Michael Moline, Author at Florida Politics - Page 4 of 27

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Florida Senate convenes in Tallahassee, adopts compromise budget rules

The Florida Senate is in session.

Senators convened at 9:30 with a prayer and the traditional singing of the national anthem.

“They need wisdom, direction, and understanding,” Pam Olsen, president of the Florida Prayer Network said during the invocation.

“Keep their marriages strong” while the members are “here doing the people’s business,” she prayed.

“I know I’m asking for a miracle, but make this session end on time.”

There for the occasion were Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, plus members of the Florida Supreme Court.

“We understand you have a busy morning,” Senate President Joe Negron told Scott, who was due to deliver his State of the State address later than morning.

One of the first orders of business was approval of rules changes designed to prevent a meltdown over the House’s strict new rules for member projects in the state budget while respecting the Senate’s prerogatives.

In reaching the agreement with the House Friday, “potentially we dodged a bullet that could have stopped our appropriations process in about the fifth week,” budget chairman Jack Latvala said.

Negron discussed his hopes for education funding during the session, including building the state’s universities to “national elite” standard, comparable to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan.

Also, that every student in Florida, regardless of financial and family background, be able to attend the state university of his or her choice. They might have to work their way through college, he said, but he hopes “there will never be a financial impediment to a student attending a university and graduating on time.”

He touted his plan to prevent discharges of toxic algae from Lake Okeechobee — which, he said, draws unflattering national attention to the state. He wants to buy land to store overflow water south of the lake.

“In the end, we’re going to have to have a place for the water to go” to avoid damaging discharges to communities to the east and west of the lake, he said.

Negron also highlighted his proposal to create alternatives to the criminal justice system for youthful misdemeanors. “Let’s have some room for young people to make mistakes” that doesn’t jeopardize their job prospects later, he said.

Negron endorsed proposed legislation to require unanimous jury verdicts to impose the death penalty, shift the burden of proof to prosecutors in “stand your ground” cases, and protect students’ right to pray in schools without compulsion.

He praised the governor’s, House Speaker Richard Corcoran‘s, and his own appointees to the Constitutional Revision Commission, saying he hopes the panel will protect individual rights.

“I really think there’s a special part of opening day — this is really when a lot of our constituents are going to get engaged” in the legislative process.

“I’m asking all of us to share in that renewed energy and commitment,” he said, “and look at today as Day One going forward.”


House Rules Committee votes to kill most economic-development programs

The House Rules committee voted, 15-3, Monday to kill state support for 23 economics development programs worth around $200 million , including Enterprise Florida, but spared Visit Florida, the state’s tourism promotion organization.

The members then voted, 15-2, to subject Visit Florida to stringent oversight, comparable to contract, pay, and disclosure requirements that apply to state agencies.

“They could come to the floor soon — perhaps as early as this week,” sponsor Paul Renner said of the bills.

“What you see is gathering momentum — bipartisan momentum, with only a couple of no votes — for what we’re trying to do,” the Palm Coast Republican ssid.

“On Enterprise Florida, what we’re seeing is a bad deal for the taxpayer. It takes and redistributes money that you and your family have worked for and transfers it to a few private companies that have a pretty poor track record when it comes to jobs created in the state,” he said.

“What we’ve said is, we need to reorient that so we’re helping all businesses — small, medium, or large — by ensuring that we get the big things right” — like infrastructure, public safety, and reducing Florida’s commercial lease tax.

The votes came the same day that Enterprise Florida CEO Chris Hart resigned, citing a lack of “common vision” with Gov. Rick Scott.

Cissy Proctor, who runs the Office of Economic Opportunity, overseeing the programs involved, said the mere debate about killing the incentives has already damaged job growth, as out-of-state employers stall on coming to Florida.

“The business-friendly environment in our state no longer exists,” she said.

A host of business representatives urged retention of the programs. Development officials from rural counties were united in opposition, saying they need help building roads and other infrastructure to support new businesses.

But supporters denounced the incentives as “economic cronyism” and said they pick “winners and losers.” Some suggested privatizing the whole operation outright.

In the end, both Democrats and Republicans supported CS/HB 7005, the main bill. Support for the Visit Florida measure also crossed party lines.

The committee approved an amendment that stripped Visit Florida out of the main bill, and took up separate legislation, HB 9, that would increase oversight of the organization.

You can find details about both measures here.

Some members, and Visit Florida chief Ken Lawson, argued for an alternative, HB 889, by  Joe Gruters, that would boost oversight but not as much as Renner’s bill.

