News Service Of Florida – Florida Politics

News Service Of Florida

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

Amendment supporters fear voter fatigue

Anticipated “voter fatigue” is already a concern of backers of a proposed constitutional amendment that would extend a property-tax cap, particularly because approval of the measure will require support from 60 percent of voters.

When they cast ballots in November, Floridians will decide the fate of the 13 proposed constitutional amendments, including the measure, known as Amendment 2, that would extend the tax cap on non-homesteaded properties.

The long list of ballot proposals worries supporters of Amendment 2, though the measure does not have announced opposition.

“We are in a non-presidential election cycle, so there’s going to be some voter fatigue and endurance issues, and we want to make sure when they get to Amendment 2 they’re going to vote ‘yes,’ ” Patrick Slevin, a spokesman for the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said this week.

The amendment, which also has backing from groups such as Florida Realtors, would extend and make permanent a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed values of non-homesteaded properties. Unless an extension is approved in November, the cap otherwise will expire at the end of the year.

Florida TaxWatch said Tuesday that eliminating the cap would raise property taxes by more than $700 million on non-homesteaded properties like businesses, apartments and second homes. Lawmakers used a similar figure when they voted last year to put the measure on the 2018 ballot.

The Legislature also put two other proposals on the November ballot that could limit taxes. One measure, which will appear as Amendment 1, would expand the homestead property-tax exemption. The other, which will appear as Amendment 5, would require two-thirds votes by future legislators to raise taxes.

The ballot also will include two measures that are a result of petition drives. One of the measures, Amendment 3, would allow voters to decide on future expansions of gambling. Another measure, Amendment 4, would restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentences.

The Constitution Revision Commission added eight other amendments, with six of the measures featuring two or more topics.

Amendment 6 focuses on victims’ rights. Amendment 7 includes death benefits for first responders. Amendment 8 involves term limits for school-board members and other educational changes. Amendment 9 combines a proposed ban on offshore oil drilling with a proposed ban on vaping in the workplace. Amendment 10 deals with issues including the start date of legislative sessions in even-numbered years. Amendment 11 involves issues related to property rights and high-speed rail. Amendment 12 would impose a six-year lobbying ban on former state elected officials. And Amendment 13 would ban greyhound racing.

Now imagine reading the longer, more defined version of each of those while in the voting booth.

Kate MacFall, the Humane Society’s Florida state director, believes the greyhound-racing ban, which she supports, can avoid problems with voter fatigue.

“We think Amendment 13 is going to stand out and bring a lot of voter support,” MacFall said.

However, she understands other issues “about tax policy that could be more confusing” might become buried in the muddle.

Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, said he “generally” doesn’t agree with “log rolling,” putting multiple topics into single amendments, but he understands the need to condense the ballot.

Along with the length of the ballot, a concern for backers of Amendment 2 is that voters commonly will vote “no” if they don’t want things to change. But a “no” vote on Amendment 2 would do away with the tax cap that property owners already enjoy.

FEMA chief preaches local preparedness for disasters

Local officials across Florida shouldn’t rely on the federal government to be on the ground everywhere a day or days after the next natural disaster, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said Wednesday during the annual Governor’s Conference on Hurricanes.

FEMA Administrator Brock Long bluntly stressed that his agency and others that offer disaster assistance have been stretched thin after a series of 2017 storms and wildfires, as well as the ongoing volcanic eruption in Hawaii, so local officials should have their own plans to provide water and other essential services for the first few days following a disaster.

“If you don’t have the ability to do things such as provide your own food and water and your own commodities to your citizens for the first 48 to 72 hours, and I’m asking you to consider pre-event management concepts, I’m questioning whether or not you’re an EMAP (Emergency Management Accreditation Program) accredited emergency management agency,” Long said while appearing at the week-long training event at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach.

“If you’re waiting on FEMA to run your commodities, that’s not the solution,” Long added. “I can’t guarantee that we can be right on time to backfill everything you need.”

With the start of the six-month hurricane season two weeks away, Long said FEMA isn’t “going to back away” when disasters strike. But he said local and state capabilities need to be strengthened, such as signing deals with private water bottlers and debris haulers and hardening local communications systems.

