News Service Of Florida, Author at Florida Politics - Page 2 of 18

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.

Regulators deal with FPL nuclear license, costs

Grappling with a long-discussed nuclear project in Miami-Dade County, state regulators Tuesday backed Florida Power & Light continuing to pursue a critical license for two new reactors — but turned down a company request involving costs.

The decisions by the state Public Service Commission were the latest chapter in years of controversy about a 2006 law aimed at increasing nuclear power in the state and FPL’s subsequent proposal to build the reactors at its Turkey Point complex. Julie Brown, who chairs the Public Service Commission, pointed Tuesday to key issues surrounding the project.

“Whether the (2006) statute has worked out for customers is a question that everyone has,” Brown said. “And whether Turkey Point 6 and 7 (the proposed reactors) are going to come online and are feasible, are practical, are realistic is a question that we as regulators have. Like it or not, nuclear power has been (a) very important (part) of our fleet over decades for many, many Floridians. It’s provided clean energy, it’s been reliable.”

The issues confronting the commission Tuesday were rooted, at least in part, in the 2006 law, which allowed utilities to recover money from customers during the early stages of work on nuclear projects. That is different from the way utilities typically recoup money after power plants are finished and start producing electricity.

As of the end of 2016, FPL had spent $260 on licensing efforts for the reactors and is likely within months of receiving a critical federal approval known as a “combined operating license,” according to a Public Service Commission staff recommendation.

But in a filing this year, FPL proposed what it described as a “pause” in recovering project costs incurred after Dec. 31, 2016. The request effectively sought to defer for a number of years costs that customers would pay and temporarily eliminate the need for annual regulatory hearings on the project.

Opponents of the request, however, argued FPL had not submitted a needed study that would show whether the nuclear project is feasible. They contended that the company should not be allowed to continue running up costs and then be able to come back in the future and recover the money from customers under what is known as the “nuclear cost recovery clause.”

Public Service Commission staff members recommended rejection of the utility’s request to defer costs without the feasibility study. Commissioners went along with that recommendation Tuesday, turning down FPL’s proposal in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Gary Clark dissenting.

FPL customers also will not pay any nuclear costs in 2018. Commissioners made clear, however, that FPL might have other avenues in the future to try to recoup the money it is spending on the combined operating license — outside of the nuclear-cost recovery clause. That could include seeking recovery through the process of setting base electric rates.

State Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility cases, expressed concern after Tuesday’s meeting that FPL could seek the money through another route. Kelly’s office opposed allowing the deferral of costs.

“Are you giving the utility two bites at the apple?” Kelly said. “And we think that would be inappropriate.”

During the meeting, the commission also unanimously supported a finding that it is reasonable for FPL to continue pursuing the combined operating license. Commissioner Art Graham said the license would provide a long-term option for the utility to eventually build nuclear reactors.

“I think the COL is basically a 20-year option,” Graham said. “Are we going to do it in the foreseeable future? Are we looking to have that option on the table? And I think we’ve come this far, you need to have that option on the table.”

Brown and Clark said the state has become increasingly dependent in recent years on natural gas to fuel power plants, suggesting that it might need nuclear power to help diversify in the future. They also pointed to the large amount of money already spent on seeking the license.

“I think that the continued pursuit of this license is critical from an infrastructure standpoint, from a base-capacity standpoint,” Clark said. “Our current dependence on natural gas is extremely alarming to me.”

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski released a statement after the meeting saying the utility will continue pursuing the license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We have a responsibility to provide for the energy needs of our customers today and well into the future,” the statement said. “As we invest in high-efficiency natural gas energy and one of the largest solar expansions on the Eastern seaboard, we continue to believe having the option to add clean, zero-emissions nuclear energy is important for Florida’s energy future.

“After nearly a decade of working through lengthy, stringent regulatory processes at the local, state and federal levels, we are on track to receive final approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the coming months, and we intend to complete the licensing process such that the option of new nuclear power is available for our customers for many years into the future.”

The utility also touted a less-controversial move Tuesday by regulators that approved a $7.3 million rate reduction for customers in 2018. That reduction stems from what is known as an “over recovery” of nuclear-project costs from customers in 2015 and 2016.

John Thrasher among veterans named to hall of fame

Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former state House speaker who served in the Vietnam War, is among 20 members of the 2017 class of the Florida Veterans’ Hall of Fame.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — approved the class recommended by the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame Council.

A display of hall of fame members is on a wall near the east entrance of the Florida Capitol. An induction ceremony is being planned for the week after Thanksgiving.