HB 9 would actually impose “more government and more red tape,” Lawson said. He pointed to language requiring disclosure of employees and their salaries in companies that do business with Visit Florida.

He and other critics complained the bill would make it impossible for Visit Florida to operate as a public-private partnership.

“There are ways we can be transparent, and Rep. Gruters’ bill hits it perfectly,” Lawson said.

But he declined to be specific about which provisions in Renner’s bill were overreach.

That troubled Renner.

“These accountability measures are important. I believe in each and every one of them,” Renner said.

“The question is, which ones specifically would Visit Florida say go too far? We might find places of agreement — places where we can make modifications that are reasonable. But today was a little concerning for me.”

Democrat David Richardson called the bill “a tourism killer.”

“I am thankful that you have split these bills so we can have the conversation,” he said. “I do support transparency. I support more oversight into this. But, in my humble opinion, this overreaches where we need to be.”

Following the hearing, Renner praised Lawson but said the legislation is intended to keep an eye on “not-so-great leaders.”

“These accountability measures are important. I believe in each and every one of them. The question is, which ones specifically will Visit Florida say go too far? We may find places of agreement — places where we can make modifications that are reasonable. But today was a little concerning for me.”

On the departure at Enterprise Florida, Renner said:

“Like you, I read Chris Hart’s statement today on his disagreements with the governor. I have nothing to add to that, because I just don’t know what his motivations or his reasoning was beyond the statement he made.”

Legislation would require reporting on race disparities in criminal sentencing

Sponsors of legislation requiring the state to produce a report each year on criminal sentencing disparities based on race said Monday that they don’t mean an attack on judges but need to know what the data show.

“I’ve heard there’s been some consternation from some judges,” said Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Democrat from Jacksonville.

“The bill is not about judges. It’s justice, and it’s about data. Nobody should fear data,” she said.

“The data already exists. The bill simply asks (the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) to to compile it, so that it can be given to judges, state attorney’s offices, the Senate president, the speaker (of the House), the chief judge, the Supreme Court, as well as to the public,” Gibson said.

“It is time we looked at whether Florida is doing a good job … or are there opportunities for improvement. If the data shows us that there is disproportionate treatement between African Americans, minorities, and poor persons, and nomninority people, then we ought to get to look at that, and look at the system and see where we are falling down.”

SB 382, and a House companion by Miami Democrat Kionne McGhee, would require officials to post a report each March 1 detailing sentencing data for every judge handling criminal and juvenile cases. The reports would break down sentencing decisions by race, sex, age, income, and criminal history.

Evidence of discrimination against any group would be ground for disqualification of a judge.

During a news conference outside the Senate chamber Monday, the lawmakers were flanked by House members and representatives of the NAACP, the Florida Public Defender Association, and the Advancement Project, a civil rights group.

African Americans comprise 16 percent of Florida’s population but 48 percent of the state’s inmates, Gibson said. Hispanics are 13 percent of the state population but 16 percent of its inmates.

“Only when we gather the data can we identify the truth. And once we’ve had a chance establish the truth, it’s our belief that good Floridians, or people of good conscience, are going to make the right decisions about how we address that,” said Dale Landry of the NAACP.

“We really believe that to some judges, this might even open their eyes to some of the practices they are doing,” he said.

McGhee said he would meet with Judiciary chairman Chris Sprowls Tuesday to discuss the legislation.

McGhee, a former prosecutor, said judges can and do depart from sentencing recommendations attached to plea bargains.

The “elephant in the room,” he said, is race. And the question is whether Florida will abide by the principles of the country’s founding documents.

“If there is a judge out there who’s watching this press conference who believes that his or her beliefs are superior to the founding fathers who crafted such great documents for this great nation, then we ask that they review who they are as a person. Because it contradicts everything we stand for,” McGhee said.

“The real answer is race, and bias. … We all come to this game with some sort of bias. And we all must check ourselves when we go through those doors of justice. Everybody here understands — these House members who have been in this process for a while, who have been fighting for the good of the people. They understand. And that’s why we’re here.”

With role on the line, NCCI insists: We’re not ‘an evil empire unto itself’

The National Council on Compensation Insurance will take no position on a Senate bill that would require workers’ compensation carriers to propose their own rates to the Office of Insurance Regulation.

“We don’t have an opinion in it. We operate in both environments,” Susan Donegan, chief regulatory services officer for NCCI, said in a telephone interview Monday.

