While the economic pressures on the state have eased, the Florida Legislature still faces a number of significant challenges. They include investing in public schools and higher education, drafting a more progressive energy policy and preserving the state's water supply.
The race to succeed term-limited Rep. Robert Schenck pits a retired Democrat with a record of public service against a Republican homebuilder with a record of self-service. Democrat Rose Rocco, a former Hernando County commissioner, is the best choice.
Rocco, 73, unsuccessfully ran against Schenck two years ago and has focused her campaign on sinkholes and their negative impact on local property tax rolls. Previously, she helped create community action teams to bring infrastructure improvements to impoverished south Brooksville and repeated that approach in Hernando Beach.
Rocco would vote to repeal the nuclear cost recovery fee that enables utilities to bill ratepayers in advance for nuclear plant projects. She wants to keep university tuition affordable and to require private schools that accept tuition vouchers to be held as accountable for student performance as public schools.
Blaise Ingoglia, 43, is chairman of the Hernando County Republican Party. Ingoglia's most notable public policy idea was to push for a cash-strapped county government to spend $2.5 million on gift cards as part of a scheme to stimulate sales of foreclosed homes. Ingoglia was nearly $12,000 in arrears on property taxes on his Spring Hill home last year and didn't pay up until an email inquiry from a Times reporter. He promotes small government and low taxes, criticizes overregulation and offers few specifics on state issues.
For Florida House District 35, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Rose Rocco.
New Port Richey Democrat Amanda Murphy has demonstrated her ability to work in a bipartisan manner since winning a 2013 special election to fill the west Pasco seat formerly held by Republican Mike Fasano.
Murphy, 44, a financial adviser at Raymond James Financial Inc., was the leader among the nearly all-Republican Pasco delegation in getting a local bill passed to allow a portion of St. Leo to separate from the rest of the incorporated town. She also worked with Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, to obtain funding to address drainage issues in a west Pasco neighborhood.
Murphy's concerns stretch beyond the county line. The Democrat pushed legislation to repeal the nuclear cost recovery fee that allowed Duke Energy to bill ratepayers for more than $3 billion in costs to nuclear plants that are closed or will never be built. She also sponsored legislation to accept federal Medicaid expansion money to provide health care coverage to uninsured Floridians. Republicans blocked both issues.
Chris Gregg, 44, works in business development for a health care company. The Republican's platform can be summed up as free market. He wants to spend more public money on private school tuition vouchers and opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money. The New York Times estimated nearly 30,000 people in Pasco County fall below the poverty line but do not qualify for a federally subsidized health plan because they make too little.
Murphy deserves to be elected to a full term. For Florida House District 36, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Amanda Murphy.
The race to succeed retiring House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, pits Democrat Beverly Ledbetter, a retired high school teacher, against Republican Danny Burgess, a lawyer and captain in the U.S. Army Reserve where he serves as a judge advocate. Ledbetter is the stronger candidate.
Ledbetter, 61, has a better grasp of the issues facing the district, particularly education. She opposes the expansion of private tuition vouchers, and she supports the creation of small business incubators and efforts to preserve and enhance agriculture. She understands the importance of preserving lands and protecting drinking water supplies — and the dangers of overpumping that have created problems in Pasco in the past. Ledbetter also supports accepting Medicaid expansion money to expand health coverage to low-income Floridians.
Burgess, 28, a former mayor and City Council member in Zephyrhills, does not have a similar grasp of state issues. He wants more local control for school boards but fails to acknowledge state education requirements. He opposes expanding Medicaid but offers no alternatives. He suggests counties offer property tax incentives to encourage nonprofit health centers to open in needy communities. But nonprofits already are exempt from paying property taxes.
Ledbetter knows the issues and the district. For Florida House District 38, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Beverly Ledbetter.
Riverview attorney Ross Spano won this seat in 2012 aided by a particularly nasty ad campaign by the state Republican Party. He has achieved nothing significant for this southern Hillsborough district in his first term, but his opponent is not a credible option.
Spano opposes accepting federal Medicaid expansion money but offers no alternative for covering those without health insurance. He also supports tax-funded vouchers for private school tuition. Neither advances the bread-and-butter needs of this working-class constituency.
Donna Lee Fore, 61, owns an auto glass repair business and switched to this race after first preparing to run for the County Commission. She supports accepting Medicaid expansion money and opposes school vouchers on a limited basis. But she has no ideas about how to increase spending on public schools.
Spano, 48, has stuck with safe issues such as fighting human trafficking. He says Republicans need to address the plight of the uninsured. He also wants a water bill the House is widely expected to take up next year to include forward-thinking provisions on conservation and environmental research. Spano could be helpful in moving the House majority in the right direction on these issues.