He talked of a need to revamp the national flood-insurance program, saying that due to “affordability” about 80 percent of homeowners in Houston didn’t have flood insurance before Hurricane Harvey hit last year.

Long said he’s also trying to revamp FEMA’s business model, as he estimated the agency spent about $300 million a day responding to disasters in 2017, with hotel bills at $3.5 million a day for displaced residents due to hurricanes Irma in Florida, Maria in Puerto Rico and Harvey in Texas, as well as floods, tornadoes and fires.

“The bottom line is that my operational capacity internally does not grow with the number of events that we have,” Long said.

Long’s comment came after Rep. Jeanette Nunez, a Miami Republican who oversaw the state House’s response to Hurricane Irma, encouraged emergency managers to keep pushing for storm hardening projects. She noted many storm-related proposals failed to advance during this year’s Legislative Session when lawmakers redirected $400 million to respond to the February massacre at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

“We really had to struggle at the end to find a way to keep our budget balanced but also address that particular tragedy,” Nunez said.

Lawmakers approved storm-related money for such things as farm repairs, affordable housing in Monroe County and to help students displaced from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Still, many of the high-profile measures crafted in response to hurricanes Irma and Maria failed to win support. They included strengthening the electric grid, creating a strategic fuel-reserve task force, requiring the Division of Emergency Management to use certified sign-language interpreters during emergency broadcasts and using rail-tank cars to bring fuel into evacuation areas to avoid a repeat of runs on gas stations.

“Those are good baselines to start for the upcoming session, next year,” said Nunez, the chairwoman of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness who will not return for the 2019 session due to term limits.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott told people attending the conference to “pray” Florida won’t be impacted by hurricanes for the third consecutive year.

“Hopefully we won’t have any hurricanes. It would be nice not to have, in my eighth year, any hurricanes,” Scott said.

Scott also praised people attending the conference for their work to restore services following hurricanes the past two years.

The governor’s office announced on Wednesday the state has submitted a $616 million request to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ongoing Hurricane Irma recovery efforts.

HUD has 45 days to respond to the state’s request for the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program money, which would go into providing assistance to impacted businesses, repairing homes, building new affordable rental units and buying land for affordable housing.

The federal program requires at least 80 percent of the money go to the hardest-hit counties and ZIP codes. As part of the state’s request, the areas listed in the application include Brevard, Broward, Collier, Duval, Lee, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Orange, Polk and Volusia counties, as well as ZIP codes 32136 in Flagler County, 32091 in Bradford County, 32068 in Clay County and 34266 in DeSoto County.

The money would also help Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida due to Hurricane Maria.

Florida boating accidents increase in 2017

Florida recorded 766 boating accidents in 2017, up 7.3 percent from a year earlier, while 67 boating-related deaths matched the total from 2016, according to a report released Wednesday by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

The agency said its “2017 Boating Accident Statistical Report” is used to encourage boaters to “focus on simple, effective steps to make boating safer.”

People falling overboard has been the leading type of fatal accident for the past 15 years, according to the report. Drowning is the leading cause of death.

“Eighty-one percent of these victims were not wearing a life jacket,” a news release accompanying the report said. “Today’s boaters can choose from several models of light and comfortable inflatable belt-pack or over-the-shoulder life jackets that can be worn while fishing or enjoying the sun.”

Also, more than one-third of the 2017 accidents involved collisions between vessels, of which 38 percent were due to inattention or the operator failing to maintain a proper lookout.

Holly Raschein draws Democratic challenger

After the recent withdrawal of another candidate, Islamorada Democrat Stephen Richard Friedman has opened a campaign account to try to unseat Rep. Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican, this year, according to the state Division of Elections website.

Friedman opened the account Thursday, less than three weeks after another Democrat, Pat Gessel, withdrew from the House District 120 race.

Raschein, who was first elected in 2012, is seeking a final two-year term in the district, which includes Monroe County and part of Miami-Dade County. She had raised $158,929 for her campaign as of April 30, a finance report shows.