SB 1582 would shift Florida from a “fully administered” state to a “loss cost” system. That means that instead of proposing premium levels for most of the carriers in the state, as NCCI does now, the companies would compete with each other on rates.

NCCI would have a role under either system, Donegan said. In fact, of the 36 states in which it operates, only four — including Florida — are fully administered. In the others, the company crunches numbers for individual carriers.

“We have a lot to do in the states that are loss cost, too,” Donegan said. “We are still very much part of the process. It’s just a different way we provide the reports to the regulators.”

The shift would mean more work for the insurance office, she added.

“It means they have a little bit more to to on their end. The they will have to understand there’s going to be a part of the rate that they’ll get directly from the carriers, and then they’ll have to approve that.”

The House’s proposed workers’ compensation fix would keep Florida an administered-rate state but allow carriers to diverge from the statewide rate by no more than 5 percent.

NCCI routinely analyzes proposed legislation for the effect on the market. Company analyists were still reviewing the House and Senate bills, Donegan said.

“We have not had a chance to do a deep dive on it,” she said.

Workers’ compensation reform is a top priority for business interests, alarmed at a 14.5 percent increased the insurance office approved to take effect beginning in December. Those interests and many in the Legislature blame Florida Supreme Court rulings striking caps on attorney fees in workers’ comp litigation, and on permanent disability eligibility.

A challenge to the rate increase is pending before the 1st District Court of Appeal, which must decide whether the Sunshine Law applies to NCCI’s internal deliberations and documents.

Donegan wants to knock down any perception that NCCI is “an evil empire unto itself — a secret society.” Or that it actually sets premium levels.

“We gather the data for the insurance commissioners — the actual, real claims data,” she said.

“We analyze that and make a recommendation based on the data that tells the OIR the direction we think a rate needs to go in order for it to be neither execessive or inadequate … and that it is not unfairly discriminatory. That’s the legal standard that’s baked into the the statute,” Donegan said.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and his staff then do their own analysis and decide “whether we are in the right neighborhood or whether they feel there are some other factors they need to take into consideration.”

The office did just that in approving last year’s rate increase — NCCI had recommended a hike closer to 19 percent.

“It’s a little bit of an art. It’s a science, because it’s based on facts and real-life claims information,” said Donegan, herself a former insurance commissioner in Vermont.

“The art is on the regulatority side. There may be facts a commissioner has to take under consideration. That might be a political consideration. It might be an economic situation in the state. It could be a legislative they’re dealing with on a local level.”

Donegan emphasized that NCCI is a Florida-based company with about 850 of its 1,000 employees in its Boca Raton headquarters. It pays $94 million in direct compensation to its workers. They’re good jobs, too — the median salary is $86,000.

“We want people to understand that, even though we’ve been a fairly quiet company, we’ve been a very important part of the Boca Raton and Palm Beach County economic structure.”

Insurance companies have plenty to worry about as Legislative Session opens

The insurance industry already has a good idea how one of it’s top priorities for the 2017 Legislative Session seems likely to go. It found out when the House and Senate unveiled their plans for fixing the workers’ compensation system Friday.

But there’s more than that to worry about as session opens Tuesday.

The industry is also looking for a fix for assignment of benefits abuse, and waiting to see whether the Legislature will make the state’s personal injury protection mandate for auto insurance go away.

There’s an abortion bill that could affect medical malpractice rates. One to let plaintiffs collect prejudgment interest on legal damages. Even Uber is on the menu.

The Senate workers’ compensation bill takes direct aim at the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which proposes premium levels for most of the insurers in Florida.

SB 1582 would require insurers to file their own rates, presumably encouraging them to compete on price.

The House bill wouldn’t go that far — it merely allows insurers to deviate from a common rate by up to 5 percent, subject to approval by the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Both measures would retain attorney fee caps, linked to the benefits won, that were struck down as unconstitutional by the Florida Supreme Court last year. But they allow deviations when warranted by the degree of difficulty or time involved.

The measures would be more generous with permanent disability awards, would change the reimbursement scheme for hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers, and would require claims to spell out the benefits sought and why.

There wasn’t much immediate reaction from the industry, but Richard Chait, chairman of the Florida Justice Association’s workers’ comp committee, called the Senate plan “a step in the right direction.”

Cracking down on abuse of assignment of benefits, or AOB, agreements is the top legislative priority this year for Citizens Property Insurance Corp., Florida’s insurer of last resort, and for Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier.

Altmaier’s idea is to change Florida’s one-way attorney fee statute so that contractors can’t use it to enforce AOBs. Only named policyholders or a limited number of their designees could do that.

