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William Large: Florida must end assignment of benefits abuse, self-serving windfalls

William Large

A state law that was originally intended to give individual policyholders special rights in disputes with their insurance companies is instead being used by some repair vendors and their lawyers to generate a self-serving windfall. The problem is serious and growing, and it’s driving insurance costs higher and higher.

The so-called “one-way attorney fee” allows a policyholder to collect their legal fees from their insurer if they win a claims dispute. But, if the policyholder loses in court, they don’t have to pay the insurer’s legal fees.

Some repair vendors, though, are tricking policyholders into signing an assignment of benefits or AOB. This allows the vendor to seize control of the policyholder’s special rights, file a claim and sue the insurer, often without the policyholder’s knowledge or consent.

Now, this litigation-for-profit scheme has become an incentive for lawyers and their vendor clients — often water damage remediation firms, roofers, or auto glass shops with aggressive marketing schemes — to clog the courts with lawsuits and generate big paydays for themselves.

Recently, the Florida Justice Reform Institute revealed how the growing use of AOBs and the one-way attorney fee by third parties is increasing litigation and costs.

Using the Florida Department of Financial Services’ service of process database, we discovered some startling insights.

From 2000 to 2016, Florida’s population increased 26 percent, while total litigation filed against insurance companies increased about 280 percent.

In particular, AOB litigation increased by over 66 percent from 2010 to 2011, fell briefly after the 2012 auto insurance reforms, and then started rising again. From 2014 to 2015, AOB litigation increased 10.7 percent, and then 21 percent from 2015 to 2016.

AOB lawsuits initiated by vendors who provide water cleanup, restoration, drying, mitigation, mold detection, or remediation services were overwhelmingly concentrated in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties. On average, these three counties produced more than 80 percent of litigation from these vendors in 2014, and that share rose to nearly 85 percent in 2015, and nearly 89 percent in 2016.

Unfortunately, the problem is not just confined to home insurance claims. Auto glass claims also saw a staggering increase — over 3,000 percent in five years — from 591 claims in 2011 to 19,558 claims in 2016.

But the most surprising discovery was that nearly 25 percent of all AOB cases — from property to auto to auto glass — filed in Florida between 2013 and 2016 were filed by just 11 lawyers.

The bottom line is that all this rampant AOB abuse and litigation is driving insurance costs up. Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier had it right last month when he told the Governor and Cabinet that there’s no other explanation other than the one-way attorney fees.

The Florida Legislature has strong data supporting this growing problem. It’s time for them to pass meaningful reforms and stop a handful of unscrupulous repair vendors and their lawyers from using the policyholders’ special rights for their own benefit. Keep consumers in control of the insurance policies they bought and paid for, and stop the abuse that’s sending insurance rates higher.

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William Large is President of the Florida Justice Reform Institute.

The Florida Justice Reform Institute was created in 2005 to fight wasteful civil litigation through legislation, promote fair and equitable legal practices and provide information about the state of civil justice in Florida. Visit fljustice.org for more information.

Michael Carlson: Don’t trade a tax cut for a tax increase – preserve the salary tax credits for insurers

Michael Carlson

For three decades, Florida has offered insurance companies a highly effective, performance-based tax credit that has resulted in tens of thousands of good jobs being created or imported to our state. Not only does this credit bolster our state’s economy in a transparent, accountable way, it also helps ensure insurance rates for Floridians stay as affordable as possible.

Senate Bill 378 by Sen. Anitere Flores would bring that to an unfortunate end. It would repeal tax credits available to insurers as a way to lower the communications services tax currently levied on telecommunications, video, cable and satellite television and other related services.

Cutting one tax but increasing another is a bad trade that would do more harm than good. It would eliminate tax credits that have been working exactly as intended and sets a bad precedent for other businesses considering a move to Florida based on the availability of similar tax credits. Importantly to consumers and businesses, it would amount to a $300 million tax increase that could translate to higher insurance rates for everyone.

The insurance premium tax credits allow insurers to deduct 15 percent of the employee salary for each job they create or import to Florida from the premium tax they pay each year to the state. For taxpayers, the essential fact is this: Insurers only get the credit if they actually create or import a job. They don’t get a credit for a mere promise of creating jobs. And if the insurance company eliminates the job, they lose the credit.

