After representing St. Petersburg for two terms as a state senator, Jeff Brandes plans to challenge the status quo while tackling the most pressing issues during his last legislative session.
Brandes is term-limited and vacates his seat in November, although he has said the upcoming legislative session beginning on Jan. 11 will be his last.
Rather than rest on his laurels, Brandes said, he intends to address challenges long overlooked by state leadership.
Brandes, a longtime proponent of criminal justice reform, said the state’s criminal justice system is on the verge of collapse. He filed a bill in October that would improve prison education through virtual learning and believes it will pass through the upcoming session. Brandes called the bill a no-brainer that would quickly impact the prison system, but added that the system’s problems extend far beyond education.
“We have two and a half prisons worth of inmates in county jails that the prison system cannot accept,” said Brandes. “Because we don’t have enough corrections officers to watch them.”
Brandes said over 3,000 inmates in county jails are waiting to transfer to prison. He said the prison system is essentially in a “one in, one out” scenario, where there is no room for new inmates until one is released.
Brandes said Florida’s extreme sentencing structure is part of the problem and noted the disparity in sentences between Miami and the Panhandle region. He said the prison system is also unprepared for the explosive growth that Florida is experiencing, and the state has not built a new prison in over a decade.
“Florida is growing by 800 people a day, and some of these people are going to commit crimes,” said Brandes. “Our oldest prison operating is over 100 years old – the facilities are falling apart.”
Brandes said he filed countless pieces of legislation in the hopes of addressing the problem, to no avail. He said state leadership has no long-term vision for the prison system, and a priority for him this year is creating a long-term plan.
“Unfortunately, that was a proposal I made two years ago when the budget was vetoed,” added Brandes. “We’re years behind the ball in reforming our prison system.”
Next on Brandes’ legislative to-do list are property insurance increases that he said have created a crisis. Rates are going up by 30-40% annually, he said, which is an unsustainable increase. Brandes said there is currently no legislation drafted to address the problem, but he is working on a bill that he is optimistic will pass through the Senate. However, the Senate is not his cause for worry. “It’s the Florida House, and whether they’re willing to show the leadership necessary to actually impact property insurance rates in the State of Florida,” said Brandes. “Last year, they weren’t.”
Brandes said insurance companies are begging for reform, and the problem is that House leadership also lacks a vision for what the property insurance market should look like in the state.
“They have no true leaders in the Florida House on this issue,” he said.
Legislation regarding affordable housing is also something Brandes wants to focus on in the upcoming session. He said Florida currently has a one-size-fits-all approach to housing that does not distinguish between rural and urban areas. He said his bill would allow counties to put their own plans in place, and the state would issue block grants.
Brandes explained that one state housing grant requires that 65% of funding goes towards down payment assistance. He said that may sound like a noble plan, but most people seeking truly affordable housing are looking for help with their first and last month’s rent.
“The farthest thing from their mind is buying a new home,” he said. “But we allocate the bulk of the money towards buying new homes. Take the restrictions off the funds and allow the counties to manage affordable housing in their own communities.”
Brandes added that tens of thousands of affordable units are needed, and the state built around 700 units last year. He said the number of affordable housing units created was not a drop in the bucket – it was more like water vapor in the bucket.
“There’s no long-term strategy for dealing with affordable housing,” said Brandes. “In fact, there’s no actual research that goes on with affordable housing in the entire State of Florida, to my knowledge.”
While criminal justice, insurance and housing are a few of the specific challenges Brandes hopes to tackle in his last legislative session, he said there are underlying problems in Tallahassee, specifically the lack of cohesive strategies. Brandes said everything is tactical, and nothing is strategic, and long-term plans are desperately needed.
“We need to do more,” he said. “Most of these conversations have not been addressed, and we start session on Tuesday.”