TALLAHASSEE - Senate President Joe Negron put the finishing touches on his leadership team Tuesday, tapping Republican Sen. Wilton Simpson of Trilby as majority leader and handing out committee assignments to all 40 members, including Republican Sen. George Gainer of Panama City.
Gainer, who was sworn into office last week during the Organization Session of the Florida Legislature, has been appointed to chair the Transportation Committee. Gainer was also appointed Vice Chair of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee and to serve on the Appropriations Committee, Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development, Banking and Insurance, and Joint Administrative Procedures Committee.
“Both transportation and tourism are vital to the overall economy of Northwest Florida, and I’m grateful to President Negron for placing me in a position of leadership on these two major policy committees,” said Gainer. “It’s rare for a freshman legislator to chair a Senate committee, but I am fully prepared for the challenge and appreciate the opportunity to help set policies that will further grow our state’s economy.”
Other key committee chairmanships went to Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who will lead the Rules Committee; Sen. Travis Hutson, an Elkton Republican who will head up the Regulated Industries Committee, which frequently considers gambling legislation; and new Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican who received the gavel for the Judiciary Committee.
Steube's assignment could have an impact on gun legislation in the Senate, which has traditionally been more moderate about loosening restrictions on firearms. Former Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla bottled up bills during the 2016 session that would have allowed people with concealed-weapons licenses to carry guns on college campuses and would have allowed people with licenses to openly carry firearms.
Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, was defeated for re-election earlier this month. Steube, meanwhile, strongly supported efforts by the National Rifle Association and others to relax gun regulations during his time in the House. Shortly before his appointment, Steube said he would continue his efforts in the upper chamber.
"Certainly, we are going to continue to work to try to promote the rights of the Second Amendment and for concealed-carry permit holders," he said. "I don't know what that legislation is going to look like yet; we haven't put it together yet. We are actually just starting to get things into drafting, but I think there is definitely a different climate and environment in the Senate this year."
Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, indicated he believed there is still a chance to defeat the legislation.
"I believe one of the reasons that those bills died was not just because that chairman (Diaz de la Portilla) held back the bills," Braynon said. "I think the Senate was probably not willing to hear those bills. The same will probably be true this year."
Elsewhere, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, was formally named chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. The move had already been announced as part of a deal that ended a heated leadership contest between Latvala and Negron, R-Stuart.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican expected to follow Negron as president, will lead a subcommittee in charge of higher-education funding --- one of Negron's top priorities over the next two years. Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, will chair the elementary and secondary education counterpart to Galvano's budget panel. Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, will chair the Senate Education Committee, which will oversee policy issues in both areas.
The subcommittee handling health-care spending will be overseen by Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, who had already been named the No. 2 Republican in the chamber. Flores will also chair the Banking and Insurance Committee. New Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, will chair the Health Policy Committee.
Democrats chairing committees include Sen. Bill Montford of Tallahassee, who will lead the Commerce and Tourism Committee; new Sen. Randolph Bracy of Orlando, who will oversee the Criminal Justice Committee; Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, who will chair the Military and Veterans Affairs, Space and Domestic Security Committee; and new Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, appointed to lead the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee.
Other chairmen include new Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, for Agriculture; Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, for Children, Families and Elder Affairs; Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, for Community Affairs; new Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, for Governmental Oversight and Accountability; new Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, for Communications, Energy and Public Utilities; and new Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, for Ethics and Elections.
Chairing the subcommittees for parts of the state budget are Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, for criminal and civil justice; Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, whose panel will handle tax legislation; Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who will oversee spending on the environment and natural resources; Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican now charged with the budget for transportation, tourism and economic development; and Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, who will oversee the general government budget.
Committee meetings begin in December in preparation for the 2017 legislative session.