An independent evaluation of the tax credit in 2013 found it had led to the creation of 40,000 insurance industry-related jobs since 2008 – a tremendous return on the state’s investment. In other words, while many industries were being hit hard and laying off workers during the Great Recession, the insurance industry in Florida was able to create good-paying jobs for Floridians.

Since the recession, Governor Scott and the Florida Legislature have strongly focused on job creation and strategies that promote economic growth in the state. Unquestionably, this credit has contributed to the insurance industry’s considerable investment in Florida. In fact, the insurance industry today touts more than 200,000 jobs that collectively pay about $12 billion in total salaries to workers in Florida.

It’s important to consider that if this successful tax credit is repealed, Florida will be sending a conflicting message to all industries that are thinking about relocating to Florida under the promise of a tax credit like this one, only to watch it get repealed years later. Even worse, eliminating it could send companies out of Florida to a competing state to plant their headquarters or call centers and, quite possibly, to a location that offers the tax credits they thought they would be able to maintain here in Florida.

While periodic review of corporate incentives is reasonable, it would be a mistake to repeal tax credits that have created jobs in Florida and contributed to the economy. We urge lawmakers to reject SB 378 as a shortsighted move that would swap one tax for another and result in higher premiums for all purchasers of insurance.

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Michael Carlson is the president of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, a trade association of insurance companies that provide automobile and homeowners’ property insurance.

Bryan Avila: Paving the way for Florida’s 5G future

Bryan Avila

We have all seen the recent stories about Florida’s job boom and our strengthening economy. It is undeniable that we are headed in the right direction. As my colleagues and I prepare for the coming legislative session, it is essential that we focus on the future of our economy. Recently, my colleagues in the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee learned more about the future of connectivity and the exciting opportunities that are on the horizon for towns and cities across our state – opportunities that are fueled by small cell deployment and 5G capabilities.

House Bill 687 offers a path to those opportunities. House Bill 687 is about investment in new, modern infrastructure. It is about paving the way for Florida’s 5G future.

This bill is about investing in success for neighborhoods and communities across Florida. Areas like Hialeah, the sixth largest city in the state.

This bill is about increasing capacity on networks across the state to better allow Floridians to stay connected with their families, to communicate about what’s happening in their communities, and to stay informed on issues of importance.

It’s about providing the network that Florida businesses – both large and small – will need to increase productivity and engagement with their customers. Businesses like Hialeah Hospital, in the heart of District 111, or its parent company, Tenet Health Care, with 10 hospitals across South Florida, will be able to maximize efficiency for its patients, health care professionals and facilities.

This bill is about Smart Cities, with better traffic flow, more sustainable and efficient utilities, and greater resources for public safety. It’s about the future of travel. As we prepare for increasingly connected vehicles and driverless cars, this bill will ensure Florida is leading the charge in wireless connectivity.

For years, leaders in Florida have worked hard to keep our state at the forefront, driving our nation’s economy, allowing for job creation, and encouraging growth and prosperity. This bill is about taking the next step to help ensure we continue on that path to success.

The trends are clear, and the demand on our wireless networks in Florida will only continue to grow.

By helping to clear regulatory obstacles, we can take the necessary steps to encourage communications companies to create Florida jobs and build out the modern infrastructure that will enhance and sustain the type of high-speed, data-rich connections that Florida residents and businesses demand.

We have an opportunity to improve connectivity in our communities today and prepare Florida for the future of communications.

In the coming weeks, my colleagues and I will be working to find ways to keep Florida as a leader in our nation’s economy. We will be working to help Florida businesses continue creating sustainable jobs and dynamic careers for Floridians. We will be engaged with leaders from across the state to ensure that Florida remains committed to innovation and opportunity.

By supporting House Bill 687 and clearing the way for small cell deployment, we can send a signal that Florida remains open for business and welcomes investments in the future of our communities. I applaud my fellow Miami-Dade Delegation member from the Senate, Frank Artiles, Chairman of the Senate Communications, Energy, & Public Utilities Committee, for passing the companion version of this bill out of his committee, and look forward to the future of 5G in Florida as this legislation moves its way through the process.