Also running in the district is Key Largo Republican Jose Felix Peixoto, who opened a campaign account April 19, according to the Division of Elections website.

State Farm gets win in PIP payment dispute

An appeals court Friday sided with State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. in a dispute about how much should be paid to a firm that provided MRIs to auto-accident victims.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned a decision by a Hillsborough County circuit judge that had been in favor of MRI Associates of Tampa, Inc., which does business as Park Place MRI.

The case centered on 19 MRI claims for people who were injured in auto accidents in 2013 and had personal-injury protection coverage with State Farm. The insurer paid portions of the bills submitted for the MRIs, limiting the payments to a schedule of charges in the state’s so-called PIP law. The MRI firm challenged the insurer’s payment decision.

While the appeals court Friday ruled for State Farm, it also asked the Florida Supreme Court to take up the issues in the case, a move known as “certifying” a case to the Supreme Court.

“The circuit court ruled that State Farm’s personal injury protection (PIP) policy failed to clearly and unambiguously elect to limit reimbursement payments to the schedule of maximum charges described in (a section of state law),” said Friday’s 10-page ruling, written by appeals-court Judge Daniel Sleet and joined by judges Darryl Casanueva and Marva Crenshaw.

“Because the express language of State Farm’s PIP policy does clearly and unambiguously elect to limit reimbursement payments for medical expenses to the schedule of maximum charges, we reverse.”

Report says changes will increase health premiums

Premiums for health insurance plans sold on the federal marketplace are expected to increase by nearly 16.9 percent in Florida next year due to changes in the Affordable Care Act, according to a new analysis released Friday.

Released by the Center for American Progress, the analysis estimates that a decision by Congress and President Donald Trump to repeal the mandate that people buy health insurance, coupled with proposed changes to the types of policies that can be sold, will increase premiums for Floridians by $1,011.

The report by the left-leaning group estimates that the average unsubsidized health insurance premium for a 40-year-old male buying a marketplace policy in 2019 will be $6,995.

The Affordable Care Act has provided subsidies for many people buying coverage, reducing their costs. More than. 1.7 million Floridians enrolled in the health insurance marketplace this year, with more than 1.5 million receiving subsidies either in the form of advanced premium tax credits or additional cost-sharing reductions that help lower co-payments and coinsurance requirements.

The new analysis accounts for the impact of repealing the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that individuals buy health-insurance policies as well as a Trump administration proposed rule to rescind limits on the sale of short-term insurance plans.

The individual mandate, one of the most controversial parts of the federal health care law commonly known as Obamacare, was repealed as part of a tax overhaul that passed in December.

In a prepared statement, Topher Spiro, vice president for health policy at the Center for American Progress, blasted Trump and Congress for what he called “sabotage of the insurance marketplaces.”

“First they passed massive tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, and now they’re asking middle-class Americans and people with pre-existing conditions to pick up the tab,” Spiro said. “They should be focused on lowering health care costs, not increasing them and intentionally undermining the stability of the insurance marketplaces that millions of Americans benefit from.”

The analysis came a day after Florida Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott urging him to take steps to protect Floridians from spikes in health insurance premiums. They also asked that Scott — who adamantly opposes the Affordable Care Act — require health plans to provide for essential health benefits, like hospital care or prescription drugs, and raised concerns that consumers could end up buying low-benefit plans.

“These junk plans would return patients to the days where only upon illness did they discover their plans imposed limits on coverage and excluded vital benefits,” said the letter, signed by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, Congresswoman Kathy Castor and 10 other Democratic members of the delegation. Nelson faces an election challenge in November from Scott.

The letter asked Scott to work with state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier to take steps to make sure consumers are kept safe. Democrats also asked that Scott consider investing in outreach and enrollment efforts and help provide funding to navigators who can connect patients with the federal marketplace. Floridians buy coverage through the federal marketplace because the state decided against setting up its own exchange.

