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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.

SunPass backlog hit 170 million transactions

Florida’s troubled $287 million upgrade of the SunPass toll system created a backlog of 170 million transactions, the Florida Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

More than 122 million of the transactions had been processed as of Wednesday morning.

“SunPass is working diligently to clear the backlog of toll transactions,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Kim Poulton said in a statement.

The upgrades involving the SunPass Centralized Customer Service System were supposed to last about a week and be completed June 11. Instead, parts of the system were down for a month and issues remain, including customer access to the SunPass website and mobile application.

One Democratic lawmaker has called for the state agency to suspend the collection of tolls until the system is caught up.

Meanwhile, the state announced this month that late fees and penalties will not be imposed until the system is operating fully. The state also said it was halting payments to a contractor, Maryland-based Conduent State & Local Solutions, as work continues on the system.

Florida sees jump in job growth

Florida moved from worst to first in a new federal survey of job creation released Wednesday.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Florida had a net gain of 214,372 private-sector jobs in the last three months of 2017. It was the largest net gain of jobs by any state, according to the federal data.

It also stood in contrast to the federal agency’s last quarterly report on “business employment dynamics,” which showed Florida leading the nation in net private-sector job losses in the third quarter of 2017, with a decline of about 134,000 jobs.

Economists and state officials attributed Florida’ job losses during the third quarter to the impact of Hurricane Irma, which struck the state in September. They predicted Florida’s job growth would likely rebound, which was verified in the new report.

The survey measures net job creation over a three-month period by comparing businesses that expand or open against businesses that contract or close.

The new report underscored the nature of Florida’s post-hurricane recovery, with the 214,372 net jobs created being the state’s largest quarterly total based on the federal agency’s data dating to 1992.

The state’s 601,026 new jobs in the fourth quarter of 2017 was also a high, according to the federal labor statistics. The quarterly job creation was offset by the loss of 386,654 jobs during that period, the data showed.

Florida’s job growth at the end of last year was in line with the nation. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a net gain of nearly 1 million private-sector jobs across the country in the fourth quarter of 2017.

That compared to an earlier report that showed for the first time since 2010 more jobs were lost in the third quarter of 2017 than were created, with a net loss of some 140,000 jobs.

The new report showed 49 states gaining private-sector jobs in the last quarter of 2017. The third-quarter report showed Florida and 26 other states losing jobs.

Florida, the nation’s third-largest state, also compared well with its big-state rivals in the new survey.

Only California, with the creation of more than 1 million private-sector jobs, outpaced Florida. But the nation’s largest state lagged Florida in net job gains for the quarter, with 134,282, according to the federal data.

Texas created over 641,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2017, with a net gain of 103,721 jobs. New York had a net gain of more than 26,000 jobs, based on a total of 483,363 new jobs.

Alaska was the only state with a net job loss in the fourth quarter of 2017, losing slightly more than 2,000 private-sector jobs, according to the federal data.

State Farm seeks to shield AOB information

State Farm Florida Insurance Co. is asking a judge to block disclosure of detailed company information related to “assignment of benefits” — an insurance practice at the center of fierce political and legal debates in recent years.

State Farm filed a lawsuit last week in Leon County circuit court after the state Office of Insurance Regulation received a public-records request for information that State Farm and other insurers were required to submit to the state. The information includes several years’ worth of data about the handling of property-insurance claims and assignment of benefits.

State Farm contends the information is a trade secret and is exempt from disclosure under Florida’s public-records laws. A state trade-secret law allows companies to ask courts to keep information confidential.

“The OIR’s (Office of Insurance Regulation’s) public disclosure of State Farm’s data call responses, which were submitted to OIR under a claim of trade secret, will cause State Farm immediate and irreparable injury because public dissemination of the documents and information will destroy the trade secret value of the compiled information which gives State Farm a competitive advantage in the Florida property insurance market,” the lawsuit said.

Assignment of benefits has been a highly controversial issue in recent years, with insurers arguing that litigation and fraud involving the practice are driving up property-insurance premiums. The issue has primarily focused on residential water-damage claims, though it also has extended to such issues as claims for vehicle windshield damage.

The practice, widely known as AOB, involves policyholders signing over benefits to contractors, who then pursue payment from insurers — often leading to disputes and lawsuits. Contractors and plaintiffs’ attorneys argue it helps ensure that damage claims are paid properly.