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Hialeah Republican Bryan Avila represents District 111 in the Florida House.

 

Melissa Larkin-Skinner, Roger Johnson: Solving Florida’s critical psychiatrist shortage

It’s no secret by now that our country is in the midst of an opioid crisis. Overdose deaths are at an all-time high, with no signs of slowing down. If the epidemic hasn’t already touched you or someone you know personally, the odds are that it will soon.

Tragically, our great state is not immune to this crisis. In fact, the statistics in south Florida are among the most alarming nationwide. Officials in this region estimate that someone overdoses every two hours, and overdose deaths in just three counties — Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach — were on track to exceed 800 last year. Manatee County has had the highest per capita death rate for the past two years.

At the federal, state and local levels, there are several education, prevention and treatment-related initiatives aimed at combating this addiction crisis. For example, recent federal policy changes are allowing psychiatrists to treat more patients with Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), one of the primary and most effective tools we have in fighting addiction.

A significant challenge we face, however, is a severe shortage of psychiatrists across our nation and here in Florida. If you’ve tried to make an appointment with a psychiatrist recently, you likely know how serious this shortage is. According to Florida’s 2015 Physician Work Force Annual Report, 14 counties in our state have no psychiatrists, and nine counties only have one. Professional physician recruiters estimate that there are about 250 vacant positions for psychiatrists in Florida. There are simply not enough doctors available to treat the number of Floridians who need critical, lifesaving help.

It is estimated that two-thirds of physicians remain within 50 miles of where they complete their residencies. Thus, filling the vacancies in our state means that we need to recruit more medical students to the field of psychiatry and train them locally.

Unfortunately, maintaining a psychiatric residency program is not easy. Behavioral health hospitals like Centerstone Hospital and Addiction Center cannot receive federal medical education funding to train up-and-coming psychiatrists like acute care hospitals receive for training physicians. This reality has contributed to the closure or scaling back of several Florida residency programs in psychiatry.

Luckily, our state legislature has stepped up to contribute funds to sustaining psychiatric residencies in our state, allowing us to train more psychiatrists to serve Floridians in need of treatment.

Centerstone is proud to have launched a psychiatric residency program three years ago, to help us further meet the needs of Florida families. This program allows us to expand our capacity to treat those in need today and shore up our state’s overall base of psychiatrists for the future.

It is estimated that a psychiatrist will serve approximately 40,000 Floridians over the course of his or her career, or roughly 800-1000 people, often in desperate need of help, each year. Through expanding our program to 16 residents, we will be able to contribute 4 new psychiatric residents and 2-3 new psychiatrists, plus support staff, to our workforce annually, who will collectively serve an additional 3,000 Floridians each year.

Given that research shows that untreated or undertreated mental health and addiction issues are the cause of significant declines in employee productivity and increases in absenteeism and unemployment, ensuring a strong psychiatric workforce is critical to the health and well-being of our residents and our economy.

We thank our legislature for their leadership and support on this issue and look forward to working with our public officials further on changing lives across our state.

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Melissa Larkin-Skinner, MA, MBA, LMHC, is interim Chief Executive Officer and Chief Clinical Officer of Centerstone in Florida.  Roger Johnson is Senior Vice-President of Medical Services & Managed Care at Centerstone and leads the organization’s psychiatry residency program.

Jason Fischer: Florida needs to say yes to American energy independence, no to proposed fracking ban

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen much-needed economic legislation put on hold out of fear of how it’d affect the environment.

Ditto for the mounds of environmental priorities placed on the back burner because of apprehensions about what they might do to the economy.

At one point, this all made sense. The technology wasn’t quite there. Energy and environment was an either-or proposition. One side was going to lose, when we wanted both to win.

But those times have passed. Thanks to technological advancements and remarkable improvements in extraction techniques, we no longer have to choose between having a stable and affordable supply of energy resources and being good stewards of the environment, no matter what the naysayers suggest.

And record-setting upticks and enhancements in hydraulic fracturing is the biggest reason why.

Just look at the numbers, economically and environmentally.