Cabinet approves protecting Okeechobee ranch land

Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Tuesday to spend about $5.7 million to conserve more than 2,500 acres of ranch land in a deal that nearly depletes this year’s funding for a program used to keep agricultural property from development.

The deal — known as purchasing a conservation easement — allows the owners of the Corona Ranch in Okeechobee County to continue using the land for cattle, but it prevents future development of the property, which drains into the Kissimmee River.

Owned by the Corona family, the land, which is less than five miles south of Kissimmee Prairie State Park, houses species such as gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, and burrowing owls and has had three recent Florida Panther sightings, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

About 34 percent of the land is considered wetlands. The Corona family, which started in the cattle business in the mid-1800s in Cuba, has been ranching in Florida since 1961, including since the 1980s on the Okeechobee property.

Money for the deal comes from the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has been championed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The program has been used 31 times by the current Cabinet since 2011 to preserve 35,644 acres.

“With more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, we must continue to prioritize the conservation of our agricultural lands and world-renowned natural spaces,” Putnam said.

In the 2017-2018 budget, $10 million was set aside for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said after Tuesday’s meeting the deal uses the remaining funding from the program.

“We’re going to go back the Legislature and ask them to put more money in the program,” Draper said. “It’s been so successful it’s already generated 38,000 acres of land that has been conserved (since the program’s start).”

More variances sought on nursing home generators

At least 21 more long-term care providers have filed requests for variances with the state Agency for Health Care Administration as they seek additional time to comply with Gov. Rick Scott‘s mandate that they add generators that can power air-conditioning systems.

The latest requests were published Monday in the Florida Administrative Register and are in addition to 33 requests for variances published last week. Scott’s administration issued emergency generator rules in September for nursing homes and assisted living facilities after eight residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died. Six more residents died later after being evacuated.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning at the nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which did not have a backup generator for the cooling system.

Long-term care facilities are seeking the variances because a Nov. 15 compliance deadline is nearing, and facilities that aren’t in compliance face steep penalties, including possible license revocation.

Florida law allows variances, saying that the “strict application of uniformly applicable rule requirements can lead to unreasonable, unfair, and unintended results” and, as a result, agencies are authorized to grant variances and waivers to rules that cause a substantial hardship.

To clarify the process, the Scott administration last week issued another emergency rule that, in part, laid out information the Agency for Health Care Administration wants providers to include in the requests for variances. Meanwhile, three industry groups have challenged the rules in the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

A judge is expected to issue a decision within two weeks.

Supreme Court sets arguments in red-light camera battle

The Florida Supreme Court will hear arguments in February in a battle about a red-light camera program in the city of Aventura that could have broader implications across the state.

The court issued an order Monday that scheduled oral arguments for Feb. 7.

The case, like others, focuses on whether Aventura gave too much authority to a private company that contracted to help run the red-light camera program.

The 3rd District Court of Appeal upheld the Aventura program in a decision involving a motorist who received a ticket for improperly turning right at a red light.

In challenging the ticket, motorist Luis Torres Jimenez contended the city had illegally given “unfettered discretion” to a red-light camera company to review images of potential violations and to print and send out citations.

While the 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with Aventura, it also urged the Supreme Court to take up the case, saying the “lawful use of cameras to enforce red lights has attracted the attention of the public, local governments, and the Legislature.”

Red-light cameras have long been controversial, and the Florida House has started moving forward with a bill (HB 6001) for the 2018 session that would repeal a state law that allows local governments to use the cameras.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Farmers may get loans to help with Irma damage

Florida farmers in 44 counties may be eligible for federal loans to help cover damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced.

Still, Florida might have to wait months for broader federal assistance to the agriculture industry, which sustained more than $2.5 billion in losses from the storm.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue notified Gov. Rick Scott on Friday that the federal agency determined that Florida had sufficient production loss to warrant a “secretarial natural disaster designation” for most of the peninsula.

The designation makes farmers eligible to be considered for Farm Service Agency programs, including emergency loans, Perdue wrote in a letter to Scott. Farmers have eight months to apply for the loans.

“FSA considers each emergency loan application on its own merits, taking into account the extent of production losses on the farm and the security and repayment ability of the operator,” Perdue wrote.

The federal designation names 19 counties as “primary” natural disaster areas and 25 as being in “contiguous” counties. Farmers in primary and contiguous counties are eligible to apply for loans.

The state on Sept. 28 had requested the primary designation for 19 counties. Irma made landfall in Monroe and Collier counties on Sept. 10 and then barreled up the state.