Amid heavy lobbying, lawmakers have debated making changes in assignment-of-benefits laws, but the House and Senate have not been able to come to agreement. Some senators, including Banking and Insurance Chairwoman Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, have been openly skeptical of the insurance industry’s arguments on the issue.

The Office of Insurance Regulation in 2015 and 2017 issued data calls to insurers writing homeowners’ and dwelling-fire policies, according to the lawsuit. Generally, data calls are used to examine the activities of insurers.

The data calls required insurers to submit a wide range of information about claims and assignments of benefits. The 2015 data call, for example, collected information about each claim for water or roof damage closed by the insurers between Jan. 1, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2015, the lawsuit said.

The Office of Insurance Regulation received a public-records request last month from Elizabeth Tuxbury, a graduate student at Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University who, in part, sought the “underlying data” from the data calls. Tuxbury’s request was not limited to information submitted by State Farm, according to a copy attached to the lawsuit.

An attorney for the Office of Insurance Regulation notified State Farm that it would comply with the public-records request unless the insurer went to court under the trade-secret law.

The lawsuit, which has been assigned to Circuit Judge Karen Gievers, contends that the insurer could be harmed in several ways if the information is released.

d“(The) data, in providing claim-level data broken down by ZIP code, would allow an insurer to identify AOB ‘hot spots’ in Florida that could then be used to tailor underwriting decisions in those areas,” the lawsuit said. “Another carrier could use State Farm’s data in conjunction with, or in lieu of, its own to evaluate where to write or not write insurance policies in such areas.

“The data has value to third party vendors such as water mitigation/extraction companies who might seek to contract with State Farm, or who are pursuing claims against State Farm. Claim-level data relating to how much State Farm has paid for such services in the past would be invaluable in negotiations with State Farm.”

School enrollment to see slow down in 2019-2020

Enrollment in Florida’s public schools is projected to grow by fewer than 17,000 students in the 2019-2020 academic year under a forecast approved Tuesday by state analysts.

The projected increase for 2019-2020 is not as robust as in prior years, in part, because of the expansion of voucher-like scholarship programs that could send more students to private schools.

The new forecast shows 2.86 million students attending Florida’s pre-kindergarten-through-high-school system, up from the estimated 2.84 million students who will attend public schools during the 2018-2019 academic year. That reflects a projected increase of 16,943 students, or a 0.6 percent increase in total enrollment.

For comparison, K-12 enrollment for the 2018-2019 school year —- which will see children return to classes next month — represented an increase over the prior year of some 20,127 students, or a 0.7 percent increase.

State analysts meet periodically to project enrollment for future years. Lawmakers use those projections in making budget decisions.

A factor in the slowdown of enrollment growth is new laws that will expand the use of publicly funded scholarships that allow students to attend private schools. Among them is the newly approved Hope scholarship program, which will allow students who are victims of bullying or other violence to transfer to private schools.

When fully enacted in the 2019-2020 academic year, analysts project the Hope scholarships could result in a reduction of more than 6,400 students who would otherwise attend public schools.

The new laws will also allow businesses for the first time to voluntarily shift sales taxes they normally would pay on commercial leases to help fund two other voucher-like scholarship programs.

The change is expected to initially increase the number of low-income students using Florida Tax Credit scholarships, which historically have been funded by tax credits related to corporate income taxes, insurance premium taxes and several other state taxes.

In the longer term, the new sales-tax credits on commercial leases will be used to increase the number of students using Gardiner scholarships, which provide education options and services to disabled students.

But while the new forecast showed a slowdown in the 2019-2020 enrollment growth, the annual increase is projected to rise above 27,000 students in both the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 academic years. It is projected to drop down to just under 21,000 students in 2022-2023.

Another forecast trend shows an increased use of dual-enrollment programs, which allow high-school students to take classes at nearby colleges and universities or to take college-level classes at their schools.

A projected 29,818 students are expected to take dual enrollment classes in 2019-2020, a 36 percent increase from the 21,890 students who took those classes in 2016-2017. The forecast shows continued growth in the program, reaching just under 43,000 students by the 2023-2024 academic year.

Analysts attributed the increase in dual enrollment to demographic trends in the K-12 system, with larger classes in middle schools eventually moving into the high schools.