Per reports, shale gas production and its accompanying lower natural gas prices contributed $156 billion to real disposable income in 2015 — meaning the average American family kept an extra $1,337 in their pocket. Another analysis, from the Energy Information Administration (EIA), said that fracking improved the average cost of living for most Americans by nearly $750 per year since 2008.

Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generations, meanwhile, are down to their lowest levels in decades, the EIA reports, and monthly carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector are the lowest they’ve been in more than a quarter century. Perhaps a Forbes headline from last year said it best: “U.S. natural gas rises as America’s CO2 emissions drop.”

It’s not a coincidence. The two go together.

Yet come the next legislative session, Florida lawmakers will again take another look at a regulatory curveball they’re better off not swinging at.

Earlier this year, legislation was filed, SB 442, that closely mirrors a piece of legislation that was proposed last year before going nowhere — banning the possibility of any future fracking in Florida. It’s core mission, supporters say, is protecting Florida’s pristine environment, regardless of its obvious economic advantages.

It’s that outdated one-or-the-other thing rearing its ugly head again.

It’s time to get with the times. We finally have an administration in Washington that understands the grave importance of continuing America’s energy revolution, extending the infrastructure that safely delivers it and the fiscal and environmental benefits that both produce. We also have the statistical analyses to support it.

Now we just need the state House and Senate to oppose any attempts to impose a statewide fracking ban and vote for an energy plan that balances consumers, businesses and re-emerging manufacturing with the environment as local demand grows and resources tighten.

Florida is one of the largest energy consuming states in the country. Its population, per the University of Florida, is expected to rise to about 29 million in 2040. That increase, the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council projects, will increase electricity demand by more than 10 gigawatts by 2035 — and a one gigawatt can power about 750,000 homes.

And renewables, which account for just a sliver of Florida’s current energy makeup, can’t do it alone, and most of the petroleum we get is imported from adjacent states or other countries, via overseas tankers and barges to marine terminals. We also get most of our natural gas from neighboring Gulf Coast states through pipeline or tanker shipments offloaded in Georgia and piped to Florida.

We don’t make much of our own energy. Closing the door to the possible future development will only heighten this dependency. A ban would also infringe on Floridian’s property rights and in the long term, drive up energy prices on residents and businesses who call or want to call Florida home.

And that’s not a message I want to send to the rest of America.

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Rep. Jason Fischer represents District 16 in the Florida House of Representatives and is a member of the House Energy & Utilities Subcommittee and the House Natural Resources & Public Lands Subcommittee.

John Sowinski: Finally, a sensible gambling plan for Florida’s future

There are two things we can count on in Florida. In any given body of water, eventually the alligators will show up. And in any given meeting of the Florida Legislature, the same applies to gambling lobbyists.

Feed either and they only become more insatiable.

With regard to the gambling interests, unfortunately, the Florida Senate is setting up a buffet of glutinous proportions. Proposed legislation calls for the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida’s history.

It literally would recreate our state in Nevada’s image, with casinos popping up in communities from the far reaches of the Panhandle to the end of the Everglades.

There would be two new Las Vegas-style casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade, a region already suffering from a glut of casinos. There would be a massive increase in gambling supply there, without a corresponding increase in gamblers, creating a dynamic in which the casinos could only survive by cannibalizing each other’s customers. Even the gambling industry’s own financial experts predict that 95 percent of the patrons would be locals, not tourists.

This type of gambling over-saturation is what brought the industry crashing down in Atlantic City, but not before it eviscerated existing local jobs and businesses from restaurants to retail stores.

But the Senate bill does not stop with more gambling in South Florida. Initially, casinos would spread to eight other counties. That only would be for starters because under Senate Bill 8, every horse track, dog track or jai alai fronton could become a casino.

Getting back to the alligator analogy, what the Senate is proposing is akin to taking 500 bags of marshmallows out into the middle of Lake Okeechobee at midnight and tossing them in the water.

Even worse, the regulators now have allowed banked games in pari-mutuel card rooms despite state law that bans them, a clear violation of Florida’s gambling agreement with the Seminoles that has embroiled the state in expensive litigation and halted the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars of tribal payments to the state. The Senate bill addresses this in the usual Tallahassee manner — rather than shutting down this illegal gambling, it legalizes it.

