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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.

Citizens touts post-Irma financial strength

Citizens Property Insurance has incurred $1.81 billion in losses from Hurricane Irma and handled an estimated 70,800 claims, which has led the state-backed insurer to go outside to cover nearly one-third of its storm-related costs.

But Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Montero told Citizens’ Audit Committee on Tuesday that the insurer’s financial picture is “incredibly strong” despite the losses due to Irma.

With more than two months remaining in the 2018 hurricane season, Montero pointed, for example, to a $6.5 billion surplus and $2.2 billion in coverage through state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which provides relatively low-cost reinsurance.

The estimated number of claims for last year’s Irma represents about 16 percent of the 442,629 policies that Citizens had as of Aug. 31.

As part of its response to Irma, Citizens expects to receive $534.7 million from the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and an additional $126.4 million from private reinsurers. The company pays for reinsurance coverage — essentially insurance for insurers — so it doesn’t have to dip deep into its surplus.

Irma barreled through much of Florida in September 2017, with the state Office of Insurance Regulation last month estimating $10.45 million in insured losses. That was up from a loss estimate of $9.7 billion in June.

As of Aug. 13, insurers had closed 91.7 percent of the 997,237 claims made by property owners. Residential property owners had made 84 percent of the claims.

The number of claims will not reach 100 percent when the next data call from insurers is conducted in October, as policyholders have three years to report damages from Irma.

Since April, 72,798 newly filed claims were reported to insurers.

Just over 60 percent of the overall claims filed since Irma have resulted in payments. Another 31 percent of the claims were closed without cash changing hands.

Insurance officials have noted that damage amounts often fail to reach policyholders’ hurricane deductibles.

The Office of Insurance Regulation doesn’t release data by individual insurance companies, asserting protection of trade secrets. The numbers also don’t include most agricultural losses, which the state has estimated at $2.5 billion, or damage inflicted by the storm on government facilities, including buildings, roads, parks and beaches.

Residential property owners have done better than commercial property owners in receiving payment from their insurers, with 61 percent of the residential claims resulting in payments. Just 32 percent of commercial claims have resulted in payments from insurers.

Across the state, the top counties for Irma damage claims were Miami-Dade with 126,944, Collier with 91,980, Broward with 82,251, Lee with 81,933 and Orange with 75,495.

Nearly 20 percent of the claims in Miami-Dade County had yet to be closed, while 32 percent had been closed without payments. Broward County had the next highest percentage of open claims, at about 14 percent.

Karen Kees, a spokeswoman for the Office of Insurance Regulation, said Tuesday in an email that no insurers have reported difficulties covering claims. But she said insurers continue to have difficulty responding to Irma due to litigation involving water-damage claims linked to the practice called “assignment of benefits.”

Assignment of benefits involves policyholders signing over insurance claims to contractors and has become highly controversial in recent years.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier and Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway have pushed lawmakers to address assignment of benefits, which they contend has attracted fraud — particularly in Southeast Florida — and is a root cause for growing costs of policies.

Contractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys have countered the process helps ensure damage claims are paid properly.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

votes

Big money backs ballot measures

Florida voters this fall could decide the fate of 12 ballot proposals that deal with issues ranging from limiting taxes to banning greyhound racing.

Behind the scenes, businesses and organizations have already spent tens of millions of dollars as they try to pass — or defeat — some of the proposed constitutional amendments.

Here are snapshots of five ballot proposals that are drawing big chunks of money:

Marsy’s Law

Part of a national movement to boost crime victims’ rights, Amendment 6 on the November ballot had already drawn $30.37 million as of Sept. 14.

The amendment, put on the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, is dubbed “Marsy’s Law” and is rooted in the 1983 death of a California woman, Marsy Nicholas, who was stalked and killed by an ex-boyfriend. Marsy Nicholas’ brother, Henry, is the co-founder of Broadcom Corp. and has spearheaded the Marsy’s Law movement.