“It would clarify that, if you’re a homeowner, and you own the policy, it’s your name on the policy, you have the benefit of the one-way attorney fee,” Altmaier said after presenting his plan to the Cabinet recently. “If your name is not on the policy, then you don’t. It’s just as simple as that.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes is among the lawmakers pushing for repeal of mandatory PIP — which, a study released in September suggested — could save drivers an average $81 per car.

However, consumers could end up paying more for other lines of coverage.

A Senate committee has discussed abandoning PIP in favor of a system whereby people injured in auto accidents can sue to recover against bodily injury policies held by drivers found at fault.

Other items on the agenda:

Flood insurance: Brandes is sponsoring SB 420, which would encourage Florida insurers to write flood insurance as an alternative to expensive federal coverage. Existing law allows insurers to offer flood policies through 2019 without having to wait for the Office of Insurance Regulation to review their rates. Brandes’ bill would extend that until 2025.

HMOs: SB 262, by Greg Steube, would allow patients to sue HMOs for declining to cover doctors’ treatment recommendations in bad faith.

“Why shouldn’t the HMOs be held liable for the decisions they make and the doctors aren’t making, and people are dying? I just don’t think that’s equitable,” the Sarasota Republican said during a committee hearing.

Existing law exempts HMOs from liability for treatment decisions by doctors with whom they contract to treat patients.

State employees’ health insurance: PCB HHS 17-01 would allow workers to choose between four plans offering different benefits levels, and pay premiums accordingly, beginning in 2020.

If the state’s contribution for a premium were more than the cost of the plan selected by an employee, they could use the remainder to fund a flexible spending arrangement or health savings plan; purchase additional benefits; or apply it to their salary.

Doctor’s prerogatives: HB 161, by Danny Burgess, and SB 240, by Tom Lee would authorize a direct primary care system, described by proponents at the Florida Medical Association as “an alternative to the traditional fee-for-service model in which patients are charged a simple, affordable flat monthly fee for comprehensive coverage of all primary care services.”

These arrangements are intended to prevent chronic illnesses and reduce administrative expenses. They would not be subject to oversight by the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

Abortion: Medical malpractice insurers are alarmed about HB 19, by Erin Grall, which would create a cause of action by women against doctors who performed an abortion without informed consent as many as 10 years later.

Mark Delegal, with the Doctors Company, a medical malpractice insurance business, has argued the measure would undo medical malpractice reforms passed by the Florida Legislature in 2003 — including a two-year statute of limitations.

Prejudgment interest: CS/HB 469 would allow plaintiffs to recover interest on noneconomic claims, including pain and suffering, at a rate set 4.9 percent but varying with inflation — from the date of a loss.

They could collect against attorney fees and costs, too. Existing law provides for prejudgment interest on economic claims only, or when provided for by contract.

A companion measure, by Steube, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Uber/Lyft: CS/HB 221 would create statewide regulations governing transportation network companies. That’s car-sharing operations like Uber and Lyft. Among other things, the bill would require the companies to insure each car.

“For far too long, TNC drivers have been operating under their personal insurance policies, which may not cover them or their passengers in an event of a crash,” Samantha Sexton, of the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida, said after the bill cleared the House Government Accountability Committee.

Omnibus: HB 454, by Brandes, cleans up various provisions of the state’s insurance regulations. For example, it would repeal the scheduled 2019 sunset of medical malpractice insurers’ exemption from emergency assessments in case of a catastrophe, and would allow insurers to charge handling fees if a premium check bounces.

Lobbyists tend to view any cleanup bill warily, lest it turn into a “train” carrying provisions they might not like.

Andrew Gillum opens ‘people-centric’ campaign for Florida governor

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum took on Rick Scott, Donald Trump, and the National Rifle Association during the opening speech of his campaign for governor Saturday, and promised to “bring Florida home” for the state’s working people.

“Together, we will build the kind of campaign that will move across this entire state and make this state proud — we’ll stand up for every Floridian,” Gillum said.

“That gives them hope in every family, no matter where their backgrounds are, where they come from. This campaign will win the governorship in 2018, and we’re going to put this state back on a pathway to success and opportunity for all,” he said.

“Let’s put Floridians to work at every rung of the income ladder. Let’s bring it home for Florida. Let’s invest in the clean energy that provides good-paying jobs and protects our natural resources, and makes a strong statement that Florida is about to become the capital of this country when it comes to producing solar energy that puts people to work right here.”