For years, lawmakers have talked about comprehensive legislation that would establish a permanent framework for the future of gambling in Florida. The Senate bill makes Florida’s future look like Atlantic City’s current train wreck.

Understanding this, leaders in the Florida House have taken a different tack. They have put forth a bill that fixes weaknesses in existing gambling law, closes loopholes that gambling lawyers continually exploit, stops the proliferation of slot machines throughout Florida, honors Florida’s constitutional restrictions on gambling, and respects the will of the people of Florida, who have consistently rejected statewide expansions of gambling. Finally, it provides for an agreement with the Seminole tribe that would achieve the stated intent of the original Seminole compact — holding the line on gambling and creating a firewall to stop the spread of casinos throughout Florida.

There are many reasons to oppose the expansion of gambling in Florida. The legislature’s own economists have repeatedly said in presentations that, “some or all of the jobs, wages and tax revenues attributed to gambling enterprises may be simply transferred from elsewhere.” This means that money spent in a casino merely cannibalizes existing jobs and businesses.  It puts our multibillion-dollar family-friendly tourism brand at risk, and it spreads addiction and dependency that destroys lives and families, at a huge cost to society and taxpayers.

For Florida Legislators, the choice is clear. They can either keep feeding the alligators by going with the Senate plan, or follow the lead of the Florida House bill by advancing a sensible strategy to control the spread of gambling in our state.

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John Sowinski is president of NoCasinos.

Alan Snel: Dear Mr. President, let’s ride bicycles when you’re in Florida (so that you keep off the Twitter)

Alan Snel: Bicycle Writer

Dear Mr. President,

It’s so cool that you enjoy Florida!

You’re back in South Florida today — and I live here too.

Today is such a sweet March day here in the Sunshine State for both of us. Strong tropical breezes off the Atlantic Ocean, yet the humidity is still low so that we’re not sweating our balls off!

Yet, for some reason, when you come to Florida you seem kinda, well, stressed out and those fingers of yours go running across your cell phone and out pops another tweet that really grabs America by the . . . hmmmm, I’m not sure I better finish that sentence.

Well, anyway, you were back in Florida and back on the Twitter and out jumped this twittery gem.

Man, that’s quite the doozy!

You’re one intense dude.

So intense, that you threw in an extra “p” into “tapp.”

Talk about ppassion!

So, here’s the deal. Even your closest pals think you’re overdoing it a bit with this Twitter thing.

SAD!

So, I have an idea.

Let’s go bicycling instead of you twittering when you come to Florida.

Didn’t you hear? Bicycling is the new golf!

I get stressed out, too, sometimes — just like you.

But instead of tweeting I go biking.

I love bicycles.

You love bicycles. Well, maybe once you did, when you put on the Tour de Trump bike race back in the late 1980s.

You had the golden touch even back then.

This protest stuff is not new.

Check out some of these folks way back in 1989 at your bike race.

Anyway, I’m happy to take you out on a bicycle ride.

I have a bicycle for you. Or, I have lots of friends who would be happy to loan their bikes to you, too.

That’s the beautiful thing about bicyclists — we come in all shapes and sizes and political backgrounds, so we’ll definitely come up with a bike for you to pedal.

Just one condition.

No tweeting and biking. (And no Putin either).

Deal?

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Alan Snel blogs about all things bicycling for Bicycle Stories.

Bruce Janz: In these troubled times of public discourse, is there still a place for dialogue?

Carl von Clausewitz, the great theorist of war, said: “War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.” What he meant was that even in the time of war, there are other kinds of dialogue happening, and war is not an act that happens because of the failure of dialogue, but is just another component in it.

This thought raises a central question in these troubled times of public discourse. Is there still a place for dialogue, and if so, what is it?

In the democratic foundations of the nation, dialogue is essential to bringing about the goal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The entire structure of government is an exercise in dialogue – it is why there are checks and balances. The assurance of freedom of speech and of the press, the limitations on government power over citizens – it is all meant so that we can address the problems of the nation by using reasoned discourse rather than violence.

But what if dialogue itself becomes war by other means?

We often have an optimistic view of dialogue, which is that well-meaning people come together and work out their problems through understanding and compromise.