Almost all of the money backing the Florida measure, $30.045 million, has come from the national Marsy’s Law for All Foundation, according to the state Division of Elections website. Another $325,000 has come from Henry Nicholas.

Gambling battle

Amendment 3, which is designed to make it harder to expand gambling in the state, has drawn millions of dollars from supporters and opponents. Disney Worldwide Services, Inc. and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have combined to contribute $26.43 million to the political committee Voters In Charge, which led a petition drive to get the measure on the ballot and is steering efforts to pass it.

Disney is a longtime opponent of casino gambling, while the Seminole Tribe already operates lucrative casinos in Florida. The ballot proposal would change the Florida Constitution and give voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling” in the state. If approved, it would require voter approval of casino-style games in the future and effectively reduce the power of the Legislature and governor to decide gambling-related issues.

The gambling industry, however, has started funneling money to at least two political committees to fight the ballot proposal. One of those committees, known as Citizens for the Truth About Amendment 3, had raised $3.52 million as of Sept. 14, while another, known as Vote NO on 3, had raised $650,000.

Felon voting

Restoring the voting rights of felons has long been a contentious legal and political issue in Florida.

But buoyed by money from the American Civil Liberties Union and a series of other large donors, the political committee Floridians for a Fair Democracy is seeking to pass a proposed constitutional amendment, known as Amendment 4, that would automatically restore the rights of most felons after they serve their sentences, complete parole or probation and pay restitution. The amendment would not apply to people convicted of murder or sexual offenses.

Floridians for a Fair Democracy had raised $14.4 million as of Sept. 14 to get the measure on the ballot and to try to pass it. The ACLU had contributed $3.8 million in cash and had made hundreds of thousands of dollars in in-kind contributions.

Tax cap continuation

Voters in 2008 approved a constitutional amendment that placed a 10 percent cap on annual increases in assessed values of non-homestead properties, such as commercial properties. But the limit will expire Jan. 1 unless it is extended by voters in November through the passage of Amendment 2.

Lawmakers placed Amendment 2 on the ballot, along with two other measures — Amendment 1 and Amendment 5 — aimed at cutting or holding down taxes.

The industry group Florida Realtors is trying to make sure Amendment 2 passes. As of Sept. 14, the group had contributed $5.56 million to a political committee known as Amendment 2 is for Everybody, according to the Division of Election website.

Greyhound racing

Animal-rights groups have tried for years to convince lawmakers to stop greyhound racing in Florida.

But unable to get legislation passed, they enlisted the support of the Constitution Revision Commission, which approved placing a measure on the ballot designed to ban dog racing at pari-mutuel facilities.

An effort known as the Committee to Protect Dogs had raised about $2.3 million as of Sept. 14 to bolster efforts to pass the amendment, with $1.5 million coming from the Doris Day Animal League. The group Grey2K USA had added more than $480,000.

GOP Cabinet candidates bring in cash

Republican Cabinet candidates outpaced their Democratic opponents in fundraising during the second week of September, even as their political committees lag in posting some big-dollar contributions.

State political candidates and committees faced a Friday deadline for filing reports that showed contributions and expenditures from Sept. 8 through Sept. 14.

State Rep. Matt Caldwell, a North Fort Myers Republican running for agriculture commissioner, has raised more than $1 million for his campaign account and the committee Friends of Matt Caldwell since the Aug. 28 primary elections, his campaign said Monday.

But the reports filed before the Friday deadline are more than $500,000 short of that mark, at least in part because they do not reflect some large contributions.

Not included, for example, was $100,000 that a committee known as Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future — which is linked to the business group Associated Industries of Florida — reported it gave to Friends of Matt Caldwell on Sept. 12.

Similarly, the political committee Growing Florida’s Future, which is tied to former House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, reported giving $25,000 on Sept. 10 to Caldwell’s committee.

Caldwell’s campaign said Monday those two contributions were received Sept. 19, after the end of the reporting period.

