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Staff Reports

Capitol Reax: Lake Okeechobee water storage reservoir

The Florida Legislature voted to send a trimmed-down version of a bill (SB 10) to build a water storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee. A top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, the bill aims to divert toxic algae discharges from coastal communities. The measure prohibits the state from taking private property to build the reservoir.

“Today is a momentous event. The many voices that came to the table this session – anglers, realtors, business and community leaders, and people who want the best for their state – were heard with the final bipartisan passage of SB 10, a positive and science-based step toward the restoration of America’s Everglades.

We thank the Senate and House for working together to create a solution that all parties could unite behind, and we applaud them for backing this good bill and its ultimate passage. Expediting the planning and implementation of the Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir will significantly reduce the amount of harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee and provide us with the opportunity to store, clean and send large amounts of water into the Everglades and Florida Bay, where it is needed.

We recognize Senate President Joe Negron, who made this his priority from Day One, realizing the immediate need to pursue a solution to the damaging discharges, and never wavered. It is because of his unremitting advocacy and leadership that we’re seeing this legislation head to the Governor. This is a legacy that will be remembered long after his presidency ends.

Recognition is also due to House Speaker Richard Corcoran for his hard work in the House. Without his diligence and resolve, this momentous day would not have been realized.

We encourage Governor Rick Scott to join the Senate and House in embracing this long-awaited action by signing SB 10 into law.” – Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg

“Today, the Florida House stood up for Florida’s farming communities by approving legislation that does not take farmland out of production. While not perfect, Senate Bill 10 will ensure the planned EAA reservoir is eventually completed on existing state-owned land. Having turned the page on buying additional land south of Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Legislature in a future session can focus on plans that will address the excess water and nutrients originating north of the lake, which science shows can reduce the frequency of discharges by more than 60 percent.” – Ryan Duffy, spokesman for Florida Sugarcane Farmers

“Senate Bill 10 has been greatly improved, takes essentially no privately owned farmland, and even removes the threat of eminent domain.   The House deserves credit for quickly passing legislation that can provide some protection for our water resources while also protecting our farming communities and vital food production.

 U.S. Sugar always supports solutions that are based on science, which, in this case shows the source of the water significantly impacting the coastal estuaries flows from north of Lake Okeechobee, not the south.  Obviously, you’re going to have to build some solutions north of the lake to finally fix the discharge problem.  We look forward to working with legislators in the future to get that done.” – Judy Sanchez, senior director for corporate communications and public affairs for U.S. Sugar.

“We are grateful for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rep. Matt Caldwell, Rep. Holly Raschein, Senate President Joe Negron, Sen. Rob Bradley, Sen. Jack Latvala and the entire Florida Legislature for their support of Everglades restoration projects and funding. This much-needed focus on our state’s natural resources will provide for the implementation of comprehensive solutions that will have the greatest and most immediate impact on the Everglades, Florida Bay and our south Florida estuaries.” – Kellie Ralston, Florida Fishery Policy Director of the American Sportfishing Association.


Joe Negron’s signature Lake Okeechobee project headed to governor’s desk

The Senate voted Tuesday to send a trimmed-down version of SB 10, Senate President Joe Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, to Gov. Rick Scott.

The 33-0 vote followed approval by the House earlier in the day.

Under amendments adopted in the House, and accepted in the Senate, bonding authority to acquire land and construct reservoirs would shrink from $1.2 billion to $800 million, bill sponsor Rob Bradley explained. The complete price tag for the project is $1.5 billion.

The project is designed to avoid the runoff of toxic algae-laden water from the lake into rivers, streams and estuaries to the east and west — like those that sickened people and depressed tourism last summer.

“I promised my constituents that we would dramatically expand southern storage by leveraging existing water infrastructure, and utilizing a combination of state, local, and private land,” said Negron in a statement. “After twenty years of talking about southern storage, this legislation establishes and fully funds a concrete plan to achieve this critical component of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in a reasonable amount of time.

The bill provides for construction of reservoirs north and the south of the lake to store the overflow, and for treatment of the water and release into the Everglades and, ultimately, Florida Bay.

