Thursday, December 14, 2017
Politics

Tampa Bay area business leaders lobby on contentious transit bill

TALLAHASSEE — More than a dozen top business local executives went to Tallahassee with an appeal in the days following last week's political showdown between three GOP senators from Tampa Bay over a regional transit bill.

Keep talking. Please.

The nonprofit Tampa Bay Partnership had planned the lobbying trip anyway.

But the delegation arrived just a day after Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, watched in frustration as fellow Republican senators Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa amended his bill to overhaul the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) during a tense meeting of the Senate Community Affairs Committee.

As approved on April 17 by the committee, which Lee chairs, the amendment would require legislative approval for any local spending on a light rail system and would prohibit the authority from spending money to push for light rail in a voter referendum. The changes are seen as a serious blow to the independence of the authority.

"The timing could not have been better for this trip because the bill was at a critical point," said Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans.

The business delegation included Tampa Bay Lightning owner and developer Jeff Vinik, University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft, Sykes Enterprises CEO Chuck Sykes, Ashley Furniture founder Ron Wanek, influential Tampa attorney Rhea Law and the top Tampa executives of TECO Energy, BlueGrace Logistics, the BayCare Health System, PNC Bank, Vology and Florida Blue.

Setting up base in a conference room on the Capitol grounds, the group met separately with Lee, Brandes, Latvala and Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, who is sponsoring a House version of the TBARTA bill, plus more than a half dozen other Tampa Bay area representatives and senators.

The group's original agenda was to support a four-part policy agenda, which included Latvala's transit bill as well as ridesharing legislation, the creation of a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization and money for the Tampa Bay Express interstate expansion project. The group still covered all four topics, but put special emphasis on the TBARTA bill.

On Monday, several members of the business delegation said they hoped the session would end with some form of the transit bill.

"I think everybody came away thinking there's something workable here," said Ken Jones, chief executive officer of Third Lake Capital.

What emerges may be a hybrid of the original bill. Several partnership members said they felt the legislators were open to collaborating to fix the region's transportation problems.

"It's not dead," Homans said of the proposal. "It's very much alive."

Still, Brandes said the business leaders did not try to get him to back down.

"There was no attempt to get me to change my mind," Brandes said. "They told me they were neutral on the amendment and therefore neutral on the bill."

Rhea Law, who chairs the Tampa Bay Partnership, said she is confident that the group will be able to get a bill passed that will "create a mechanism for a regional transit system."

The partnership received assurances from Lee and Brandes "that we really were on the same page," she said.

That said, the partnership is encouraging the creation of a bill that does not make it more difficult to move forward with future projects, Homans said.

Brandes said the amendment he co-sponsored with Lee was needed to put "safeguards" in place so that TBARTA won't try to persuade Hillsborough and Pinellas voters to support a light rail system.

The bill requires: a feasibility study before any light rail system can move forward, that at least three of the five affected counties must agree with the strategy, and that any rail project must be approved by the Legislature, which would be putting up some of the money anyway.

"They were not poison pills," Brandes said. "They were logical, reasonable steps that would largely have to be followed."

The other counties are Pasco, Hernando and Manatee, the home county of the next president of the Senate, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Lee said the partnership delegation "was not expressing any concern" in its discussions with him.

A former Senate president, Lee was irked that Latvala's original bill (SB 1672) was not referred to a Senate committee that oversees transportation spending — a panel chaired by Brandes, a vocal skeptic of a rail system.

That action, made by Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, "disenfranchised" Brandes from an important policy matter directly affecting his county, Lee said.

The bill heads for two important hurdles today in Tallahassee. The House version (HB 1243) is on the calendar for floor discussion and debate and the Senate version is one of 66 bills on the Senate Appropriations Committee's agenda.

"It's so important for the legislative delegation from Tampa Bay to come together and support this," said Homans, "and recognize that transportation is unquestionably the biggest challenge facing the region."

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