For Florida House District 59, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Ross Spano.
This race is a rematch between two politicians who have represented the north Tampa area before. Democrat Mark Danish is the incumbent and defeated Republican Shawn Harrison two years ago, and Harrison wants his seat back.
Danish, 60, is a middle school teacher who helped pass legislation that created a new diploma designation for vocational coursework. He worked on legislation that requires gas stations to make accommodations for disabled customers, and he co-sponsored a measure that will allow children with epileptic seizures to receive a noneuphoric strain of marijuana.
Danish says he will focus on access issues for the disabled and investing more in public education, and he would continue to push to restore Florida's springs. He supports accepting federal Medicaid expansion money, and he would vote to repeal the nuclear cost recovery law that allows utilities to bill ratepayers in advance for nuclear projects.
Harrison, 49, a lawyer and former Tampa City Council member, wants to return to Tallahassee to focus on job creation and provide money for faith-based initiatives. He would vote to repeal the nuclear cost recovery law.
Danish deserves another term. He understands the issues, and he displays a willingness to work with Republicans on behalf of his district. For Florida House District 63, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Mark Danish.
Two Republicans are on the general election ballot in this district after a judge disqualified a write-in candidate, eliminating a primary contest. Miriam Steinberg understands the diversity of this cross-county district, and her common sense and personal skills would make her effective in Tallahassee.
Steinberg, 54, is a production engineer making her first run for public office. Like the incumbent, James Grant, she favors small government, school choice and conservative fiscal policies.
Steinberg, though, is more practical about addressing real-life problems. She would accept federal Medicaid expansion money to extend health coverage to the uninsured, limit the use of tax-funded tuition vouchers for private schools and support state and local growth management laws.
Grant, 32, is a lawyer who was first elected to the House in 2010. He talks in broad sweeps about innovative approaches to transit, education and other issues. But his proposals are based more on political ideology than pragmatism and the district's needs. He opposed accepting federal Medicaid expansion money and voted to expand the use of publicly funded tuition vouchers.
Steinberg is an independent thinker who understands what both the private market and the government do best. She voices strong support for consumer issues, and her energy level would be a positive for the district, which extends from northwest Hillsborough County to Oldsmar and Safety Harbor in Pinellas.
For Florida House District 64, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Miriam Steinberg.
Voters in this North Pinellas district have two viable candidates in incumbent Democrat Carl Zimmermann and Republican challenger Chris Sprowls. Zimmermann is a thoughtful lawmaker who quickly learned the legislative system during his first term, and there is no compelling argument to replace him.
Zimmermann, 63, is a Countryside High School journalism teacher who served on education committees. He opposed expanding voucher programs for private schools and changing the state pension system, and he supported accepting Medicaid expansion money. He pushed for legislation to make classroom doors more secure, tighten background checks of massage therapists and adjust license plates so they can reflect the vehicle owner is both handicapped and a Purple Heart recipient. A conservative Democrat, he voted for several gun-related bills such as one that gives judges more discretion if a warning shot is fired.
Sprowls, 30, is a Pinellas-Pasco assistant state attorney who prosecutes gang-related crimes. He has seen how the state's prescription drug database helps curtail drug abuse and would fully fund it. He opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money. He supports the expansion of tuition vouchers but would hold private schools accountable for student performance through standardized testing. He wants to help create manufacturing jobs and enhance STEM education.
Zimmermann has demonstrated he is a thoughtful lawmaker who is well-prepared and represents the district well. For Florida House District 65, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Carl Zimmermann.
Lorena Grizzle is a Pinellas teacher who stepped up when no better-known Democrat stepped forward to run in this district, which stretches from Indian Shores to Clearwater and includes Bay Pines, Seminole and part of Largo. She is the daughter of the late Mary Grizzle, the longtime Republican state legislator, and has raised little money. But Grizzle understands the issues and is more in tune with constituents' needs than incumbent Republican Larry Ahern.
Grizzle, 61, supports accepting Medicaid expansion money to provide health coverage for uninsured residents. She would vote to repeal the nuclear cost recovery fee that enabled Duke Energy to charge ratepayers more than $3 billion for nuclear plants that are broken or will never be built. She understands public education and the shortcomings of the merit pay system, and she opposes the expansion of school tuition vouchers.
Ahern, 59, is a two-term incumbent who is the most conservative and least effective member of the Pinellas delegation. He voted against bipartisan legislation to allow undocumented immigrants who are Florida high school graduates to pay in-state tuition, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law. He supports expansion of tuition vouchers and opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money and building light rail. He is a reliable vote for the House Republican leadership who rode the tea party wave into office 2010, and he has not demonstrated any ability to build consensus or advance significant legislation.
