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Stuart's Joe Negron chosen as Senate president

Posted at 5:57 AM, Dec 03, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-03 05:57:13-05

Stuart Republican Joe Negron, who until a month ago was locked in a contentious and expensive leadership battle, was formally designated Wednesday as the next president of the Florida Senate.

Members of the Republican caucus, praising Negron's "matter-of-fact style" and offering a video message about leadership from former Atlanta Braves star Dale Murphy, unanimously voted to have Negron take the gavel from President Andy Gardiner after the 2016 elections.

"Today brings unity to the Senate Republican caucus," said Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has shared a home in Tallahassee with Negron since the pair served together in the House.

Negron, a 54-year-old attorney who has become a champion for South Florida water issues, said he intends to make priorities of state university affordability and juvenile-justice reform.

Negron recounted a water-balloon throwing incident when he was about 13 or 14 in which a law-enforcement officer whose vehicle was splattered took him to his father rather than to juvenile detention.

"I think there is a growing recognition to handle some juvenile matters outside of the normal juvenile system and diversion programs," Negron said after the caucus meeting. "Obviously we're always going to have zero tolerance for serious wrongdoing by young people. But I think it's important that we have civil citations for offenses that are very low level and we don't stigmatize a young person, who has made a poor judgment call, that can follow them for the rest of their lives."

As part of his goals to make universities more affordable, Negron intends to push for $1 billion after the 2016 session for academic programs tied to performance and to restore part of the state's Bright Futures Scholarship program to pre-recession levels. The proposal, which deals with the Academic Scholars part of the program, would cover 100 percent of tuition and provide $300 stipends for textbooks.

"My vision is for our universities in Florida, which are good, to go to the next level, to become national elite destination universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin," Negron said. "Just as students in Florida apply to these universities and many times attend them, imagine a time when students from around the country will apply to Florida universities to come to Florida to get a great education at a national destination."

With Gov. Rick Scott pushing for $1 billion in tax cuts this year, Negron acknowledged after the meeting that his education proposal will require Florida's economy to remain healthy.

Negron said he will also continue to focus on South Florida water issues, primarily water releases east and west from Lake Okeechobee.

After health concerns grew from polluted water releases from the lake in 2013, Negron spearheaded $231 million in projects to shift the flow from the lake south in the Everglades.

"This isn't just a South Florida issue or Lake Okeechobee issue," Negron said. "If you take a map of Florida and draw a line at the northern boundary of Lake Okeechobee, 8 million of the 20 million people who live in Florida live below that line."

Wednesday's vote put a formal end to the clash between Negron and Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who battled to run the chamber in the 2017 and 2018 sessions.

The race had consumed Senate's politics --- and policies --- for more than three years, impacted GOP leaders' priorities and resulted in bad blood between Republicans who dominate the chamber.

The more-moderate Latvala ceded the contest last month after agreeing to serve as the powerful chairman of the Senate's budget committee.

Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who made the motion to vote on the next president, said that "behind Sen. Joe Negron that repairing begins today."

Flores described Negron as no-nonsense person who wants to quickly get to the point rather than play games. Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, said Negron enjoys Chris Rock, "Seinfeld," "Animal House" references, talking about his favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, and prefers Chick-fil-A over the more-expensive Shula's 347 Grill.

Among those introduced during the ceremonial event was Negron's wife, Rebecca Negron, a Martin County School Board member now running for the U.S. House.

The caucus meeting concluded with Benacquisto showing a video from Murphy, in which the former Braves all-star advised Negron that "great leaders are great teammates."

"Remember the good things that happen and forget the strikeouts," Murphy said. "I hit a few home runs but I also struck out a little bit. But that's OK. That's the way it goes sometimes. You just got to forget those times it didn't work out and dig in and swing for the fences."

Negron, who admitted to being a "huge" fan of Murphy, said after the meeting, "That was very good advice."

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