Gillum warned of “powerful headwinds” and interests “that own this Capitol, as they see it. And own this governor’s mansion, as they see it.

“But we’re going to run a race that is powered by people. It’s going to be your $25 dollar contributions, you’re $5, you’re $10, that’s going to make it possible for a people-centric message to break through. Because we need to tell these special interests that we run this state, not them. That there are more us … than there are of them.”

He conceded he was engaging upon an “improbable mission.”

“Improbable it may be. Possible, it completely is. We’re about to show the rest of this state what it means,” he said. “We can do this. We can do this together.”

At 37, Gillum is young to enter a governor’s race. But he was elected to the Tallahassee City Commission at 23. He was elected mayor in 2014.

He’s made some early missteps. On the morning of his rally, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that he had repaid the city for using its email system to campaign, and that he’d had to correct campaign documents that included his old address.

He made no mention of that during his speech, focusing on people “who are struggling, are finding hard to make a way for themselves, and make a way for their families. Who want to be optimistic again and also want to believe that they’re included in the future of this state.

“We deserve our voice, too,” he said. “And we’re going to get our voice back, I assure you.”

Gillum described how his grandmother anointed his head with oil as he headed to school as a child, and instilled in him the responsibility to care for his six brothers and sisters and neighbors.

“It really is what shapes my own political belief system and how I approach public policymaking. What she was telling me is that we’re all in this together. That if I did good, we all did good. If I go far, we will all go far.”

A couple of hundred supporters gathered in Tallahassee’s Kleman Plaza as a chilly wind died down and the day warmed, dishing into a large stack of pizzas while they waited for the candidate.

Several of his high school teachers stood among the crowd. One of them, Linda Aubrey, from Gainesville High School, testified that he was “a natural leader with a big heart” even then.

“I want to thank y’all here in Tallahassee who gave a 23 year-old skinny by from Florida A&M University the chance to be your city commissioner. I want to thank you for giving that same young man the opportunity to be your mayor,” Gillum said.

“Now I’m asking for your blessings and your good will, for all the hope and all the love and all the ideas that you’ve instilled in me over this period of time — I want to ask your permission to share just a little bit of what you’ve put in me with the rest of the state of Florida.”

Gillum is the first candidate to enter the governor’s race. Among Democrats, Orlando businessman Chris King filed campaign papers this week, and former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, also of Tallahassee, is considering running. Other possibles include Democratic mayors Bob Buckhorn of Tampa and Philip Levine of Miami Beach.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam so far is the most likely Republican candidate to announce a run for 2018.

Gillum outlined a jobs platform built on education — young childhood, K-12, vocational, and college, to help people “who are under pressure and under the squeeze in this state.”

He slammed Scott for refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, killing a $1 billion high-speed rail system that would have provided jobs, and minimizing the threat of climate change and rising sea levels.

“We need to bring Florida home for Florida’s workers, Florida’s working people. We need a plan for Florida’s economic future that doesn’t rely on tourism alone but that catalyzes the assets of this state, which includes our best assets — our people. Y’all. Me. Us.”

Gillum spoke of his own record as mayor — encouraging technology jobs and employment for young people, building a 200-acre solar farm at the airport, eliminating $2 million in local business taxes, granting $5.6 billion in energy rebates, and limiting job discrimination against people with criminal records.

“I want to bring these forward-looking ideas into state government. Florida has everything it needs to be the strongest economy in this country. We just need the leadership and the willingness to get us there,” he said.

He decried education reforms that he said teach kids to take tests.

“I don’t believe that our teachers are evil. And I don’t believe that their union is evil. Does our system deserve correcting? Absolutely. But we do that by demonizing the people who are responsible for creating that better system?”

When some local officials stopped granting marriage licenses to avoid having to give them to same-sex couples, “as the mayor of this city, I said, ‘Come to Tallahassee, where we recognize that love is love is love.’ ”

When Trump “targeted immigrants … I spoke up boldly and I said that we could do both — we could protect our national security interests and have secure borders without tearing our families apart,” he said.

“And when the NRA decided that it wanted to join in a lawsuit against me because I refused to repeal a law that said you can’t fire a gun in our city parks — that you can’t fire a gun in a park where our kids play and our families picnic, common sense … we won that fight twice,” Gillum said.

“I recognize that it will not be easy. Change is hard. Pursuing a people-focused agenda to boost our economy and provide access to quality education will take vision, and it will take the courage of our convictions,” he said.

“Too many of our political leaders lack all three. But standing up for people in this state, and standing up to powerful interests is not something that I’m not used to.”

