Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project. “Florida had been a Republican Latino stronghold, but attitudes have shifted in the last eight months.”
Among the findings, 36 percent of Latinos strongly or somewhat approve of the job Trump is doing. Also, 31 percent backed the Trump administration's decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals --- better known as the “Dreamers” --- program.
Meanwhile, 64 percent believe the president hasn't been strong enough in condemning white supremacists.
Potentially more important, 70 percent now say Republicans are hostile or do not care about Latino interests.
TWEET OF THE WEEK: “FL needs 2 deal w/humanitarian crisis + over 100K Boricuas who'll seek refuge here right now, not in Jan.” --- Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, (@CarlosGSmith) in calling for a special session to handle the anticipated influx of Puerto Ricans because of Hurricane Maria.