“Today the Florida House joined the Senate by passing SB 10, which will build additional water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. I have continued to support the diversion of Lake Okeechobee water away from our estuary as well as diversified storage options within our watershed to help protect the Caloosahatchee,” said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, whose district includes a region impacted by the discharges.  “SB 10 will bring relief from the harmful discharges that plague our estuary. I am very proud we were able to achieve this goal in the 2017 session.”

Scott has endorsed storing water south of the Lake, but not the bill’s bonding authority.

Jeff Atwater thanks Floridians in farewell letter

CFO Jeff Atwater is saying farewell.

In an open letter to Floridians on Tuesday, Atwater recounted his achievements as the state’s chief financial officer and thanked Florida residents for their confidence over the years.

“From Pensacola to Key West, and all stops in between, I have had the unique privilege of meeting your families, hearing your stories and answering your calls. You have graciously welcomed me into your homes, invited me to share meals and memories,” he wrote in his letter. “Your words and life stories have been edifying to me and helped shape my time in public life. As I approach the end of our shared journey, the impact, influence and inspiration you have provided cannot be overstated.”

Atwater announced in February that he would be be leaving his post at the end of the 2017 Session to become the vice president for strategic initiatives and chief financial officer at Florida Atlantic University. Since then there have been several touching tributes, including a roast from Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s Capitol Days.

Atwater was also honored during the Cabinet meeting earlier this month.

“I am proud of what I have fought for, accomplished and achieved. None of that could have been done without the dedicated team that has worked alongside me each day,” said Atwater. “They, and every Florida voter who has ever checked my name on a ballot, have put their faith, their finances, and their futures in my hands, and through that process I have become a better man.”



Florida consumer sentiment in April drops from record high

Consumer sentiment among Floridians in April dropped 3.5 points to 95.7 from a record-high reading of 99.2 in March, according to the latest University of Florida consumer survey.

Despite the ups and downs in the index during the first four months of 2017, consumers are overall more optimistic compared with those same months in 2016.

Among the five components that make up the index, one increased and four decreased.

Perceptions of one’s personal financial situation now compared with a year ago rose 2.2 points, from 88.7 to 90.9. This is the highest reading for this component since February 2005.

Opinions as to whether now is a good time to buy a major household item such as an appliance dropped 1.9 points, from 103.4 to 101.5.

Taken together, these two components represent Floridians’ perceptions about current economic conditions.

“Despite the decrease in one of the two components that address present conditions, current perceptions have remained stable in recent months, reflecting the favorable economic conditions that have prevailed in the state,” said Hector H. Sandoval, director of the Economic Analysis Program at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

The three components that measure expectations of future economic conditions all shifted downward between March and April.

Expectations of personal finances a year from now declined 2.3 points, from 107.5 to 105.2. Anticipated U.S. economic conditions over the next year decreased 6.8 points, from 99.3 to 92.5. Finally, expectations of U.S. economic conditions over the next five years showed the greatest decline, from 96.8 to 88.2, an 8.6 point change.

“Most of the pessimism in this month’s index figure comes from the unfavorable expectations about the future state of the economy. Notably, these perceptions are shared by all Floridians with the sole exception of those with an income level over $50,000,” Sandoval said.

“It is worth noting that those with incomes of $50,000 and over display favorable perceptions in all five components of the index. In particular, they have a very strong positive expectation about their personal financial situation one year from now. This might be a result of the proposed tax reform announced by the federal government, which is expected to slash the tax rates on corporations and high-income individuals,” Sandoval said.

Economic data in Florida continue to be generally positive. In particular, Florida’s labor market continued to expand in March. Over the last year, 246,100 jobs have been added in Florida, a 3 percent increase. The industry sector gaining most jobs was education and health services, followed by professional and business services. There were also increases in the trade, transportation and utilities sector, as well as the construction industry.

A particular bright spot: Florida’s unemployment rate in March dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.8 percent, which is the lowest rate since December 2007, right at the beginning of the Great Recession.

Conducted April 1-27, the UF study reflects the responses of 568 individuals who were reached on cellphones, representing a demographic cross section of Florida.

The index used by UF researchers is benchmarked to 1966, which means a value of 100 represents the same level of confidence for that year. The lowest index possible is a 2, the highest is 150.

It’s official: Adam Putnam running for Florida governor

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam is no longer just a likely gubernatorial candidate.