But dialogue can, of course, be many other things. It can be used to forestall action on a problem; we can indefinitely talk about something rather than acting on it. It can be used to placate someone, to “keep them talking,” while proceeding with a controversial action. Powerful parties in a dialogue can define the terms and assumptions of that dialogue, making it more restricted, or more abstract, or less historically aware than others might want it to be. Dialogue can be used to make a position seem completely rational, when in fact its limits are just not immediately apparent.

And, dialogue can be weaponized. That’s my term for the use of dialogue to further stigmatize or marginalize a person or group.

I don’t mean by this that the content of the dialogue is used in this manner – disagreement in itself is not the weaponization of dialogue. I’m referring to the form of the dialogue, and the ways in which what looks like dialogue can actually undermine any real communication or understanding (and, in fact, is specifically constructed to do so).

So, for instance, in many online discussion boards there are trolls whose purpose is ostensibly to engage in dialogue but is really to disrupt dialogue to make sure it doesn’t happen. It is a violation of one of the assumptions of dialogue, which is that dialogue partners have a similar goal: to arrive at truth or coordinate action.

When some people in a dialogue have weaponized it, it doesn’t help to just reassert the value of dialogue or insist on its basic starting-points. If an exchange of words was never about arriving at truth, then presenting facts or pointing out lapses in logic won’t help.

The point of weaponized dialogue, as the anonymous online bulletin board 4chan would put it, is all about the lulz, that is, all about the amusement of seeing people who still believe that dialogue gets us somewhere, flail around and get all worked up.

Weaponized dialogue is dangerous precisely because it is war by other means, and not in the sense that Clausewitz meant. It is not just a parallel track to other, more rational ways of making a political point. It is the belief that it is no longer possible to make political points because they will all be loaded in favor of the “enemy,” whoever that is. It is the abandonment of the public sphere while holding onto the illusion that such a sphere still exists.

Do we, then, just live in an anarchy at this point, where even if we get the facts right the dialogue to which they are supposed to contribute is so tainted that it is all but useless? Is dialogue just another weapon to advance the goals of my team over yours?

I don’t think so, but we will have to put aside our rose-colored glasses about what dialogue can actually accomplish.

Dialogue itself, as a form of reason, needs as much attention as the arguments we make within a dialogue. We know a lot about logical fallacies, biases and other ways in which positions within a dialogue can fail, but we spend little time thinking about dialogue itself and how it is shaping or warping our ability to construct the society we want (as if, indeed, there even is a society that “we” together might agree on).

Dialogue is not gone, and it is not irrevocably tainted, but without care it can serve to deepen divisions rather than heal them.

So, does dialogue still matter for you? What kind of dialogue – real dialogue – do you actually want? And what are you willing to do to make it happen?

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Bruce Janz is a professor in the UCF Department of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Humanities and Digital Research. He can be reached at Bruce.Janz@ucf.edu. The UCF Forum is a weekly series of opinion columns presented by UCF News & Information. A new column is posted each Wednesday at http://today.ucf.edu and then broadcast between 7:50 and 8 a.m. Sunday on WUCF-FM (89.9).

Florida consumer sentiment in February drops from record high

After three months of positive gains, consumer sentiment among Floridians fell 3.3 points in February to 94.0, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey.

The pattern in Florida is similar to consumer sentiment at the national level, which also dropped 2.2 points in February to 96.3 from January’s record 98.5 according to the University of Michigan’s survey of consumers.

“While readings about current economic conditions increased slightly, expectations for the future decreased sharply among Floridians in February,” said Hector Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

Floridians’ perceptions of their personal financial situation now compared with a year ago ticked up six-tenths of a point this month, from 87.7 to 88.3. Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a big-ticket household item such as an appliance inched up seven-tenths of a point, from 100.7 to 101.4.

“The increase in these two components reflects that current economic conditions have improved in general among Floridians. These perceptions are particularly strong among men, those 60 and older and those with income levels over $50,000,” Sandoval said.

However, all three components that ask about future economic conditions showed a marked decrease. Expectations of personal finances a year from now showed the greatest decline in this month’s reading, dropping 6.6 points from 106.0 to 99.4.