House, Senate release details of their workers’ compensation legislation

The Senate released its version of a workers’ compensation fix Friday, and the measure would lift limits on attorney fees in some cases and require insurance companies to file their own rates, rather than let a ratings agency do the job for them.

The House released a draft, labeled “for discussion at a workshop March 7,” that also would allow higher attorney fees and allow insurers to compete on rates.

Although SB 1582 would eliminate the National Council on Compensation Insurance’s role in proposing rates to the Office of Insurance Regulation, the House would merely allow insurers to deviate from approved rates by up to 5 percent.

The fee cap formula, approved by the Legislature in 2003, and tied to benefits won, would remain under both measures.

But judges of compensation claims could approve fees of as much as $250 per hour when justified by the degree of difficulty or time involved. And both measures would repeal criminal sanctions against lawyers who accept fees outside the fee structure.

Neither chamber appeared interested in an Associated Industries of Florida proposal to require both parties — the worker and the insurance company — to pay their own attorney fees.

But both bills do include AIF’s proposal to make petitions for benefits specify the benefits sought and how they were calculated.

Senate sponsor Rob Brandley said the legislation was a response to Florida Supreme Court rulings striking down the existing caps on attorney fees and total disability payments as unconstitutional.

“Making meaningful comprehensive changes that can withstand judicial scrutiny should be the goal,” Bradley said.

“This legislation incorporates significant provisions that will stabilize rates and bring Florida in line with 38 other states that encourage more competition among insurers and limit the amount of the insurer’s defense fees that can be passed on to businesses, while not subjecting businesses to a tug-of-war between the Legislature and the judiciary.”

Insurers and their business allies blame those court rulings for the 14.5 percent premium hike that began to take effect in December. They argue the rulings undermined the effort under the 2003 workers’ compensation legislation to reduce litigation and other costs.

That increase is the subject of a case before the 1st District Court of Appeal filed by Miami workers’ compensation attorney James Fee, who claims violations of the Sunshine Law because NCCI didn’t open all its internal deliberations and documents to the public.

Total disability benefits would be extended from 104 weeks to 260 weeks.

The House wants to change the way the system pays for outpatient care through hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers. They now get a percentage of their usual and customary charges. In the future, their fees would be tied to Medicare reimbursement levels.

Procedures not covered by such a statutory reimbursement system would be priced by the three-member panel, which advises the insurance office.

The Senate bill would require insurers to pay rebates if their defense and cost containment expenses exceed 15 percent of incurred losses for the average of the three most recent calendar years.

The House plans separate legislation shielding personally identifying information about dead or injured workers under the public records laws.

Representatives of the Florida Chamber of Commerce had no immediate comment on the proposed legislation; a spokeswoman said it was polling its member for their reactions.

Richard Chait, chairman of the Workers’ Compensation Section of the Florida Justice Association, called the Senate bill “a step in the right direction for Florida’s workers and businesses” in a written statement.

“Our priorities continue to focus on rate-making reform which provides for competition in the market and promotes transparency, some element of choice in medical treatment for injured workers, a meaningful post-9maximum medical improvement) benefit for those who are unable to return to their former employment, and the responsibility for insurance carriers to pay reasonable attorney’s fees when benefits are wrongfully denied,” he said.

“As we anticipate that workers’ compensation will be a top priority this session, we look forward to working with the Legislature and the business community to enact meaningful reforms which will impact the well being of employers and those workers who have the misfortune of suffering work-related injuries.“

Sadowski Coalition seeks full funding for affordable housing in state budget

Affordable housing advocates urged the Legislature Thursday to spend all of the state’s dedicated housing money for its intended purpose, saying that more than 910,000 Floridians pay more than half their income for shelter.

Representatives of the Sadowski Housing Coalition — including Associated Industries of Florida, AARP, the Florida Realtors Association, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Florida Home Builders Association — appeared during a news conference to make their case.

Carrie O’Rourke, of the realtors’ group, said it supports the documentary stamp taxes on real estate purchases that finance two housing trust funds even though it’s levied against her industry.

“And we continue to support it today, because of the good it does for so many people,” O’Rourke said.

“Every community relies on dependable and accessible housing options to say healthy and vibrant. Without that option, the bedrock of the community becomes weak.”

“We as a state can make it possible for older adults to live safely, independently, and affordably, saving the state money, by fully funding our affordable housing programs,” said Dorene Barker, of AARP.