John Tupps, a spokesman for Scott, said the governor’s office received the letter, adding that “Congress hasn’t controlled the nation’s health care costs or passed a balanced budget in decades.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Citrus agency counts on bigger crop next year

The Florida Department of Citrus is banking on storm-battered and disease-hardened growers being able to pick more fruit from their trees next growing season.

As it starts to patch together a budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the department is projecting that revenues will increase by just over $400,000 through upticks in orange, grapefruit and specialty-fruit production, according to numbers released by the agency.

However, a continued decline in the forecast for the ongoing growing season forced the Bartow-based department on Wednesday to once again squeeze its current operating budget.

This time the Citrus Commission, which oversees the department, had to cut $137,866 from the just-over $17 million operating budget.

Department officials said they were able to make the cuts by shifting $122,352 from reserves, with the remainder from general revenue service-charge changes and medical research.

The Department of Citrus is funded through a “box” tax on citrus. Revenues have dropped as citrus production has declined in recent years because of citrus-greening disease and destruction from September’s Hurricane Irma.

In January, the commission shifted more than $70,000 out of administration, scientific-research and global-marketing budgets to cover an anticipated drop in revenue. A month earlier, the hole created by declining crops required the commission to shift $556,147 from reserves to the operating budget.

Irma, which made landfall in the Keys and Collier County before barreling up the state, caused major damage to the citrus industry in regions such as Southwest Florida. A federal relief package will provide $340 million to the state in the form of a block grant to help citrus farmers rebuild. Farmers are expected to be able to start applying for money through the “2017 Wildfires and Hurricanes Indemnity Program” by July 16.

A preliminary budget for the department’s next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, will be based on projections that growers will be able to fill 60 million 90-pound boxes of oranges, 5 million similar-sized boxes of grapefruit and 880,000 boxes of specialty fruits, which include tangerines and tangelos. The preliminary budget will be formally introduced at a June 20 meeting.

The numbers would remain historic lows for the state’s signature industry, but if reached would represent a 34.8 percent increase in oranges from the current season, a 26.6 percent increase in grapefruit and 17.3 percent increase in specialty fruits.

The industry is currently on pace to record its lowest yield since the 1937-1938 season, when an overall total of 40.87 million boxes were filled.

Filling a projected 65.88 million boxes in the next season would put the state on par with the with the 1942-1943 season, when growers filled 36.5 million boxes of oranges, 27.3 million boxes of grapefruit, and 4.9 million boxes of specialty fruits.

The commission receives revenue by charging 7 cents on each 90-pound box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.

No discussion was made of the box taxes on Wednesday, with officials noting the rates will be addressed in October, after the first forecast of next season by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Newly elected lawmakers eligible for pay — despite not casting a vote

State Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Miami Democrat, and Rep. Josie Tomkow, a Polk City Republican, most likely will never cast a vote as part of the 2017-2018 Legislature, but both are eligible to pocket more than $15,000 from the taxpayer-funded job.

The two have been on the books since their separate special elections on May 1 — 51 days after the end of the regular 2018 Legislative Session — for the $29,697 a year job, which pays $571 a week.

The results of their elections were certified on Tuesday.

Both seats are again up for election Nov. 6, which is 27 weeks from the time Fernandez and Tomkow were elected.

Fernandez won in Miami-Dade County’s House District 114. Scott called the special election after former Rep. Daisy Baez, a Coral Gables Democrat, resigned after pleading guilty to a perjury charge in an investigation into her residency.

Tomkow, meanwhile, was elected in House District 39, which includes parts of Polk and Osceola counties. Scott called that election after former Rep. Neil Combee, an Auburndale Republican, resigned last year to take a job in the Donald Trump administration.

Humana makes changes in Capitol, parting ways with Jon Bussey

After scoring a big victory in a statewide Medicaid managed-care procurement, Humana and Jon Bussey, who served as its regional director of corporate affairs, have parted ways.

Humana Director of Corporate Communications Mark Mathis confirmed the separation in an email to The News Service of Florida, saying the company made a decision last year to “restructure our Tallahassee government affairs team to align with new business strategies.”