Caldwell’s committee and campaign reported raising a total of $231,337 from Sept. 8 through Sept. 14. Included in the reports were contributions of $100,000 from the Florida Prosperity Fund, which is linked to Associated Industries of Florida; $25,000 from the health insurer Florida Blue and $5,000 from Gulf Power.

Meanwhile, Caldwell’s Democratic opponent, Fort Lauderdale attorney Nikki Fried, reported $13,164 in contributions to her campaign account and the political committee Florida Consumers First during the same Sept. 8 to Sept. 14 period.

In the race for attorney general, Republican Ashley Moody reported raising a combined total of $91,875 for her campaign account and the committee Friends of Ashley Moody from Sept. 8 through Sept. 14. Democrat Sean Shaw reported raising $82,344 in the same period for his campaign account and the political committee Sean Shaw for Florida.

The report for Friends of Ashley Moody, however, did not include a $115,000 contribution that the AIF-linked Voice of Florida Business Political Action Committee reported giving on Sept. 10.

The Moody committee reported receiving $25,000 from the Crisafulli-linked Growing Florida’s Future and $5,000 from Insuring Florida’s Future, a political committee affiliated with the Personal Insurance Federation of Florida.

In the race for state chief financial officer, Republican incumbent Jimmy Patronis widened his fundraising edge over Democrat Jeremy Ring.

Patronis reported picking up $28,090 during the Sept. 8 to Sept. 14 period for his campaign account and the committee Treasure Florida, compared to $3,975 raised by Ring.

The report for the Treasure Florida committee, however, did not include a $55,000 contribution that the AIF-linked Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future reported making on Sept. 10.

The AIF committees reported making a number of large contributions during the week to support Republican candidates and committees. The AIF committees also reported receiving chunks of money during the week from businesses such as U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, TECO Energy and Florida Power & Light.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Hearing set on workers’ comp rate cut

The state Office of Insurance Regulation has scheduled an Oct. 17 hearing on a proposal that could lead to an average 13.4 percent reduction in workers’ compensation insurance rates next year, according to a notice published Monday in the Florida Administrative Register.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance, which proposes rates annually for workers’ compensation insurers, filed the proposed rate decrease last month.

The Office of Insurance Regulation will review the details of the proposal and decide whether to approve the cut or request changes.

The rate decrease is proposed to start taking effect in January.

In an overview of the filing, the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, said the proposal is in line with trends in other states.

“Consistent improvement in loss experience is the primary driver underlying the filing. More specifically, the long-term decline in claim frequency has continued to more than offset moderate increases in claim severity,” the overview said. “This has resulted in continued downward pressure on the overall average rate level need and is consistent with trends across most NCCI states.”

The Oct. 17 hearing is slated for 1 p.m. in Room 301 of the Senate Office Building in Tallahassee, according to the notice.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Matching money keeps flowing to DeSantis, Gillum

Gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum continue to be the biggest recipients of the state’s matching-funds program, which sent out more than $320,000 to five statewide candidates on Friday.

Gillum, the Democratic candidate, got $233,765 and DeSantis, the Republican nominee, received $79,484, according to figures posted online by the state Division of Elections.

The program, which matches individual contributions of $250 or less, has now distributed $5.68 million to nine candidates for governor and Cabinet positions, including four candidates who lost in primary elections.

Gillum has received a total of $854,396 through the program, and DeSantis has pulled in $1.23 million.

In the race for attorney general, Democrat Sean Shaw got a check for $6,333 on Friday and has received $239,426 from the program. Republican Ashley Moody received $1,511 in matching funds on Friday and has received $382,446 from the state.

In the race for state chief financial officer, incumbent Republican Jimmy Patronis received a check for $455 on Friday. Patronis has received $309,760 through the program. Democratic CFO candidate Jeremy Ring has not taken part in the voluntary program.

The candidates remaining in the race for agriculture commissioner, Republican Matt Caldwell and Democrat Nikki Fried, have not tapped the program.

DeSantis and Gillum have also funneled millions of dollars to the state Democratic and Republican parties this month, according to their new reports.