“With the aging population in our state on the rise, it is more important than ever that Florida use every penny of its housing funds to support Florida’s affordable housing programs.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed budget would shift nearly 77 percent of the $293.4 million earmarked for low-income housing next year to other state priorities. That works out to $224 million from state and local housing trust funds that won’t go for their intended purpose.

Yet the need is great, according to member of the coalition. The group is named after Bill Sadowski, a former lawmaker and Department of Community Affairs secretary who died in a plane crash in 1992, and who advocated for affordable housing.

In its Home Matters Report for 2017, the group cited high housing costs for the working poor, seniors, and people with disabilities.

The state’s homeless population is the nation’s third highest, the report said. Some 34,000 Floridians live in homeless shelters and on the streets, including 2,902 veterans and 6,140 children.

One doesn’t even need to be poor to have trouble arranging shelter. In Collier County, for example, the rent is too high for some people in well-paying professions including nursing.

“If a person is making what you consider to be a good income here in Tallahassee, where they might be able to find housing fairly easily, they’re not able to with that same profession in Collier County,” said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition, a member of the Sadowski Coalition.

Historically, the Legislature has swept about 25 percent of the money in Florida’s state and local housing trust funds for other priorities, said Mark Hendrickson, executive director of the Association of Local Housing Finance Authorities.

“During the Great Recession, the percentage that was swept went way up,” he said. “In the past few years, we’ve made significant progress, and we are thankful to the Legislature for the progress we’ve made in moving back toward full funding.”

Of the governor’s proposal, he said: “That’s a starting point. We work with the Legislature at this point to move forward. Last year, the Legislature’s appropriation was well above the governor’s recommendation, and the sweep was smaller. We hope we’ll be headed in that same direction.”

Hospitals hopeful on Medicaid following meeting with D.C. delegation

Florida’s congressional delegation is onboard with efforts by hospitals that provide charity care to persuade the Trump administration to treat the state more fairly under the Medicaid program, representatives said following meetings in Washington.

Members of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida met this week with senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, and with House members Carlos Curbelo, Stephanie Murphy, and Ted Yoho, and with aides to other members of the delegation.

“We had a very warm reception at Sen. Rubio’s office. He was very well aware that Florida gets short-changed in our funding for the uninsured, and was energized,” Lindy Kennedy, executive vice president of the alliance, said during a conference call Thursday.

Rubio warned that Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was still organizing his management team, but promised the delegation “would do everything in their power” to press the hospitals’ case.

“Sen. Nelson was very gracious, spent a lot of time with us,” Kennedy said.

“He acknowledged the challenging, rock-and-a-hard place position that Florida’s hospitals now find themselves in, having aggressively worked with the federal government as well as our state Legislature to request passage of Medicaid expansion,” she said.

“He seemed to understand that we need to move forward with sort of the hand we’ve been dealt, was the way that he put it.”

Curbelo wants to write a letter from the delegation to Price. That’s not a sure thing, but “there is some interest in trying to pull that together,” Kennedy said.

But the state’s elected representatives understand the problem and want to help.

“That was a consistent theme with Congressman Yoho and Stephanie Murphy,” she said.

The representatives met with staff for Ron DeSantis, Mario Diaz-Balart, Francis Rooney, Tom Rooney, Dennis Ross, and Daniel Webster. Individual hospital representatives may have met with additional members of Congress.

“I understand they were very well received,” Kennedy said.

“We are working to follow up with Secretary Price’s new administration, and spending time with them, hopefully educating them about the disparity between Florida and some of the other nonexpansion states,” Kennedy said.

“We feel we’re uniquely positioned to maybe even lead the nation in setting policy” on supplemental funding for the uninsured, she said.

The alliance has complained that the Obama administration trimmed Florida’s reimbursement levels under the Low Income Pool program for uninsured patients from $2.2 billion to $608 million during the past three years.

It wants at least $1.6 billion during the new budget year, and more freedom in how they spend the money.

“I think that the unfairness shown to Florida in the past presents the Trump administration with an opportune platform to quickly demonstrate its new commitment to state flexibility in deployment of funding for health care to the uninsured and Medicaid patients,” Jonathan Ellen, CEO of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and chairman of the alliance board, said in a written statement.

The LIP program was launched 11 years ago under a waiver from the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services, allowing Florida to put Medicaid recipients into managed care. Following two extensions, the state’s authority for that program ends on June 30.

The feds have been shortchanging Florida on the program for years, alliance president Tony Carvalho said — the state gets $401 per uninsured patient, compared to $1,612 for California, $1,934 for Texas, and $4,007 for New York.

