Here are some excerpts of articles Tia has written as Statehouse Bureau Chief of The Florida Times-Union newspaper.
Dark Money series Part I: Dozens of Florida political committees being fueled by millions in ‘dark money’
Families for Safety and Prosperity is a political committee created in September to support the slot machine referendum in Jacksonville. But you wouldn’t know that from the official documents the committee filed with the state.
Nothing about the referendum, the gaming industry or Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, the committee’s sole source of revenue, is mentioned. Only one person is named: Southwest Florida accountant Eric Robinson, who serves as Families for Safety and Prosperity’s chairman, treasurer and point of contact. In the blank on its Statement of Organization form where committees disclose issues or candidates they support, it says merely: “To Be Determined.”
“I don’t speak for the committee,” Robinson said. “I just do the accounting.” He directed questions to political strategist Brian Hughes.
Hughes, in an email, said, “Eric Robinson is a CPA, a Republican, and an expert in campaign finance compliance.” He continued, “His listing as chairman and all filings by both political committees are in full compliance with all the laws and regulations that guide campaign finance in Florida.”
State campaign finance rules require political committees to provide basic information about their missions, the candidates they are backing and issues they support or oppose. Often that information is too general or too vague to provide a clear understanding of the committee’s focus. Place holder information like “to be determined” is accepted by the state and never updated despite a requirement in law that once a change is necessary new documents should be filed within 10 days.
A Times-Union analysis of the nearly 1,000 political committees active in Florida found that one out of every seven committees are operating in the shadows. Even after combing through public records, various state databases and internet search results, it’s difficult to pinpoint why these committees were created or whom they are intended to benefit. While their income and expenses are reported, the details of those expenditures are not. Also left unclear is who exactly is calling the shots.
Read the rest of the two-part “Dark Money” investigation here:
Florida legislators’ visit to Alabama casino is legal, but perception problem persists
A luxury bus picked up four Florida legislators at the Pensacola airport and drove them an hour north to the Wind Creek Casino & Hotel in Atmore, Ala.
A fifth legislator joined them there. They dined with leaders of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians and discussed the tribe’s vision for a casino in rural North Florida — a vision that includes slot machines.
The Indians have a gaming facility in Gretna, a small town about a half-hour northwest of Tallahassee conveniently located off an Interstate 10 exit. And while Gadsden County voters have authorized slot machines there, the matter has been locked up in court ever since.
“By taking the trip, I learned a lot about what the Poarch Creek Indians are doing for the residents of the city of Atmore, and I see the potential benefit of having the Poarch Creeks doing similar things in Gadsden County,” Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said.
The lawmakers, all Democrats whose trip this month was coordinated by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, didn’t pay for their transportation, meals or hotel rooms. All of that will be reported as in-kind donations to their re-election accounts and political committees. The legislators also received campaign contributions and a donation to the Black Caucus foundation.
It does not sit well with everyone that Narain and the others stayed overnight and were feted by the Poarch Creek Indians, who are lobbying hard for the Legislature to approve slots in Gretna.
“It is not surprising that gambling interests would use their money to try to influence legislators; it’s what they do,” said John Sowinski, president of anti-gambling advocacy group No Casinos. “The fact of the matter is that slot machines in Gretna are not a panacea for their economic situation.”
Susan McManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said, “Even if technically candidates are adhering to the letter of the law, from a perception perspective, it sometimes just doesn’t look right to the voters.”
Data and technology guide modern political campaigns such as Mayor Curry’s
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry is not on the ballot this fall, but he is on the campaign trail.
As he pushes his pension sales tax, Curry has many of the same people behind him that aided his successful mayoral bid. That includes Gainesville-based Data Targeting Research, a company that uses voter information and analysis to help campaigns streamline their messages.
Curry would not speak on the record about exactly how Data Targeting is helping him sell the pension tax. But campaign finance records show that the company that made nearly a half-million dollars during the mayoral campaign is still heavily involved.
Since April, Data Targeting Research has received $55,625 from the Yes for Jacksonville political committee supporting the pension tax. A second political committee backing Curry, Build Something That Lasts, paid Data Targeting another $52,350 from August through March.