Opinions about the national economy were also negative: Expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next year decreased 5.2 points, from 96.8 to 91.6. Anticipated U.S. economic conditions over the next five years fell from 95.1 to 89.3, a 5.8-point drop.

“Expectations about future economic conditions increased between November and December of last year, but have declined since then. Floridians are pessimistic about their future personal finances independent of their socioeconomic and demographic status. The greatest declines in perceptions about the national economy were among women, those under age 60 and those with annual income above $50,000,” Sandoval said.

Until September 2016, the current economic conditions components and the future expectations components moved together in tandem. But from September 2016 until February 2017, the future expectations components went up faster and stayed above the components reflecting current conditions.

“Expectations about the U.S. economy improved greatly before and right after the presidential election, perhaps because the population was optimistic about the incoming administration,” Sandoval said. “However, these expectations are turning pessimistic in February and the gap between the present perceptions and future expectations has disappeared.”

Overall, economic activity has expanded and the labor market continued to strengthen in the U.S. As a result, earlier this month the Federal Open Market Committee decided to keep the benchmark overnight lending rate target at a range of 0.5 percent to 0.75 percent.

In recent months, Florida job gains have remained strong and the unemployment rate has remained low, reflecting the state’s positive economic environment.

Economists look to consumer sentiment as an early signal of future conditions, because confidence among consumers leads to spending and consumption. “High levels of confidence are important to keep the economy growing,” Sandoval said. “The next few months will be key to assessing the potential economic outlook for the following years.”

Conducted Feb. 1-23, the UF study reflects the responses of 489 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross-section of Florida.

The index used by UF researchers is benchmarked to 1966, which means a value of 100 represents the same level of confidence for that year. The lowest index possible is a 2, the highest is 150.

Details of this month’s survey can be found at http://www.bebr.ufl.edu/csi-data.

Andy Madtes: It’s time to set legislative direction for Sunshine State

Andy Madtes, executive director for AFSCME Florida.

Already this year, American have seen clearly how our Constitution keeps our country strong. First, the world watched the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next and then tens of millions exercised their right to assembly by participating in one of the dozens of Women’s Marches across the country, including here in Florida.

Clearly, we are at a crossroads as a nation. But here in Florida we also face an inflection point about what kind of state we want to be. With the Legislature already casting votes and debating the issues our communities face and Governor Scott preparing his State of the State address now is the time to have this debate.

Are we a state that actively promotes a better tomorrow?

There is already heated debate about continuing the progress made on quality affordable health care, investing in our public schools and protecting our tradition as a nation of immigrants. It’s an understatement to call these issues complicated but at their root is a basic question: do we believe in investing in America’s tomorrow? No matter the direction the federal government takes, our state can take steps that will protect, and invest, in the youngest, the oldest and the newest citizen among us.

Are we going to be a state that rewards the wealthy or one which rewards those whose work creates that wealth?

There is a lot of talk of creating jobs but nobody holds news conferences to herald the opening of another minimum wage location. While work of all levels is important, we need to focus on creating good jobs that can support families and grow communities. Protecting the workplace rights of Florida employees, investing in our state workers through the first pay raise in a decade and supporting communities when they pass higher minimum wages are just a few easy and affordable steps to gauge how serious we are about creation good jobs.

Will we continue to be a state that governs in the sunshine?

We have long been a state that prides itself in strong transparency laws to ensure government on all levels is conducted in the open and with as much input from citizens as possible. But attempts limiting the freedom of information or allowing quasi-governmental agencies funded with our taxes to remain free of oversight are just some ways our state has moved in the wrong direction. This year, the laws that strengthen the position of the citizen instead of the special interests are more important than ever with the start of the state’s Constitution Revision Commission, a once-every-20-years event that impacts us all.

The questions above don’t cover everything our state is facing, but do serve as three inflection points that, no matter your politics, will help determine the overall course of our state for years, even decades, to come. It is up to us to speak out, and it is up to our leaders to listen, so we can move forward together.

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Andy Madtes is executive director for AFSCME Florida. Representing 15,000 members across the Sunshine State, Andy has led AFSCME to be one of the state’s fastest growing unions.

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