“The federal government has treated Florida very unfairly,” Carvalho said.

“Florida’s Low Income Pool was reduced over the last several years as a strategy to pressure Florida to expand Medicaid coverage under ACA,” he said.

“We certainly support ACA expansion. But we believe the strategy really hurt the safety net hospitals and hurt the safety net in general — the people who are uninsured in this state.”

Gov. Rick Scott’s health aides are negotiating with the Trump administration but, with the Legislature settling into its session next week, and the state budget deadline looming, “time is running short,” Carvalho said.

“Whatever they do settle on, the Legislature would have to appropriate the money,” he said.

With the state House, particularly, looking for budget cuts this year, “we are concerned that the Legislature may be looking at rate cuts in the Medicaid program,” he said.

“Every dollar that they cut in hospital rates, if that should happen, the state saves 38 cents and we give back to the federal government 62 cents. If we’re starting from a basis in which we believe Florida is already in a very inequitable position in terms of its share of federal dollars, those types of cuts just are penny wise and pound foolish.”

Particularly if Washington Republicans enact major reforms, such as turning Medicaid into a block grant program, he said.

“The clock is ticking,” Kennedy said.

“We do need the Legislature and our federal delegation to work together with CMS to address this issue before sine die of our regular session, so the waiver can be renewed June 30 with increased flexibility and an increased amount,” she said.

“Everyone we met with (in Washington) and explained the different time-table, they acknowledged their understanding. They were very receptive, and I’m optimistic we will be able to move quickly with their help.”

Timothy Geithner sees political gridlock as a threat to the United States

The biggest danger to the United States and its economy is the breakdown of the political system in Washington, former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said in Tallahassee Wednesday.

“Nothing is more important than improving the quality of the decisions you get in Washington,” Geithner told members of the Economic Club of Florida during a luncheon.

“There’s no threat to us outside the United States that is greater … than that basic challenge. We have no capacity to think about those other threats from outside without taking care first of that fundamental part of the American system,” he said.

“It’s a nice rule in life — start at home. Start to figure out how you can rebuild that basic trust and confidence in this place and it’s capacity to do things. If we do that, then we’ll preserve the confidence and the growth in this place, and we’ll have enough strength that we can deal with any potential threat out there.”

The country’s leaders managed to do that during the 2008 financial crisis, which Geithner helped manage as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

“We had a political system that ultimately was able to come together — which is kind of rare today, too — across the parties, across administrations, and kept at it to figure out what would work,” Geithner said.

“It was messy, and terrible, and traumatic, and painful, and we’re still with the scars of it. But it made me more confident in our country, because we had pretty good institutions and they didn’t let politics get in the way.”

Geithner served as Treasury secretary between 2009 and 2013, and now is president of the Warburg Pincus hedge fund.

He believes in strong “fire stations” — institutions and regulations to respond to crises that can result when people’s optimism leads them into dangerous risks and financial collapse.

“Regulation can dampen that, but it can’t save us completely. Water will find its way around a stump in the river. People’s desire to earn a better living will sometimes find its way around regulation. That vulnerability, you can’t take out of the system. You should try hard to prevent that stuff from going too far. You have to protect against the risk that prevention fails. You have to have a very strong fire station.”

Asked about the bull market in stocks, particularly since Donald Trump’s election, Geithner said investors expect a stable economy with modest growth and low inflation, and that “things don’t fall apart.”

However, “reality tends to frustrate that.”

He sees political gridlock as a huge problem.

“We’ve lost the capacity in this county for principled compromise,” he said.

“We’re an afraid, wounded, divided country. We’re not a country built to survive long periods of paralysis in politics.”

He cautioned against indulgence in protectionism, “raising a lot of barriers to the world.”

“There’s no plausible external threat to the United States economically or strategically now. That’s likely to be true for some time unless we erode it,” Geithner said.

Asked about the Dodd-Frank financial regulations, now being targeted by Republicans, Geithner said they were written quickly and “came out pretty messy.”

“It’s a good idea to take a look at these things occasionally, and refresh them and redesign them. I always thought that time would come,” he said. “It’s not a bad idea to take a look at it.”

But he cautioned against eroding “the stuff that makes the system more stable.”

“You needed to have more capital in banks, and more conservative funding. That’s existential. You would not want to erode that,” he said.

“We have a dramatically more stable system today. That’s worth a lot. I think it’s overwhelmingly been positive, on balance. Look at other countries’ experience in this context — we have much stronger credit, and the price of credit is very attractive. Could it be better? Sure.”

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