Under Perdue’s designations, the primary counties are Alachua, Bradford, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Gilchrist, Glades, Hendry, Highlands, Hillsborough, Indian River, Lake, Lee, Marion, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Osceola, Palm Beach and Sumter.

The “contiguous” counties are Baker, Brevard, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, DeSoto, Dixie, Hardee, Hernando, Lafayette, Levy, Manatee, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Putnam, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Seminole, Suwannee, Union and Volusia.

A preliminary report from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services released Oct. 4 estimated that citrus industry losses from the storm approached $761 million. The state’s vegetable, nursery, cattle, dairy, sugar, non-citrus fruit and timber crops all were impacted by the massive storm.

In a statement Friday about the federal designations, state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said, “it’s important to recognize that the damage is still unfolding.

“By making more federal help available, combined with our Florida Citrus Emergency Loan Program, we are giving farmers a way to immediately address the losses they incurred during Hurricane Irma,” Scott said in a prepared statement.

Scott has authorized a $25 million interest-free loan program for citrus farmers.

The federal designation also came as Florida officials have turned their attention to the U.S. Senate, which this week is expected to take up a $36.5 billion disaster-relief package directed at hurricane damage in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and the ongoing wildfires in California. The money doesn’t include agricultural assistance for Florida.

The House on Thursday did not attach a measure to its relief package to cover losses incurred across Florida’s agricultural landscape. The measure was proposed by U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican whose district covers rural lands northwest of Lake Okeechobee.

Putnam, a former congressman who is running for governor, told reporters Thursday that the federal assistance may not be available until early next year if the Florida agricultural funding isn’t added to the current relief package.

“If we’re not in that one, it could be as late as mid-December before the next one moves,” Putnam said “And then when you back that up from how long it would take to implement a program to get assistance out the door you’re looking at well into the first quarter of next year before growers are seeing any relief.”

Putnam, expressing concerns that foreign growers could make inroads into Florida, criticized the “traditional” disaster relief programs as “wholly inadequate.”

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers eye student financial literacy requirement

Florida lawmakers will again consider a proposal that would require high-school students to pass a financial-literacy course before graduation.

The Senate Education Committee this week unanimously passed a financial literacy bill (SB 88) spearheaded by committee Chair Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican.

Republican state Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen of Fort Myers, filed a House version (HB 323) on Friday.

The measures, which are filed for the 2018 Legislative Session, would require students entering ninth grade during the 2018-2019 school year to earn one-half credit in financial literacy and money management.

The course would delve into issues such as types of bank accounts, managing debt and basic principles of insurance policies.

The Senate passed a financial-literacy bill during the 2017 session, but the measure died in the House.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

State parks take financial hit from hurricane

Three Florida parks in the Keys opened to the public Friday for the first time since Hurricane Irma, as the state looks at overall storm damage to its parks topping $55 million.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef, Curry Hammock and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic state parks in Monroe County were reopened for day-use, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced.

The announcement left just five state parks still closed: Bahia Honda, Indian Key Historic and Long Key all in Monroe County; Faver-Dykes State Park in St. Johns County; and Hontoon Island State Park in Volusia and Lake counties.

The state closed 168 state parks due to the storm, which swept through the state Sept. 10 and Sept. 11, with some of the hardest-hit parks in the Keys. Irma first made landfall in the Keys before making a second landfall in Collier County.

David Clark, acting deputy secretary of land and recreation at the Department of Environmental Protection, said Wednesday that the costs could grow.

“As we continue with the assessments, I foresee that number continuing to increase,” Clark told the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. “Hopefully it will not break $60 million. But right now, it’s approximately $55 million.”

Potentially $20 million for the repairs may come by delaying some of 100 projects that were slated to be undertaken this year, Clark said. Those projects include such things as Americans with Disabilities Act improvements, roof replacements, adding visitor parking and pier replacements.

The state recorded $1.1 million in revenue from its parks for September. But that number comes, for example, with a projected $1.7 million in lost revenue due to overnight cancellations.

One positive for the state is that the financial hit may have been tempered because September is historically the lowest month for revenue, at about $4 million annually, Clark said. The average in most other months is $6 million to $7 million, he said.

Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein told the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday the agency is working “around the clock” to open each park.

“Before we open a park, we need to make sure it’s safe for the public, ready for the public to recreate in,” Valenstein said.

Farmers could get Irma-related tax breaks

Farmers could receive tax breaks on equipment damaged by Hurricane Irma and on fuel, under a proposal by Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican who is running for Agriculture Commissioner next year.

