Jeff Brandes wasn’t a go along to get along kind of elected politician in his dozen years in elected office in Florida. With a resume that includes serving as a U.S. Army officer in the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, Brandes, instead, was a get stuff done kind of politico.
And, based at least on the number of bills filed, Brandes was relentless in his mission. Some years Brandes, a Republican, proposed more than 50 bills. Proposals addressed everything from deregulating Florida’s sometimes arcane business licensing structure to funding for an innovative libraries task force to preserving digital privacy rights. Other bills focused on sports betting, medical marijuana and tax issues.
Yet reflecting back on his time in Tallahassee — two years as a state representative and 10 years as a senator, all in and around Pinellas and Hillsborough counties — Brandes laments that, in many ways, the state capitol is something of a sausage-making factory that rarely stops to look at the quality, or even asses, the long-term results of its output.
“Everything in Tallahassee is tactics,” Brandes says. “There’s no strategy.”
Brandes is attempting to change that with his startup nonprofit think tank and policy bank, the Florida Policy Project. Along with Tampa-area consultant Amy Maguire, the organization’s executive director, the plan is for FPP to produce at least one policy report a month on four issues it believes have far-reaching impacts on Floridians: property insurance, criminal justice, transportation and housing. All four of those topics, notably, are top-of mind for business owners, executives and entrepreneurs.
Beyond reports, Brandes and Maguire intend to hold workshops, give speeches and do other civic outreach on the strategies, with one overarching goal: to move forward on outcome-based solutions. “We are collecting best policy recommendations and then telling a story around it,” Brandes says. “We want to focus on outcomes, not only intentions. No one is really looking out for the outcomes.”
The Florida Policy Project has raised $200,000 so far, and fundraising will be another component of the duo’s work. One model for the FPP, says Brandes in a mid-November interview with the Business Observer, is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, founded over 30 years ago to focus on public school vouchers and education reform.
‘Nothing like this’
But Brandes has bigger and broader ambitions, and with FPP he says he’s also thinking about what he had — and lacked — in Tallahassee. “Our audience is 160 Florida legislators,” says Brandes, adding up the 120 members of the House and 40 members of the Senate. “We want to help them solve problems at scale and we want to provide them with information. When I was in Tallahassee, there was nothing like this.”
A glance at the FPP’s four initiatives includes:
The much-discussed Florida insurance crisis, the FPP says, is the result of “many storms,” a list that includes one way attorney fees, fraudulent roofing claims, insurance firms leaving Florida, the unwieldy growth of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. and more. “We are running out of road to kick the can,” the FPP says on its website.
While Florida’s population has surged in the past few decades, that growth pales in comparison to Florida’s prison population. On example: from 1978 to 2015, the Florida prison population increased 373%, from 21,000 inmates to more than 100,000. And that’s not just a society and law enforcement issue. It impacts the business community, too, in terms of the labor pool, diverted resources and more, FPP officials say.
The FPP is looking at re-entry, criminal diversion programs, health care for the incarcerated and recidivism rates. “Today, Florida gives those leaving prison $50 and bus pass,” FPP writes on its website. “We believe that we can do better.”
The FPP was one of the lead presenters and a host of the 2023 Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, held in Tampa Marriott Water Street. (Brandes has been a host of the summit going back a decade.) The summit focused on topics such as automated, connected, electric, and shared mobility; operations; law; infrastructure; functional design; cyber security; ethics; aftermarket products; enabling technologies; and public policy. Speakers in 2023 included Ark Investment Management CEO Cathie Wood, Florida Trucking Association President and CEO Alix Miller, State Rep. Fiona McFalrand R-Saraosta and a dozen or so more state and federal officials and industry executives. Brandes was a speaker at the event, too.
The impact of the affordable housing situation in Florida — or, notably, lack thereof — is a sting for residents and a stain on the state’s ability to keep attracting people and companies, say both Brandes and Maguire. Like in the rising costs of insurance, the data for the rising costs in housing statewide is a bit jarring. One example: median rent prices in the state, FPP reports, are up 30% from February 2020, from $1,340 to $1,760 a month. Another example: Over 2.1 million Florida households with low income spend more than 30% of their income on housing. The FPP has been working with researchers at Florida State to produce a report on the issue, something both Brandes and Maguire are looking to put into action.