The Gillum committee, known as Forward Florida, sent $2 million to the Florida Democratic Party in a transaction dated Sept. 12, while the committee Friends of Ron DeSantis contributed $2 million to the Republican Party of Florida on Sept. 13.

The Gillum committee reported collecting $1.77 million in contributions from Sept. 8 through Sept. 14, with $1 million of that amount coming from the Democratic Governors Association.

The DeSantis committee reported raising $2.6 million during the same period, with $1.5 million coming from Palm Beach County resident Laura Perlmutter, the reports show.

Raoul Cantero to represent panel in Supreme Court dispute

The Florida Supreme Court Judicial Nominating Commission unanimously agreed Friday to have former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero defend the commission in a lawsuit that challenges Gov. Rick Scott’s authority to appoint three new members of the high court.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and Common Cause filed the lawsuit Thursday, after Scott initiated the Judicial Nominating Commission process to move forward with replacing justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and Peggy Quince, who will be forced to leave the Supreme Court in January because of a mandatory retirement age.

The Supreme Court has given the defendants — Scott, the Judicial Nominating Commission and commission Chairman Jason Unger — until Wednesday to file a response to the complaint, which asks the justices to block Scott from moving forward with the replacements.

During a conference call Friday, Unger said that Cantero agreed to represent the commission pro bono.

Cantero will be assisted by George Levesque, a lawyer who works with Unger at the GrayRobinson firm in Tallahassee. Levesque has served as General Counsel both for the Florida House of Representatives and, more recently, for the Florida Senate.

“Frankly, I think that having both George Levesque involved and Raoul Cantero involved is very beneficial to the process,” Unger told the panel before the unanimous vote.

The lawsuit stems from a long-running debate about whether Scott or his successor will have the power to appoint replacements for the departing justices. Scott’s second term will also expire in January.

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Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

GOP governors pour more money into Florida

With Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis locked in a battle with Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum, the Republican Governors Association has funneled another $2.41 million to Florida, according to a new finance report.

Between Sept. 8 and Sept. 14, the association put the money into “Florida Facts,” a type of entity known as an electioneering communications organization. Florida Facts during the same timeframe spent $2.51 million, with most of the money going to California-based Target Enterprises, LLC for television ads, the report shows.

The Republican Governors Association in early August also put $2.45 million into Florida Facts, which during the same period spent $2.35 million.

Blocked from ballot? Supreme Court asked to stop amendments

Arguing that the measures would violate First Amendment rights, an attorney urged the Florida Supreme Court on Friday to uphold a lower-court ruling that would block three proposed constitutional amendments from going before voters in November.

Joseph Little, a retired University of Florida law professor and constitutional scholar, filed a 50-page brief after Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office Monday requested that the Supreme Court allow the ballot measures to move forward.

The Supreme Court has not said whether it will hold oral arguments in the case, which stems from ballot proposals approved this year by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission.

Little represents retired Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead and another plaintiff, Robert Barnas, who contend that the Commission improperly “bundled” unrelated issues into single ballot proposals.

They argue the measures would violate the First Amendment rights of voters, who could have conflicting opinions about issues in single ballot proposals.

Circuit Judge Karen Gievers of Tallahassee issued a ruling that would block the amendments, which include a high-profile measure aimed at banning offshore oil drilling and banning vaping or the use of electronic cigarettes in workplaces.

The state appealed Gievers’ ruling, and the 1st District Court of Appeal quickly passed the dispute along to the Supreme Court.

Little (Photo: UF)

Little’s brief said the First Amendment “protects Florida voters from being forced to vote against their choices,” as he urged justices to uphold Gievers’ decision.

“It cannot be disputed that this (Supreme) Court has repeatedly exercised great caution in removing proposed amendments from the ballot,” the brief said. “Nevertheless, it is equally without dispute that this court has often found it necessary to remove propositions from the ballot because the ballot language was deceptive or failed to inform the voter of the content of the measure or denied the voter the right to intelligently cast a ballot.