For instance, this year’s 206,000 12th-graders will graduate in the spring, with an eighth-grade class of more than 218,000 students moving into high schools next fall, the forecast showed.

The K-12 enrollment forecast was approved as part of conference process including the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research as well as representatives from the House, Senate, the governor’s office and the Department of Education.

Rick Scott to appear with Donald Trump at Tampa school

Gov. Rick Scott, who is running for U.S. Senate, will not attend President Donald Trump’s rally July 31 in Tampa but will appear with Trump earlier in the day.

Scott will attend an afternoon event with the president at Tampa Bay Technical High School, Scott campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said Tuesday.

Trump plans to hold a 7 p.m. rally at the Florida State Fairgrounds Expo Hall, but Scott will be at a fundraiser that night. On Monday, Trump’s campaign organization announced the rally to build support for Scott, Northwest Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz and gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis.

Trump’s appearance will come about a month before Florida’s Aug. 28 primary elections. Scott is seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the incumbent Democrat, in the November general election.

The governor was a strong supporter of Trump during the 2016 presidential election but has appeared to distance himself after formally entering the U.S. Senate race.

DeSantis, a U.S. House member, is touting Trump’s support while battling state Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

SunPass catch-up work continues

More than 113 million toll transactions have been processed as the Florida Department of Transportation continues trying to catch up from delays in a $287 million project to upgrade the SunPass toll system.

The state agency indicated that 17 million transactions were handled Monday, one of the largest days of processing. The SunPass upgrades were supposed to last about a week and be completed June 11. The state has not said how many transactions went unprocessed while the system was down for nearly a month.

Officials did not respond to a request Tuesday for when the work is expected to be considered complete.

The state has said it was halting payments to a contractor, Maryland-based Conduent State & Local Solutions, as work continues on the system.

Rep. Kionne McGhee, a Miami Democrat, implored Gov. Rick Scott to suspend tolls until the work is complete.

“If there’s anyone that can hold FDOT responsible for the disastrous roll out of the $287 million SunPass upgrade system, it’s Gov Scott,” McGhee, who is slated to become House Democratic leader in November, tweeted on Tuesday “I urge @ScottforFlorida to use his executive authority to suspend all SunPass tolls until this problem is fixed. Tollpayers are counting on you.”

The state has noted that issues remained over the effectiveness of the SunPass website and mobile application. Also, multiple charges have been applied to single transactions through the payment processing system, and problems existed with the expanded SunPass Plus application at airports.

As part of the conversion, SunPass Plus parking has been expanded from Orlando International Airport to include Miami International Airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Palm Beach International Airport and Tampa International Airport.

Ex-Broward judge accused of falsifying dockets

A former Broward County circuit judge who resigned this month has been accused by a state panel of falsifying dockets and requiring a judicial assistant to perform personal tasks for him.

An investigative panel of the Florida Judicial Qualifications Commission filed a notice of formal charges Monday against John Patrick Contini, who resigned from the bench July 6. The filing alleges, in part, that Contini directed his judicial assistant to create dockets of fictitious cases on days when he planned to be absent from the courthouse.

“Your fabrication of these dockets was designed to create the impression that you were present in the courthouse, when in fact you were not,” said the notice of charges, posted on the Florida Supreme Court website. “You instructed your JA by text, email, or in person to create these dockets using cases that had settled, or hearings that had already occurred or (had) otherwise been postponed.”

Among other things, the notice alleged that Contini required his judicial assistant to perform personal tasks for him, such as paying personal bills and making personal travel arrangements.

The Supreme Court, which has disciplinary power over judges, also reprimanded Contini in 2017 after a dispute that stemmed from an email that he sent to a public defender. The email included a legal form that Contini thought the public defender should use in proposed orders seeking more-lenient sentences, and Contini did not provide copies to prosecutors until later. The email led prosecutors to seek to disqualify Contini from pending criminal cases, touching off a dispute.

Judges set to hear Medicaid challenges

Twenty-seven legal challenges filed by managed-care plans protesting state decisions to award $90 billion in Medicaid contracts have been grouped into five cases that will be heard in administrative court next month.

A review of state Division of Administrative Hearings records shows that, for the most part, judges have agreed to consolidate challenges by the types of patients that managed-care plans would serve.

For instance, Administrative Law Judge Robert Kilbride consolidated three challenges that were filed by two companies about the provision of specialty care for people with HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — and AIDS. He is scheduled to hear the challenges Aug. 7.

