Jeff Brandes left the state Senate after serving 10 years there, following two years in the House. He returned to his Pinellas County home, filled with a sense of disillusionment about The Process in Tallahassee.
“My big takeaway is this: Everything in Tallahassee is tactical on most issues,” he said recently. “There's no strategy. We go year to year and we change policy without thinking about what it is that we actually want to achieve. … Long term, what do we want to achieve?”
Brandes still wants to answer that question. To that end, he now leads the Florida Policy Project, a nonprofit, bipartisan think tank that works on four areas of public policy he championed as a lawmaker: transportation, criminal justice, property insurance and housing affordability.
The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam recently spoke with Brandes on City & State Florida’s “Deeper Dive with Dara” podcast, released earlier this month. What follows are five of the questions asked. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity:
What's the one thing you wish you had accomplished but were unable to do as a legislator?
It's hard to pick just one. I think the most frustrating area was probably criminal justice and prison reform, although it's by far the hardest area of public policy to work on in the Legislature. And I think we made significant progress in kind of softening my colleagues to working on that issue. But it's probably one of the areas of greatest need in the state of Florida. There's just no vision for what they want to achieve. And there's really no champion right now on the Republican side for criminal justice and prison reform.
… I would argue that most of the major changes being done in criminal justice are being done by Republican governors and Republican legislatures around the country. It just hasn't hit Florida yet. And the Florida system is just different. (It’s) largely driven by the sheriffs and the prosecutors. The sheriffs have a lot more strength here than they do in many states so it's just kind of a legacy of how our state is set up. … And so that was kind of the role I played in the Legislature, and I think we're kind of waiting for the next legislator to step up and play that role as well.
What about the constitutional amendment voters approved … that was intended to restore voting rights to felons who have completed all terms of their sentences, excluding people who were murderers and sex offenders. How do you feel about the way that that has been implemented?
Well, I think the Legislature got it right. I think the Legislature, if you kind of go back and look at the historical record, the Supreme Court testimony, you go back and look at what the advocates for that amendment put out on their website and everything else, I think the legislative language captures the intent. … I worked on that issue for years. I actually asked the Senate president to take that bill on because I thought I could do it in a fair fashion.
I think we need to tell our listeners that under the legislation you championed, they have to pay their … legal financial obligations, which is court fees and fines in order to be considered to have completed their sentence.
Correct, they have to complete all terms of their sentence, which is … exactly what their attorney said they had to do. … So we looked at the entire record and we proposed it. Now, what I do think (has) gone off the rails is, I think the Secretary of State's office has got it completely wrong. The Secretary of State's office has done very little to help create an efficient process for individuals who have outstanding fines, fees and costs to understand what those are.
… If you have multiple felonies in multiple jurisdictions it gets a lot more complicated. And especially if those were in the ’70s or ’80s … it takes some digging to find out what the true cost of everything is. And so there should be an efficient way for the state to deal with that. Even if they had started two or three years ago and said, “Hey, listen, on a go-forward basis, we're actually going to have a full accounting of this … and if you believe you've paid it off in good faith and have a receipt from the state then we will accept that as well.” It's just hard to get all these things perfect. And that's where people can get tripped up.
Do you feel freer now to speak about some of these controversial issues or criticize people who are in power?
… You may be elected a senator, but there's a learning (process) that takes place. And then you ultimately … embrace the role … but I have a voice now that I really didn't before or I didn't feel I had before. I think the challenge is (that) many of them are coming from the House, which is very top down … like a military organization, it has its generals, its colonels, its captains and its soldiers.
And the Senate was, at least when I got into it, like 40 Somalian warlords. You never kind of knew where things were gonna line up, that there (were) kind of infighting factions, right? It's a lot less like that now, more boring. I think that doesn't serve the state of Florida well. And I think that's just a product of term limits. … I'm somebody who fully supports term limits. I wouldn't have been in the Legislature without term limits. But I think (we) should extend the term limits for individuals because it just takes so much time to learn this stuff.
… I would describe myself as Libertarian with a capital “L” and a republican with a little “r.” … The Legislature never really knew what to do with me because I was like the odd bird, right? I always wanted smaller government than my Republican colleagues wanted, and they didn't know how to deal with that. And so, you know, oftentimes I was voting “no” on things that leadership was pushing through.
But look, we've totally messed up sports betting in the state. We've totally messed up medical marijuana. I mean, it's like if a small-government Republican could design any worse of a system than Florida has, I'm not sure what it is. Where we make a handful of people extremely wealthy. We prohibit a vast majority of Floridians from being in the business, and when this was originally sold to us, it was supposed to be, “Hey, these are some Florida-based farmers. These guys have been growing daffodils and … now they're going to grow medical marijuana in a very controlled (way).”
As soon as they got the licenses, they sold the shares of their underlying business and cashed out and moved on. And, the big multi-state firms came in, and that's who controls the business largely in Florida today. But it's not a great business in Florida because you have to be vertically integrated. But what it did is keep the rest of Florida out of the business. … Listen, (what would happen) if we made McDonald's have to (raise) the cows and grow the wheat and grow the tomatoes to make a hamburger and then process it and transport it and then retail it? McDonald's wouldn't be in the business (because) the hamburgers would cost three times as much.
I know you've spoken about this before, but on the bill you sponsored in your last year in office to exempt parts of state college and university president searches that has been used, shall we say, creatively since its enactment, would you favor a repeal of that public records exemption now?
Yeah. Given how it's being used and how it's been kind of weaponized, I would never have sponsored the bill. … It specifically says in the bill that the final group of applicants has to be made public. Now, in my world, group is plural and applicants is plural. But from some strange reading they have said, “Well, a group could be one person, and, you know, therefore we can just always pick our own person.” Had I known that, had anybody ever told me that this was possibly (going to) happen, then I would've pulled the bill immediately.
Are you surprised at how Gov. DeSantis is governing or is this what you expected?
… You've always seen him kind of take the extremes, right? He won't back down from the extreme position. There have been times when we've agreed and times when we disagreed. I think there's a good DeSantis and a bad DeSantis and frankly it's a tough job. I don't expect anybody to get it perfect … (but if there comes a time when) there isn’t a supermajority of Republicans in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, (then) there is no goodwill. There's no good faith here anymore.
If we had five, seven years ago said, “Listen, the goal for the property insurance industry is to encourage competition to have low rates and to have a robust market, right? If that's our strategy, and we're gonna build every bill to that, and if we aren't getting the outcomes that we want, we're going to change course.” But we're paying four times the national average in property insurance.
… Clearly we have no strategy in criminal justice. … Housing's obviously a major challenge in the state. What's our strategy in transportation? I would argue that in pretty much every area of policy outside of education, I could not, after 12 years in the Legislature, define for you what the legislative strategy is, long term, going forward. Can you?
Jim Rosica edited the conversation, which was transcribed by an AI-enabled service. For the full episode, and to listen to previous episodes, go to City & State Florida's podcast page.