Curry was asked why analyzing voter data is such an important part of his campaign strategy and how he relies on Data Targeting to do this work. He provided a statement: “You can’t govern if you don’t win. I surround myself with folks who create a path to victory for our city. That includes how we use data and technology.”
Data Targeting’s growing roster of GOP clients includes state attorney candidate Melissa Nelson, two Northeast Florida incumbent legislators and at least two others running for open seats in the region.
In all, the company has made more than $2 million this election cycle. And it is just one of many vendors that use databases and research to help candidates understand potential voters.
Senate Democratic leader Arthenia Joyner talks about respect, racism and journey to Plains
For lawmakers, the annual session is a slog of committee meetings, document reviews and a seemingly endless stream of people who want “just a few minutes of your time.”
Legislators live out of suitcases, then pack them up and head home each weekend to friends, family and their “regular lives.”
Sen. Arthenia Joyner made that same exodus throughout most of the session. But one weekend last month, instead of flying south to her Tampa home, the Senate Democratic leader drove three hours north to the tiny town of Plains, Ga.
The 72-year-old legislator intended to mark an item off her “bucket list.”
Despite a long resumé of accomplishments and the reverence that comes with being one of the most senior lawmakers in Tallahassee, Joyner keeps a pretty low profile. In Florida’s overwhelmingly Republican government, Democrats like her have little power to drive the action of the day and generally serve as speed bumps, not road blocks, to a conservative agenda.
But she isn’t shy in the spotlight and is known for tough questions and passionate debate.
When then Sen. John Thrasher submitted a last-minute budget amendment to split the joint Florida A&M University and Florida State University engineering school in 2014, Joyner’s speech on the Senate floor expressed disappointment and outrage at Thrasher just a breath after calling him a friend.
Joyner isn’t as eager to get in front of a TV camera because she prefers to express herself in debate on the floor. People describe her as “old school.”
The trip to rural Georgia on April 18 was something she planned for months. She was going to Sunday School with the president.
… Joyner was back at work in Tallahassee the next day.
Joyner was thrust into the forefront in the final days of the session.
The House abruptly adjourned on April 28, more than three days ahead of schedule, because of a budget impasse. The Senate had refused to drop its Medicaid expansion plan, and the House refused to consider it.
Gardiner said publicly he believed the House had violated the state Constitution by leaving early but decided not to take any action.
So Joyner and Senate Democrats did. House Republicans criticized the move and then piled on when they noticed typos in the Democrats’ hastily filed petition to the Florida Supreme Court.
Rep. Matt Gaetz voiced his displeasure on Twitter, and took aim specifically at Joyner and Sen. Dwight Bullard, a high school teacher and fellow Black Democrat.
“This lawsuit reads like it was researched and drafted by Sen. Joyner … and spell checked by Sen. Bullard,” Gaetz wrote.
The backlash was swift, both on- and offline. Many, including Joyner, wondered why two black members were singled out when the multi-cultural, 14-member Senate Democratic caucus jointly backed the court action. Some said the tweet by Gaetz, a 33-year-old Republican from the Panhandle, tinged with racism.
The next morning, Joyner issued a scathing press release accusing Gaetz and House Republicans of opposing Medicaid expansion because of their distaste for President Barack Obama. She said their position had more to do with the color of Obama’s skin than anyone wanted to admit and evoked her years in the Civil Rights Movement.
Gaetz later apologized in that “sorry if I offended you” kind of way, but Joyner said more contrition would not have changed her reaction. Surprisingly, that includes a decision not to dwell on what happened.
In an interview before Gaetz insulted her in less than 140 characters, Joyner said that she chooses not to take political disagreements personally.
“I have to attribute some of that to what my folks taught me about you can’t carry your dislikes and you can’t hate,” she said. “You have to stand up for what you believe in, but you’ve got to respect other people’s right to their opinions.”
In a follow-up conversation after everything had transpired, she said the same thing. Yes, she believed Gaetz’s tweet was racist. And, yes, she was upset when it happened.
But she now has more important things to focus on, including a special session next month to iron out the budget. Joyner has already moved on.