The state Agency for Health Care Administration announced in April that it would sign a statewide specialty contract with Clear Health Alliance to provide services to people with HIV and AIDS. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which operates the managed-care plan known as Positive Healthcare, filed challenges in Medicaid regions 10 and 11, which encompass Broward and Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, respectively. The South Florida Community Care Partnership, a managed-care plan run by the North and South Broward hospital districts, filed a challenge in Region 10.

Managed-care plans filed the 27 challenges after the Agency for Health Care Administration awarded contracts in 11 different regions of the state to provide various types of care. The contracts range from caring for Medicaid beneficiaries with conditions such as HIV and AIDS to “comprehensive” contracts that include providing care to broad swathes of beneficiaries, including people who need long-term care.

Similar to the handling of the HIV and AIDS contract challenges, Administrative Law Judge R. Bruce McKibben, agreed to consolidate 14 challenges filed by three companies over the provision of specialty care for people with serious mental illness. He is scheduled to hear the cases Aug. 8.

McKibben consolidated challenges that were filed by Coral Care, which wanted to provide services to people with serious mental illness in Medicaid regions 8 and 11; one challenge filed by the South Florida Community Care Network, which wanted to provide specialty services to Broward County residents; and 11 challenges filed by Magellan Health Care, which wanted to provide care to people with serious mental illness statewide. Medicaid Region 8, sought by Coral Care, includes seven counties in southwest and south-central Florida.

Administrative Judge Lawrence Johnston, meanwhile, has agreed to consolidate nine challenges filed by two companies regarding the provision of specialty care to children with complex medical needs. Those challenges — eight filed by Our Children’s Provider Sponsored Network and one filed by the South Florida Community Care Network — are scheduled to be heard Aug. 6 and Aug. 7.

The only challenge that stands alone is a case filed by Best Care Assurance. The provider-sponsored network, a type of managed-care plan, filed a challenge after the state Agency for Health Care Administration agreed to award Molina Healthcare a “comprehensive” contract for Medicaid Region 8. Molina was awarded the contract as part of a settlement agreement reached with the state.

But Best Care Assurance said state Medicaid law limits to four the number of managed-care plans the state can contract with for Region 8, made up of Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades, Hendry, Lee and Sarasota counties. In its challenge, the health plan argues the state has contracted with five plans in the region. Administrative Law Judge Linzie F. Bogan will hear the challenge Aug. 15.

After approval from lawmakers in 2011, the Agency for Health Care Administration in 2013 launched a program that requires most Medicaid beneficiaries to enroll in managed-care plans. The agency initially signed five-year contracts with health plans across the 11 regions. It began reprocurement efforts in 2017, issuing an invitation to negotiate with managed-care plans that want new five-year contracts.

After months of reviews and negotiations, AHCA has announced the 13 managed care plans it intends to contract with. In aggregate, the five-year contracts are expected to be worth about $90 billion, one top-ranking Medicaid official has said.

Some health plans with existing contracts, such as Positive Healthcare and Magellan Health Care, were not chosen for the new round of contracts, prompting them to file legal challenges. Other health plans that were new to the market also challenged the state’s decisions.

Meanwhile, with existing Medicaid managed-care contracts set to expire at the end of the year, AHCA announced last month a timeline for transitioning to the new plans.

Southeast Florida, from St. Lucie County south to Monroe County, will be the first area of the state that transitions from the old to the new contracts, with Dec. 1 as the target date.

The target date for the state to transition from the old to new contracts for Medicaid regions 5,6, 7 and 8 is Jan. 1. Those regions include 18 counties, stretching across Central Florida from Pinellas County to Brevard County and in Southwest Florida.

Most of the northern half of the state — stretching from Escambia to Volusia and Lake counties — will be the last area for the change in health care plans, with a Feb. 1 target date to transition to the new contracts.

To see AHCA’s proposed rollout click here.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Sides battle over ‘high quality’ schools requirement

When Florida voters went to the polls in 1998, more than 70 percent approved a constitutional amendment that required the state to provide an “uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high quality” system of public schools.

But two decades later, the Florida Supreme Court is preparing to wade into a long-running battle about whether the state has adequately carried out the requirement — and whether judges should even decide questions that attorneys for the state describe as a “political thicket.”