“The number of these decisions is large, well known to this court, and need not be cited here. This case is simply another in the line that this court should hold denies voters the right to vote without undue infringement.”

Bondi’s office called Little’s First Amendment argument a “novel constitutional theory” and pointed to a history of bundled state and federal constitutional issues.

Along with the proposal on oil drilling and vaping, Gievers struck from the ballot a measure that deals with governance of the state-college system and death benefits for survivors of first responders and military members.

Also, she struck a measure that would remove constitutional language that prohibits “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning property and would revise language to make clear the repeal of criminal statutes does not affect the prosecution of crimes committed before the repeal.

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Republished with permission of The News Service of Florida.

Judge upholds ordinance on greyhound injuries

Ruling against greyhound breeders and owners, a Seminole County judge has upheld a county ordinance forcing trainers at the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club to report dog injuries.

Breeders and owners challenged the ordinance, adopted two years ago, to try to prevent similar regulations elsewhere in the state.

The legal battle came after Florida lawmakers refused to adopt statewide regulations to require injury reports, an issue long pushed by Massachusetts-based Grey2K USA Worldwide and other animal-rights groups.

The Seminole County effort was spearheaded by the Committee to Protect Greyhounds, which presented local officials with more than 14,000 petitions in support of an ordinance to force greyhound trainers at the kennel club to report injuries.

The ordinance, which went into effect last year, also requires trainers to provide information about what happens to dogs after they stop racing at the track and mandates that the dogs be licensed by the county. County officials must also inspect the dogs’ kennels.

The lawsuit, filed by greyhound owners Scott Bennett and Jimmy Goodman, alleged, among other things, that the Seminole ordinance violates a statewide prohibition on local governments regulating the pari-mutuel industry.

But nothing in state law “declares expressly that counties are pre-empted from regulating the welfare of greyhound dogs,” Circuit Judge Michael Rudisill wrote in Thursday’s order upholding the ordinance.

State gambling laws related to greyhound racing are “limited to regulation of pari-mutuel gambling, not animal welfare,” Rudisill wrote.

Christine Dorchak, general counsel for Grey2K USA, applauded the judge “for agreeing that greyhounds deserve to be protected just like all other dogs.”

Jack Cory, a lobbyist who represents the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents breeders and owners, said his group is reviewing the court decision.

“We might have lost the first inning,” Cory said, indicating the group is likely to appeal. “Obviously, the judge ruled for the hometown. The appellate court doesn’t have to stand for election in Seminole County.”

The greyhound-racing industry also faces a major challenge in November, when Florida voters will decide on a proposed constitutional amendment that would outlaw dog racing at pari-mutuel facilities.

Like all constitutional amendments, 60 percent of voters must approve the proposal for it to pass.

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Main photo courtesy Van Abernethy

Associated Industries committees back GOP Cabinet candidates

Political committees linked to the business group Associated Industries of Florida poured hundreds of thousands of dollars last week into PACs supporting Republican candidates for state Cabinet posts and Republican Senate campaigns, newly filed reports show.

The AIF-linked committees known as Florida Prosperity Fund and Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future gave $200,000 to Friends of Matt Caldwell, a PAC supporting Republican agriculture-commissioner candidate Matt Caldwell.

The AIF-linked Voice of Florida Business Political Action Committee gave $115,000 to Friends of Ashley Moody, a PAC supporting Republican attorney-general candidate Ashley Moody.

Floridian’s United for Our Children’s Future also gave $55,000 to Treasure Florida, a PAC supporting Republican state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, according to the reports posted on the state Division of Elections website.

Meanwhile, the Voice of Florida Business Political Action Committee gave a combined total of $100,000 to Innovate Florida, a committee led by incoming Senate President Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, also led by Galvano.

The AIF committees receive money from major corporate players in the state. Contributions last week, for example, came from United States Sugar Corp., TECO Energy, Inc., Florida Crystals Corp. and Florida Power & Light, the reports show.

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