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Local legislative recap highlights overlooked issues

Mark Parker



Former Sen. Jeff Brandes founded the Florida Policy Project to provide state and local decisionmakers with best practices and policy insights. Photo by Mark Parker.

Former Sen. Jeff Brandes, a moderate Republican known for working across the aisle and unabashedly calling out state leadership, scored the recently concluded legislative session a 4.6 out of 10.

The St. Petersburg native spent 12 years in the Legislature before term limits ended his lawmaking career in 2022. Brandes, who has since founded the Florida Policy Project (FPP) – a nonprofit, research-based think tank – served as the keynote speaker Wednesday for the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s annual Legislative Recap event.

“We survived another one,” Brandes told attendees at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. “It’s over.”

His overarching theme was that lawmakers lack a cohesive strategy to mitigate the state and city’s most pressing issues. Brandes also stressed that stakeholders have another year to compile best practices and inform decision-making on affordable housing, transportation, criminal justice and property insurance reform.

He began his presentation by noting that the governor will likely sign all passed legislation. Several culturally-based initiatives did not make it out of the session.

Rep. Lindsay Cross (D – St. Petersburg) also spoke at the event. She attributed a lack of progress on pertinent issues to the legislative majority again focusing on “culture war” issues.

“Those priorities did not include property insurance,” Cross said. “That’s unfortunate because I think that’s what people sent us up here to do.”

Rep. Lindsay Cross passed two bills in her second legislative session.

Gov. Ron DeSantis already vetoed a sweeping social media bill that would have banned residents under 16 from opening social media accounts, even with parental permission. In a subsequent social media post, he said the Legislature was “about to produce a different, superior bill.”

“Apparently, nowhere in the Constitution does it say you have a right to free speech,” Brandes said.

He does believe the Live Healthy Act will positively impact residents. It provides over $700 million to address current and future healthcare workforce shortages.

“What I think the Legislature missed is talking about all the really big, important issues that everybody really cares about,” Brandes said. “My big takeaway after 12 years in Tallahassee … was that everything is tactical – there is no strategy.

“We are operating the third-largest state and one of the largest economies in the world without a strategy, and that’s a problem.”

Brandes noted that prisons are perpetually understaffed, overcrowded and falling apart. Those released from a dysfunctional system receive $50 and a bus pass, “and we wonder why people are living under a bridge,” he said.

Brandes is working to build 264 affordable apartments in St. Petersburg and stressed the importance of addressing the housing crisis by increasing local density allowances. He said the per-unit construction cost now tops $300,000.

Brandes called 2023’s Live Local Act a “step in the right direction” that only solves 3% of the problem. He said lawmakers must incentivize local government to accommodate growth.

Florida has lost 12 insurance companies over the past three years. Brandes said “a few more” are now preparing to exit the market.

He uses Citizens Property Insurance, the state-backed insurer of last resort, as a barometer for the industry’s health. Brandes said the publicly funded company has about $10 billion in cash and $580 billion in exposure.

“This is unsustainable,” he added. “But again, this is Tallahassee.”

Brandes said the FPP would soon release a guide – the state’s first – explaining how the property insurance market works. The organization is also working to highlight potential solutions for condominium owners facing soaring inspection assessments.

Brandes believes electric vehicle adoption will slowly increase through 2030. He then expects a “huge transition” towards automation.

That could address a shortage of truck drivers, Brandes added, and feature prominently in the shipping industry. He said automated agricultural equipment and processes are “how we’re going to feed the world in the future.”

However, he said the best use of transportation funding is currently traffic signal timing. Brandes said 70% of Tampa’s systems rely on basic timers.

He noted that FPP is working with Google on its Greenlight Project to improve traffic signal timing through Google Maps data. Brandes said mitigating impactful issues starts with “a vision and a plan.”

“The reason I led by saying we have a full year is because in order to stay in front of the airplane, we’ve got to start now to prepare for next session,” Brandes concluded. “If we wait until June, July to get studies and research in, then we’re way behind.”

He said he would address policymakers directly next week. Cross, an environmental scientist, said lawmakers passed her co-sponsored bill requiring local governments to notify residents of wastewater spills within 24 hours.

Her legislation that strengthens penalties for digital voyeurism also received approval. While bills that would have supported accessory dwelling unit (ADU) construction, environmental conservancy and water quality efforts died in the session, Cross pledged to continue championing those initiatives.

“I think it’s important like you all (attendees) to be part of those conversations,” she said. “We have to be smart about where we’re developing in the future and the opportunities and support we’re giving to people in our local communities.”


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    John Donovan

    March 21, 2024at6:12 pm

    Has The Catalyst ever had anything good to say about Congresswoman Anna Paulina Luna ? Her district covers the majority of St Petersburg. And she isn’t invisible in Congress unlike others.

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