Voters deserve more thoughtful, moderate representation in this district. For Florida House District 66, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Lorena Grizzle.
Voters have distinct choices in this open seat, which has been held for eight years by the term-limited Ed Hooper and covers much of Clearwater and Largo. Democrat Steve Sarnoff is a longtime city of Clearwater employee and union leader who embraces progressive positions. Republican Chris Latvala, a former legislative aide to Hooper and the son of state Sen. Jack Latvala, advocates a more conservative approach.
Sarnoff, 62, has more life experience and a more progressive approach. He has worked for the city of Clearwater for about 25 years in a variea variety of jobs and most recently focused on code enforcement. He opposed changes to the pension system for state and local employees that the Senate killed. Sarnoff supports investing more in public education and transit, collecting the sales tax on Internet sales and accepting Medicaid expansion money. He knows the legislative process from his union lobbying, and he is well-versed on the issues.
Latvala, 32, also knows the issues from working with for Hooper and for his father's consulting and printing businesses. To his credit, he supports extending in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduated from Florida high schools and collecting sales tax on Internet sales. Like Sarnoff, he would have opposed the pension system changes. But Latvala opposes accepting federal Medicaid expansion money and supports tuition vouchers for low-income students. He would rather pay for new road construction with tolls than by increasing the gas tax.
Sarnoff knows the legislative system and would add a progressive voice in a conservative House. For Florida House District 67, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Steve Sarnoff.
In one term, Democrat Dwight Dudley has become a significant figure in Tallahassee by becoming a vigorous advocate for Duke Energy customers outraged by being charged by the utility for nuclear plants that are broken or will never be built. The St. Petersburg lawyer was at the forefront of the battles over Duke's treatment of its customers long before other legislators began saying they have had enough of the nuclear-related bills and other overbilling.
Dudley, 60, unsuccessfully pushed for the repeal of the nuclear cost recovery law and co-sponsored legislation for a tax exemption for renewable energy investments. He supports accepting Medicaid expansion money, opposes the expansion of private tuition vouchers and criticizes the state's emphasis on standardized tests to determine school letter grades and evaluate teachers. He supported bipartisan legislation to create an alternative to federal flood insurance, and he spoke out in behalf of Citizens Property Insurance policyholders whose claims were being unfairly denied.
Bill Young, 30, is more interested in making Florida more business-friendly by reducing taxes and regulation. The son of late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young is relying more on his family name than his familiarity with state issues to seek votes. He opposes accepting Medicaid expansion money, and he has staked out some positions that are more conservative than his father's, such as vowing never to support a tax increase.
Voters should remember that the Republican on the ballot has his father's name but not his father's experience. Dudley has been an effective consumer advocate and knows the district, which covers northeast St. Petersburg and eastern Pinellas Park. For Florida House District 68, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Dwight Dudley.
Kathleen Peters demonstrated an independent streak and an inclination toward practical solutions over partisanship during her first term representing this south Pinellas district, which includes several beach communities.
Peters, 53, is a former mayor of South Pasadena who often spoke up in favor preserving local control on key issues. She led the effort to establish a center of excellence for orthotics and prosthetics at St. Petersburg College, and to straighten out a controversy over submerged land leases for condominiums. She also helped pass legislation increasing awareness of homelessness.
In the spring, Peters lost in the special Republican primary for Congress. But she kept her state House seat and says she remains committed to state issues. She supported allowing undocumented immigrants who graduate from Florida high schools to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities, and she favors extending the state sales tax to Internet sales. She plans to focus on mental health issues, from increasing funding to preventing the criminalization of the mentally ill, and says she is "not close-minded" on accepting Medicaid expansion money.
Scott Orsini, 49, is a lawyer who supports accepting Medicaid expansion money, opposes the expansion of tuition vouchers and also supports spending more on mental health.
Peters already has made a significant contribution in Tallahassee, and she deserves another term. For Florida House District 69, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Kathleen Peters.
Darryl Rouson has demonstrated an ability to build relationships with both fellow Democrats and with Republicans since he was first elected six years ago to represent this district, which is centered in St. Petersburg but also includes parts of Hillsborough and Manatee counties.
Rouson, 59, is a St. Petersburg lawyer who was designated to lead the House Democrats but then lost the position before he could formally take over. He helped get more than $1 million into the state budget to address poverty in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhoods, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it. He also steered money to jobs programs for those who have completed their prison sentences and to programs aimed at keeping single parents involved with their children.
Rouson was an advocate for election and education reforms, and he recently traveled to Cuba. He will continue to push lawmakers to accept federal Medicaid expansion money.
Philip Garrett, 49, is a no party affiliation candidate from St. Petersburg who reports raising no money.
For Florida House District 70, the Tampa Bay Times recommends Darryl Rouson.