The Bartow Republican filed his paperwork Monday for a 2018 run to replace Gov. Rick Scott. He plans to make a formal announcement on the old county courthouse steps in Bartow at 11 a.m. on May 10, according to the Tampa Bay Times, which first reported Putnam’s annoouncement.

“I consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world because I get to call Florida home,” he said in a statement. “It’s our responsibility as Floridians to keep our economy at work, to increase access to high quality education, to fiercely protect our personal freedoms, to keep our state safe, and to welcome our veterans home with open arms.”

Putnam was first elected in 2010 after serving five terms in Congress, where he was one of the highest ranking Republican members of the U.S. House. He was first elected to the Legislature when he was 22.

The 42-year-old is a fifth generation Floridian from a family of ranchers and citrus growers. He becomes the first major Republican to enter the race.

His entry into the race has long been expected. His political committee, Florida Grown, has raised $10.5 million since since February 2015. The committee ended March with more than $7.7 million cash on hand.

The committee had some of its best fundraising periods to-date in recent months. The committee raised more than $2.2 million in February and nearly $1.1 million in March.

Both Sen. Jack Latvala and Speaker Richard Corcoran are believed to be considering their options.

Latvala’s political committee, Florida Leadership Committee, has raised $8.2 million since 2013. The committee had one of its best fundraising periods to date in February, raising nearly $1.1 million.

Democrats Andrew Gillum and Chris King have already filed to run, while former U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham is widely expected to announce her 2018 bid on Tuesday.

Scott can’t run again because of term limits.

The Associated Press contributed to this report, reprinted with permissions.

Daisy Baez files to run to replace Frank Artiles in SD 40

Daisy Baez has officially thrown her hat in the race to replace Frank Artiles.

Baez, who was elected to the Florida House in November, filed her paperwork to run for Senate District 40, her campaign announced Monday. Baez will likely compete in a special election for the newly vacated seat.

“I’m running for State Senate which is where I believe the most good can be accomplished on behalf of Floridians,” she said in a statement. “The people of Miami-Dade deserve to have high quality public schools for their children, good-paying jobs that provide economic security for working families, and access to quality, affordable healthcare. I look forward to continuing my steadfast advocacy on behalf of Florida families in the State Senate.”

A health care consultant and Army veteran from Coral Gables, Baez defeated John Couriel in November to win the House District 114 spot. She currently serves on the Health & Human Services Committee, the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee, and Health Innovation Subcommittee.

“Serving in the Florida House has been an incredibly rewarding experience, and serving in the Florida Senate will allow me to continue to work on behalf of our community in a much greater capacity,” she said.

Artiles, a Miami-Dade County Republican, resigned earlier this month in the wake of a scandal. The freshman senator made national news after he accosted two of his colleagues in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee. He used a slang variation of the “N-word,” and called Sen. Audrey Gibson a “b***h” and a “girl.”

Report: State workers to get pay raises, but changes to health benefits could be coming

State workers could get a raise under a proposed budget deal being hashed out by state lawmakers, but it could come at a cost.

The $82.9 billion budget deal is expected to provide an across-the-board raise for state workers — their first in about nine years, according to Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, for whom the raise was a priority.

But according to POLITICO Florida, the Senate has agreed to changes to the state’s health insurance plan and pension plan in exchange for those pay increases.

The health insurance proposal would encompass the changes contained in a House bill (HB 7007) passed earlier this year. The bill allows employees to choose from four different levels of health-insurance beginning in 2020. According to POLITICO Florida, the deal also requires new state employees be placed into a defined contribution plan, similar to a 401(k).

The Senate, in exchange, would receive the $220 million of state worker pay raises outlined in the Senate’s initial budget proposal.

From Argentina, Rick Scott keeps up the chatter for economic incentives

Gov. Rick Scott, while on a trade mission to Argentina, urged the Florida Legislature to include his economic incentives  programs when finalizing the next state budget.

“Lawmakers cannot be shortsighted at the expense of Florida families by cutting funds for tourism marketing and economic development,” Scott said in a written statement distributed by his office.

“I would be absolutely shocked if politicians in the Florida Legislature put their self-interests before the interests of our families and small businesses,” he wrote.

“Let’s remember, fully funding Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida is only 0.24 percent of Florida’s state budget. But, reducing this funding will have a significant impact on state, county, city, and local tourism and economic development boards’ revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars.”