With the agriculture industry facing $2.5 billion in projected losses from Irma, Caldwell rolled out the proposal this week to offer cuts in Florida’s tangible personal property tax and the motor-fuel tax. Instead of putting the tax breaks in a bill, Caldwell’s proposal more likely will be directed at any tax-cut package the House develops or as part of recommendations from the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness.

According to a release from Caldwell’s office, a rebate would be offered on the tangible personal property tax for time equipment couldn’t be used or was damaged by the storm.

The tangible personal property tax is levied on equipment such as tractors and tools. The proposal would also extend a rebate on the motor-fuel tax.

Farmers can currently receive a rebate on fuel taxes for off-road and farm use. The proposal would extend the rebate to on-road use related to storm recovery, according to Caldwell’s office.

$50 million sought to tackle opioid epidemic

Skyrocketing numbers of overdoses. Burned-out first responders. Families torn apart.

Those are just some of the woes a key Senate budget panel heard about during a discussion Thursday focused on the opioid epidemic engulfing Florida and much of the nation.

Echoing what a separate Senate committee heard this week, substance-abuse treatment providers, community agency representatives and law-enforcement officials pleaded with the Senate Appropriations Committee for a comprehensive approach to the complicated issue, along with more money.

The state this year received $27 million in federal funds to deal with a mushrooming opioid crisis that has resulted in some counties seeing a 300 percent increase in overdoses.

Gov. Rick Scott – who declared a public health emergency about the opioid issue this year – announced that he will seek $50 million from the Legislature to deal with the issue, but he has yet to release a detailed plan for how the money would be spent.

Substance-abuse treatment providers on Thursday also asked for $50 million to address what at least one doctor called “chemical warfare” as lawmakers begin to put together a state spending plan in advance of the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January.

The number of Floridians dying from overdoses – involving prescription drugs, street drugs like heroin or the synthetic opioid fentanyl, or combinations of the drugs – has steadily increased over the last few years, following a dip after lawmakers cracked down on prescription drug “pill mills” in 2011.

Heroin overdoses jumped by 1,000 percent between 2007 and 2015, and most experts agree the number of deaths is much higher than what is being reported by the state’s medical examiners.

Overdoses related to fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin, are also climbing.

The information about the rising number of deaths associated with opioids is perplexing for lawmakers who thought they stymied the state’s opioid plague by shutting down the pill mills.

“My concern as a policymaker is, how do we make sure we don’t do the same thing … because if not, then three years from now, instead of saying fentanyl and heroin, there it will say something else,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, referring to a chart of deaths due to overdoses. “I don’t want to see fentanyl and heroin in three years just turn into x, y, z.”

Bay County Sheriff Tommy Ford offered a suggestion.

“One of the answers is going to be the investment in treatment resources,” he said.

“I think that’s the ultimate point. How do we get to the root of the problem? Is it a mental health issue? We gave it a Band-aid, but the underlying (root) is still there,” Flores said.

While the picture appears grim, Ann Berner, CEO of the Southeast Florida Behavioral Network, told the committee that the state can “turn the tides” on the opioid epidemic.

The $50 million sought by providers to address the issue would go toward housing vouchers and employment assistance for people in recovery, medication-assisted treatment programs that use drugs like Suboxone to help keep addicts off opioids such as OxyContin and heroin, residential treatment and detox beds, which are a critical first step in getting users clean.

The request for the funds comes as lawmakers begin to grapple with what will certainly be a tight budget year, made even leaner because of the impacts of Hurricane Irma.

Senate budget chief Jack Latvala wouldn’t say if $50 million is enough to combat the state’s opioid crisis.

“We just started working on this. This is the very first meeting of committees, very first meeting that this has been discussed. We have a lot of work to do before we can make opinions like that,” Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is running for governor, told reporters after the meeting.

Latvala has made battling opioid addiction one of his top priorities, and asked Scott to use executive authority to release $20 million in emergency funds for the problem. Scott recently activated a $25 million emergency loan program for the citrus industry, which was devastated by Hurricane Irma.

“I asked for $20 million on an emergency basis to get us through the rest of this year. I’m still waiting. People are still dying. Nobody’s dying because oranges fell off of a tree,” Latvala said.

He again called on Scott to release the money.

“I think we need to treat the opioid crisis just like we’re treating the economic crisis from the hurricane. He (Scott) has the same ability on the opioid crisis to deal with that through the executive order as he has on the hurricane,” Latvala said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons