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Politics

Lawmaker Spano gains confidence, cash as second session opens


Published:   |   Updated: March 3, 2014 at 08:54 PM

TALLAHASSEE – At this time last year, Ross Spano admitted he didn’t know what to expect as a newly elected member of the Florida House.

Tuesday, starting his second session, Spano feels a bit more confident thanks to relationships established among the Republican leadership, some experience in getting bills passed, and a pot of re-election money in the bank. Plus, he’s got a blue-chip rating among the business lobbyists who help control House and Senate agendas for the next 60 days.

“There are still parts of this process that are scary to me, things I wonder if I can do,” said Spano, a Dover attorney, who was featured in a Tribune profile last year as one of three freshman legislators from Hillsborough County.

And the second and final legislative session of this election term carries its own series of firsts for the lawmaker.

“This will be different, in an election year, and I’d be lying if I said those things don’t enter your mind,” Spano said. “But do you make decisions based on that? I hope not.”

Spano last year helped develop human-trafficking legislation, enabling victims to expunge criminal records for offenses they were forced to commit, and he’s expanding on it this year. His big bill, among 10 he has sponsored and 21 he co-sponsored, would require owners of “adult theaters” – strip joints – to verify the ages of dancers and to keep copies of their identification on hand for periodic inspection.

Club operators would also have to verify driving licenses or other ID cards with issuing agencies under the bill (HB 1017) Spano introduced last month. A bipartisan group of 21 members signed on as co-sponsors.

“It’s well-known that Tampa Bay, Orlando and Miami, major metro areas, are the worst in the state for trafficking this way,” Spano said. “They say the dancers are ‘independent contractors,’ not employees, but there was one place in Miami that had a 13-year-old girl working there.”

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Spano, 47, wasn’t a complete novice as a lawmaker. While studying law at Florida State University, he interned in the House Republican office in 1996 – the year the GOP took over both legislative chambers.

Like most legislators, Spano opened his re-election campaign account soon after closing out his initial political fund. He raised $11,500 in the first quarter of last year before the session-long ban on fundraising kicked in.

He now has $75,405 stashed in his re-election account and no announced opposition – although he doesn’t expect the Democrats will let District 59 slip by unnoticed next summer.

“I would expect that we will have opposition, just because of the nature of the district,” Spano said. “It’s a swing district.”

The district is slightly Democratic by registration, with about 37,000 Democrats, 34,000 Republicans and 25,172 no-party voters who can swing a race. But the biggest advantage of incumbency, which Spano didn’t have last time, is access to campaign money – primarily from the law firms, political action committees and trade associations that have kicked in so far.

Spano got an A rating from the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida in his first session. He parted company with the business lobbyists mainly on a foreclosure bill, which Spano said tilted a bit against homeowners in speeding up the process.

“I took a lot of heat on the foreclosure bill last year because I was one of only two Republicans voting against it,” Spano said. The other, he said, was then-Rep. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, a renegade who is now the Pasco County tax collector.

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Spano said he has no worries about being stereotyped as a big-business Republican.

“Generally speaking, I think AIF and the chamber’s positions are consistent with mine,” he said. “Free enterprise and free markets are good things. But you can’t be expected to walk in lockstep with them on every single thing, and I don’t think they expect that.”

Former AIF President Barney Bishop, who has lobbied the Legislature for decades, said Spano’s business-friendly voting record doesn’t make him a tool of corporate lobbyists. But Bishop said Spano fits in well with the GOP establishment of the House.

“Ross is a bright young man and, I think he could be a future leader of the House,” Bishop said. “He’s surrounded himself with some good people, the staff, and I think the future looks bright for him.”

Before a Judiciary Committee meeting Monday, Spano said the session eve was “a whirlwind” of getting settled in Tallahassee and preparing for the session.

“Everybody has been saying this session looks a little lighter than last year’s,” Spano said. “It doesn’t look that way to me.”

Spano supports Gov. Rick Scott’s plan for reducing taxes and fees by $500 million, starting with automobile fees that were hiked in 2009. With a $1.3 billion bulge in state revenues this year, and an election looming, the GOP majorities in both chambers have made tax cuts a high priority.

Overall, the education of a freshman has been a steady but pleasant process, Spano said.

“It’s important to work with people and be able to develop relationships of trust, to communicate well and clearly so there are no surprises,” he said. “I’ve learned that you need to contact people who may have problems with what you’re doing, and see if you can work things out.”

Other than that, he added, “you can’t get discouraged when you have a bad day. You just can’t give up.”

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