According to his LinkedIn profile, Bussey was the health insurance company’s principal representative before state executive, legislative and regulatory bodies, including departments of insurance as well as state health and Medicaid agencies, in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina. In the profile, he said he was responsible for providing strategic support on policy, political, public-sector procurement and regulatory matters, including commercial, long-term-care, Medicaid and Medicare and specialty insurance products.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration announced April 24 its decision to enter into five-year Medicaid contracts worth up to $90 billion with nine Medicaid managed care plans. If the decision stands, Humana will operate statewide.

Twelve managed care companies have filed petitions with the state notifying Medicaid officials of their intent to legally fight the decisions if changes aren’t made.

AHCA Secretary Justin Senior, Medicaid director Beth Kidder, and three other agency staff members have been meeting with the companies this week in hopes of avoiding litigation.

Higher test score standards could lead to drop in graduation rates

Freshmen entering Florida high schools this fall will need higher scores on alternative tests to meet graduation standards in math and language arts, under a rule adopted by the state Board of Education on Wednesday.

School districts warned the higher test scores could prevent more minority students and students learning to speak English from graduating. But state education officials said the new “concordant” scores on exams like the SAT or ACT, which can be used in place of regular assessments, will bring those alternative tests in line with more rigorous education standards adopted in 2016.

The change won’t effectively take place until the spring of 2022, when this fall’s freshman class will be graduating from high school.

The rule impacts students who cannot pass the language arts portion of the Florida Standards Assessment exam, which replaced the FCAT. It will also affect students who cannot pass the “end-of-course” exam for Algebra 1.

Students have the option of using alternative tests like the SAT or ACT to meet those high-school graduation standards. They currently also can take the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) to meet the algebra requirement.

The new rule, adopted by the Board of Education during a meeting in Pinellas County, would raise the passing scores for the 2022 graduates on the SAT and ACT. It would also eliminate the PERT, which state officials said is not as rigorous as current math standards.

For instance, the passing score for the reading and writing portion of the SAT would increase from 430 to 480. Students would need a 420 on the math portion of the SAT or a 16 on the ACT math test to meet the algebra requirement.

In an amendment adopted Wednesday, the state board also added the preliminary SAT (PSAT) as another option for meeting the graduation requirements.

But the board’s action came over the objections of a number of Florida school districts, which have questioned the impact of the higher tests scores on their graduation rates.

Kelly Thompson, director of assessment and accountability for the Seminole County school system, said half of the students who currently use the alternative tests to help the district achieve its 88.6 percent graduation rate will not be able to do that with the higher scores.

She projected it would mean 428 students, including 252 African-American and Hispanic students, would end up “without a high-school diploma because of a number on a test on a given day” once the new scores take effect.

Ashlee Zienteck was one of three Winter Springs High School students who asked the board not to adopt the rule.

Zienteck said she was diagnosed with a learning disability in elementary school but will graduate this year, having earned passing scores on the SAT and ACT to make up for falling short by “one question” on the FSA.

“Please don’t change the scores because it makes it harder not only for me but for other kids that are like me who struggle with testing,” said Zienteck, who has earned a scholarship to play softball in college.

In a resolution to the board, Duval County projected the new rule would reduce its graduation rate by 7 to 11 percent, denying 850 students a diploma. Duval officials said the impact could be even greater for schools serving high-poverty populations, projecting graduation declines as high as 30 percent.

Although the vote for the rule was unanimous, several board members expressed concern about the impact.

Michael Olenick, who said he had a son who struggled to earn his high-school degree, said he understood the board had to adopt the rule to comply with the state law on testing standards, but the impact on minority and non-English speaking students “is still hanging over my head.”

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said the debate over the policy and its impact occurred in 2016, when the board adopted the rule imposing the new testing structure. She said Wednesday’s rule implemented that policy after education officials had collected enough data to set the alternative test scores based on the new standards.

Stewart also said the Department of Education would maintain its priority of reducing the graduation-rate gap between at-risk students and the overall student population.

“It is about ensuring we do the right thing by those vulnerable students that we have talked about, to ensure that they graduate with those competencies and skills that they need in the world no matter what they are going to do,” she said.

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