The state last week filed a 72-page brief asking the Supreme Court to uphold a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal that rejected the lawsuit, which has been led by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools.

In the brief, the state’s attorneys argued that the issues raised by the plaintiffs are “non-justiciable political questions” that courts should not resolve. But even if the Supreme Court disagrees with that argument, the state’s attorneys contend that Florida has made “dramatic improvements” in student performance, dispelling the notion that it has not provided an adequate education system.

“Florida’s school reforms and education policies — most of which were implemented after the 1998 constitutional amendment … — have led to steady and impressive gains in student performance,” the brief said.

But in a brief filed last month, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the Supreme Court should overturn the 1st District Court of Appeal ruling and send the case back to a circuit judge under an “appropriate standard of review” to determine if the state has met the constitutional requirements.

In questioning the quality of education provided in the state, the plaintiffs’ brief pointed to issues such as disparities in student test performances in different counties and by different racial and ethnic groups.

“The (1998 constitutional) revision mandates that the state give all children in Florida a chance to obtain a high quality education,” the plaintiffs’ brief said. “Parents allege this is not occurring. But the First DCA (District Court of Appeal) ruled that, regardless, courts have no power to ensure it does. That decision was an abdication of the courts’ core responsibility to act when other branches of government’s acts violate the Constitution.”

The 1998 amendment was placed on the ballot by the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, a panel that meets every 20 years to consider revisions to the Constitution. Voters approved the measure at the same time they elected Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, who ushered in major — and often-controversial — changes to the education system that continue to reverberate in 2018.

Among other things, Bush and his supporters backed expansion of school choice, high-stakes testing and grading the performances of public schools.

The constitutional amendment, in part, said it is a “paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system” of public schools.

Citizens for Strong Schools and the other plaintiffs initially filed the lawsuit in 2009. A Leon County circuit judge ruled in favor of the state in 2016, and the 1st District Court of Appeal followed suit in December.

After the plaintiffs took the issue to the Supreme Court in January, the state argued justices should not take it up. But the Supreme Court decided in April to hear the case. It has not scheduled oral arguments.

Supreme Court to weigh FPL environmental costs

A battle is playing out at the state Supreme Court about whether customers of Florida Power & Light should pay for an environmental clean-up project in Miami-Dade County.

The Florida Public Service Commission filed a brief Monday urging the Supreme Court to uphold a decision that allows FPL to recover money from customers to deal with a saltwater plume that moved from a power-plant complex into nearby groundwater.

The state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, took the issue to the Supreme Court, arguing that FPL customers should not get hit with the costs, which a court filing says could total $206 million over 10 years.

In the brief Monday, the Public Service Commission said its decision to allow FPL to recover the costs is “reasonable and commonsensical.” It pointed to part of state law that allows electric utilities to pass along costs to consumers for expenses related to environmental regulations — a part of state law known in the utility industry as the environmental cost recovery clause.

The project stems from saltwater moving from a cooling-canal system at FPL’s Turkey Point complex into groundwater. FPL in recent years entered into agreements with the county and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to fix the problem, and the Public Service Commission brief said the utility should be able to recover the costs because it is complying with environmental regulations.

“The consent actions (agreements with Miami-Dade County and the Department of Environmental Protection) impose specific new requirements that apply to FPL in relation to its function as an electric utility, including the abatement or remediation of the hypersaline plume,” Monday’s brief said. “The consent actions are environmental regulations pursuant to (the environmental costs recovery law.)

But in a brief filed in May, the Office of Public Counsel described the December decision as requiring customers to “bail out FPL for the decades that the company allowed the hypersaline plume to spread and build up.”

“The money at issue will not pay for ‘compliance’ with laws or regulations designed to protect the environment, but instead will explicitly pay for FPL’s noncompliance because the costs are paying for cleaning up the effects of decades of FPL’s past, unlawful pollution,” the Office of Public Counsel argued.

The Public Service Commission, which each year considers environmental costs for utilities, voted unanimously Dec. 12 to allow FPL to collect the saltwater-related costs through customer bills. The Office of Public Counsel filed a notice in February that it would appeal to the Supreme Court, which has not indicated when it could hear the case.

In the brief Monday, the commission sought to rebut the arguments by the Office of Public Counsel, saying there “is ample record evidence showing that FPL fully cooperated with its environmental regulators.”

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