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  1. Florida Politics

Bousquet: Veteran Pinellas Sen. Jack Latvala is blunt but effective

Latvala
Latvala
Published Mar. 24, 2015

He's gruff and he's tough, and those are just two of the more endearing traits of state Sen. Jack Latvala.

Or, as he told a packed hearing the other day, "I'm kind of a blunt talker."

The veteran Republican lawmaker from Clearwater is having another Latvala-esque legislative session, relishing his role on a wide range of issues, from housing to beer to state troopers to Florida's space program.

He's where the action is. In the fall, when senators listed their favorite committee assignments, Latvala's first choice was the one with the longest name: the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development or "TED" in the shorthand jargon of the Capitol.

The panel of five Republican and four Democratic senators oversees billions of dollars in spending, and in a year with a bountiful surplus, there are a lot more requests for money.

Latvala has led a lengthy and refreshingly public discussion in which private groups and state agencies have to publicly pitch and justify their requests.

Sometimes it isn't pretty, as when Mike DeLorenzo of the Division of Emergency Management offered a convoluted recitation of a program to alert residents and tourists to hurricanes and other disasters.

"We can all read," Latvala told DeLorenzo. "How about just explaining what it is?"

Calling the bureaucrat's presentation a "thud," Latvala demanded a better explanation from DeLorenzo's boss, DEM chief Bryan Koon — the guy who refused to utter the words "climate change" in testimony last week.

At another hearing, Col. David Brierton of the Florida Highway Patrol asked Latvala & Co. for $2 million more in trooper overtime next year.

But the chairman had a question that has been on the minds of many a Florida motorist: "How come at the Highway Patrol stations in Cross City, and a few other places, there are so many vehicles parked in the parking lot?"

The answer, Brierton said, is that he has 124 unfilled trooper positions. The committee approved $1 million more in overtime money, not $2 million.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, the panel's vice chairman, praised Latvala for his evenhandedness and his openness.

"It's very inclusive and it's there for everyone to see," Clemens said. "When I walk into that hearing room, I know my opinion is going to be respected."

Latvala has worked with liberal Democrats to bring better oversight to programs promoting Florida's African-American heritage. He scratched up $175,000 in his tourism budget for an east coast surfing museum in New Smyrna Beach.

In a public show of beneficence, and what he called "an unprecedented show of unselfishness," he even pulled the plug on one of his own projects, to benefit Beacon Ministries in Largo. Instead, the money went for a housing initiative in the South Florida district of a political nemesis, Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach.

Latvala raised and spent a big bundle of campaign money last fall in an unsuccessful effort to end Sachs' political career and replace her with Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff.

That would have helped Latvala's still uncertain prospects of becoming Senate president in 2016.

As the hearing ended, Sachs thanked Latvala. Then he draped an arm around her and called out to reporters: "Hey! You want to get a picture of this?"

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.