By BRUCE COLLIER
Rep. Brad Drake has completed his first session in the Florida Legislature, which ended the second week in May, slightly past the normal time of adjournment. “It took a little bit of extra time, we wanted to make sure we did it right,” said Drake, who recently took time to speak with the Herald on his freshman year in Tallahassee.
Though this was his first year in the lawmaker’s seat, Drake was no stranger to the lawmaking process. He served as legislative assistant to his predecessor, Rep. Don Brown, for seven years and an estimated 13 sessions. “I certainly enjoyed the service to the public a lot more than I do the campaigning for the job,” he added. This backstage experience “shortened the learning curve tremendously,” but “the responsibilities are a lot heavier” as the elected official.
Drake credits his prior experience with helping him to accomplish things that might not otherwise have been realistic goals for a typical freshman legislator. “I was able to insert $20 million for the small county outreach program, which is a road-paving project for small counties…to receive equivalent matching dollars from the state for small county road projects.” Drake’s interest in transportation, agriculture and natural resource issues led him to ask, and receive, five committee assignments from the Speaker of the House: agriculture and natural resources policy committee, roads, bridges and ports policy committee, transportation and economic development appropriations committee, state and community college and workforce policy committee, and a joint legislative committee on intergovernmental relations. “The Speaker…always asks for our input on where we’d like to serve….”
Drake’s first session was dominated by one overarching issue. “The number-one issue this year was economic recovery. All the other ancillary struggles that we have as a state…hinges on having to navigate through a tough economic time.” Drake considers transportation and infrastructure were “key to economic recovery.” He was able to take funds from a pool of money dedicated to road resurfacing projects (many in south Florida) and put them into small county road construction projects. “I went in there as quick as I could and got my money put in place for small counties….it’s all a negotiated process, and the later in the game you get, the more difficult it becomes in trying to get your accomplishments met.” As the session draws to a close, “everything that’s pending becomes a negotiating tool. You don’t want to be stuck in a position where something that’s very important to you may get negotiated out for something that’s important to someone else….”
Other accomplishments included passing three bills – of a total of six that he sought to get passed. One reduced some unnecessary permitting requirements for “CHELCO-type” electric co-op companies in self-insurance regulations. Another (the “Anthony Forgione Act”) reformed procedures in Baker Act situations where a person has been committed to a receiving facility under the Baker Act and attempts to leave the facility. This came in response to the 2008 killing of an Okaloosa County sheriff’s deputy, Anthony Forgione, by a Baker Act subject that had left such a facility. The third bill eliminated a pending sunset provision and made permanent the already-enacted application procedures (including criminal record checks) for firearms purchases.
The ghost of legislation past returned to the session in the form of property insurance reform. Drake’s predecessor, Rep. Don Brown, was one of two lawmakers who objected to the reforms enacted in the property insurance reform bill. Drake commented that Brown’s arguments that the reform would not work, are now being adopted and made by “an overwhelming majority of the legislators,” that “we need to go back an undo” what was done. “Baby-steps” reform is in progress, “but it’s a small step.”
A bill was passed that allows insurers to offer “a specific type of insurance [residential property insurance] that would be outside the purview of the Office of Insurance Regulation in referring to those rates as ‘excessive,’ and it would be up to the consumer to decide whether or not he or she wanted to purchase that type of insurance product. That bill is currently in front of the governor. The word is that he may veto it.”
Drake later confirmed that the governor had not received the bill at the time of this interview.
An override would require a 2/3 vote in both chambers. “The problem is convincing both presiding officers to bring it up as an issue. I don’t know when the last time a bill or budget item veto has been overridden….It hasn’t been done in the past 10 years, I know.”
Drake said that there was “overwhelming support” for the bill, which was passed 105 -13 in the House, and 27 – 9 in the Senate. The bill requires the insurers offering such policies to furnish proof to the state of fiscal soundness – including specified surpluses – to meet potential claims on those policies. The bill requires that consumers must request such policies. Even if passed, Drake calls the bill a “weakened hybrid form of insurance deregulation.”
The “king issue” of the session, according to Drake, was how to make $6 billion in budgetary cuts, while obeying the state’s constitutional mandate of a balanced budget. Health care for medically-needy Floridians was fully funded, $30 million was appropriated for a first-time home buyers program, and funding was secured to offer “enticements” to attract businesses to locate in Florida.
Also addressed was closing the “double-dipping” provision under which some elected officials and state employees would retire, sit out 30 days, then return to work collecting both salary and pension. “After a lot of public interest had evolved in that area, we went back and we closed that loophole.” Classroom funding per-student for Walton County showed a 4.56 percent increase, “in hard dollars, that’s about about $2.2 million.”
Disappointments included Drake’s attempt to expand a bill for funding new road surfacing projects to include resurfacing projects as well, a bill that “didn’t make it.” Stretching available funds required “diligence,” and not everything got as much attention as he might have wanted.
On the legal problems of Rep. Ray Sansom, Drake said, “I hope and I pray that the truth will come out and the truth will show that Rep. Sansom is vindicated from many of the allegations that have been made toward him.”
Between now and the fall session, Drake is occupying his time with constituent needs. “I’m basically being a customer service representative for people that have needs with state agencies. I’m very grateful for the opportunity to serve,” he added. “I enjoy being available and accessible to people whenever they call.” As for what he likes least about his job, Drake quotes his grandfather, a former state legislator who once went on the record saying, “There’s too much politics in politics.”
Drake promises, “If I get a chance to re-quote him on the House floor next year, I’m going to do that.”