It was the second time in as many days that Scott has spoken up for his economic development programs. Tuesday, his office distributed a letter from Division of Bond Finance director Ben Watkins to the House and Senate budget chairmen, warning that cutting Visit Florida could damage the state’s credit rating.

Senate President Joe Negron said Wednesday that the House and Senate had agreed on the rough outlines of a budget compromise but not the details. He did not say what it would mean for economic development programs.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo omitted the programs when discussing the negotiations Tuesday evening.

However, aides to the governor and lobbyists said earlier this week that Enterprise Florida would be zeroed-out.

Visit Florida‘s budget would be capped at $50 million, and House accountability measures for the public-private tourism marketing agency would imposed, including pay caps and limiting employees’ travel expenses.

Florida House approves assignment of benefits reform legislation

Assignment of benefits reforms ardently sought by the insurance industry and business passed the Florida House Wednesday on a vote of 91-26.

A spokeswoman for the Consumer Protection Coalition, a business-oriented lobby aligned with the Florida Chamber of Commerce, immediately praised the action.

“The House’s action is a big step toward ending costly AOB abuse and protecting Florida’s homeowners and businesses,” chamber spokeswoman Edie Ousley said in a written statement.

“With less than two weeks left in the legislative session, we urge the Senate to recognize the impact that AOB abuse is having on consumers’ wallets and approve the House bill before another year passes without protections for Florida families,” she said.

A less industry-friendly Senate version is pending in the Regulated Industries Committee.

In debate, Democrat Joe Geller argued against the attorney fee provision.

“It’s going to result in more, not less, litigation,” Geller said. “It’s going to be tied up for the next two years.”

Co-sponsor James Grant replied that the problem has festered too long and that it was time to act.

“Vote up on this good bill, and make sure we do not go home yet again having done nothing with the assignment of benefits problem,” Grant said.

The House bill, PCS/HB 1421, would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether contractors holding these agreements qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

It would require the Office of Insurance Regulation to collect data on trends in assignment of benefits, or AOBs, and related litigation.

Grant has said that the bill would forestall increases in property insurance rates approaching 50 percent.

The idea is to make it harder for unscrupulous contractors and attorneys to abuse AOBs to run up repair costs and use the litigation process to inflate claims and extract attorney fees from carriers.

Business interests would have preferred repealing a law requiring carriers to pay fees entirely, the coalition said, but the bill passed “does provide some restrictions on their use aimed at reducing incentives for third parties to sue insurers over inflated claims.”

“This bill isn’t perfect, but it addresses many of our concerns and, hopefully, will weed out many of the bad actors who are preying on consumers and driving up the cost of home repairs,” said Cam Fentriss, lobbyist for the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association.

“AOB abuse hurts the reputations of all the good roofers and other contractors who just want to work for an honest living. We have to stop it,” Fentriss said.

“Skyrocketing litigation costs are a major problem and if we go another legislative session without a solution this type of abuse will only get worse and insurance costs could continue to rise,’’ said Logan McFaddin, regional manager for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

“We have an opportunity to enact meaningful reform to keep home ownership affordable and attainable for many Floridians,” she said.

A sign the end is near: It’s time to play #CateSineDie

The end of the 2017 Session is quickly approaching, and that can only mean one thing: It’s time to get your bets in.

Yep, it’s time for #CateSineDie.

Here’s how Kevin Cate, the media guru for which the annual parlor game is name after, put it Wednesday morning:

“I love traditions and this is one of my favorites.

The 2017 Florida Legislative Session is winding down. The last day is scheduled for May 5th, but anything can happen between now and then — and it changes by the minute.

So it’s time for us to act like we know what’s up and play #CateSineDie!

The rules are simple and, like all good ideas, stolen from Bob Barker.

Tweet #CateSineDie along with your prediction for the exact date and time the hanky will drop, ending the 2017 Regular Legislative Session — closest without going over wins.”

All entries must be tweeted by 4 p.m. Thursday.

Cate swears he isn’t sending an email reminder, so get your prediction in now before you forget. Like last year, the winner will get $500 to their favorite charity. And this year, Cate upped the ante — adding “something even more silly — a trophy.”

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