Influence Archives - Florida Politics

Anitere Flores wants to replace one tax cut with another

In a move sure to ire the insurance industry, state Sen. Anitere Flores is proposing a cut in the state tax on mobile phone and satellite and cable TV service by repealing a tax break to insurers.

Flores, the Senate President pro Tempore, on Friday said she was filing legislation (SB 378) to swap the insurance break for a 2 percent reduction in the state’s communications services tax (CST). The proposal is a priority of Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

The move also aligns with Gov. Rick Scott‘s and the Florida House’s appetite for continued tax relief. Flores’ proposal “could provide $300 million in recurring tax relief for families and businesses,” according to a news release.

“Florida’s CST is one of the highest in the nation,” said Flores, a Miami-Dade Republican. “In 2015, we made great progress by permanently reducing Florida’s CST by 1.73 percent. This year, we can reduce this burdensome tax even further and provide additional monthly savings to every Floridian with a cell phone or cable or satellite TV.”

The state’s communications services tax charges “direct-to-home satellite service” at a total rate of 11.44 percent. Cable TV, however, is taxed at a total of 7.44 percent; the state reduced the CST on that two years ago.

In 2013, Negron tried to get rid of the now 30-year-old tax break to insurance companies, at the time was worth around $225 million, to decrease automobile fees.

The insurance industry helped kill that effort in the House. Fees were later reduced without scuttling the tax break.

But Negron earlier this year said he was again looking to eliminate the insurance deal this year, a 15 percent tax credit on the salaries that insurers give their full-time workers here in the state. “The same benefit is not provided for other industries.” he said in a statement.

“When originally put in place thirty years ago, this taxpayer-funded subsidy for insurance companies was well intentioned, but times have changed and we need to reprioritize,” Negron said. “We can take the revenue we save from eliminating a tax credit that only benefits one industry and use it to provide a meaningful, monthly, and permanent tax cut for Florida’s families and businesses.”

We’ll add reaction from the state’s insurers when we receive it.

Senator seeks probe into whether lobbyist Lisa Miller posed as ‘concerned citizen’ during call

Sen. Kevin Rader is asking Gov. Rick Scott to investigate whether Tallahassee lobbyist Lisa Miller posed as a “concerned citizen” to mislead participants in a conference call with a company that rates Florida insurers.

“I know you understand that matters such as these must be completely in the sunshine and all principals must play by the rules. This is crucial to the integrity and transparency of the insurance market,” Rader wrote in a letter to Scott dated Thursday.

“The citizens of our state have had a difficult time with their insurance matters over the last decade and they deserve to have a full accounting of this incident. We are talking about peoples’ homes, and it is absolutely critical to get to the bottom of this. Insurers and their rating companies must play by the rules and not orchestrate false or misleading presentations with impersonations of ‘concerned citizens’ intended to deceive government officials and the public.”

In an interview with Florida Politics on Feb. 16, Miller denied posing as someone named Mary Beth Wilson to praise Ohio-based Demotech Inc. during the call on Feb. 10.

“No,” Miller said when asked whether she had done it. “I did not make that call.”

“Let me assure you that if this occurred, no one at Demotech coordinated it or scripted it,” Demotech president Joe Petrelli said by email that day.

“Demotech, its officers, employees or representatives never have, and on my watch, never will, ask anyone, paid lobbyist, consumer or client, to pretend to be someone or something  they are not,” Petrelli said in a follow-up email Friday. ” This is true in general and is also specific to the recent teleconferences.”

In his letter to Scott, Rader — a Democrat from Boca Raton who sits on the Government Oversight and Accountability Committee — called the possibility “troubling.” Legislative staff and other government officials participated in the call, he said.

He asked the governor to investigate whether the company or Miller “violated Florida’s lobbying statutes or other statutes regarding misleading acts or statements to members of the legislative and executive branches, including having the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and/or inspector general investigate this matter.”

Demotech held the call to explain a change in its rating system and discuss the downgrade of some Florida insurance companies.

Jeff Grady, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Insurance Agents, first reported on his blog (password protected) that “most industry professionals” believed the caller was Miller, of Lisa Miller & Associates.

He did not name her, but posted a link to her lobbyist registration page, which identifies her as representing Demotech, among other clients.

Grady said he’d known Miller for 15 years and recognized her voice, as did other participants.

Rader asked Scott to look into whether anyone on the call purported to be Wilson; whether Demotech and Petrelli or any of Miller’s other clients directed her to do it; and how a “concerned citizen” would come by the call-in number, date, and time of the call.

He suggested investigating whether any other participants could identify the caller, whether any government staff were misled, and whether Florida laws or rules had been violated.

“If necessary, based on the outcome of that investigation, action or response by Demotech or its lobbyist may be warranted,” Rader wrote. “Or, in lieu of an investigation, please provide a written response as to why one is not required in this case.”

State begins process of issuing medical marijuana ID cards

Florida health officials who oversee the medical marijuana program have started processing identification card applications for patients and caregivers.

The cards, which are issued through the Office of Compassionate Use, are part of regulations passed by the Florida Legislature last year. Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambinieri says the rule became effective Feb. 19.

To apply for a card, a patient must be a Florida resident and qualify to receive medical marijuana. Current conditions covered are cancer, epilepsy, chronic seizures and chronic muscle spasms, along with patients with terminal conditions.

Amendment 2, which was passed last year, expands the conditions to HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, post-traumatic stress disorder, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis or other similar conditions.

Gambinieri adds the department is in the process of updating their website to accept applications electronically.

Trulieve, one of the even companies in Florida authorized to dispense medical marijuana, said it will give patients a break on the cost of obtaining the card.

“Trulieve is offering a $75 credit off one order of $150 or more to make up for the cost of getting an ID card,” a company representative said in a statement. “Additionally, we are offering complimentary assistance with the application process, from filling out the application to turning in completed application packets. We want to make sure we minimize the burden on our patients.”

Florida GOP lawmakers hosting annual ‘Mardi Gras’ fundraiser this weekend

Ever wanted to ask Senate President Joe Negron what he’d do to earn some Mardi Gras beads?

Well, you’ll have the chance to do just that if you take part in a “Mardi Gras Celebration” at Universal Studios in Orlando where Negron, Speaker Richard Corcoran, Senate Presidents-to-be Bill Galvano and Wilton Simpson and House Speakers-to-be Jose Oliva and Chris Sprowls and other legislative leaders will come together for a fundraiser the weekend before the start of the 2017 legislative session.

According to an invitation obtained by, on March 4-5, the Republican lawmakers will take part in a full schedule of activities, including VIP tours. There will be a lunch and dinner, followed by a VIP viewing of a Mardi Gras Celebration Parade & Concert.

Funds raised at the event will benefit House Majority 2018, one of the campaign arms of the Republican Party of Florida.

Presumably it would be during the parade when an adventurous donor could trade some beads for a check — if only doing so were not against the gift ban.

Let’s hope Negron, Corcoran and Co. do not partake too much in the Mardi Gras festivities. The legislative session will kick-off just two days later.

Federalism message echoed by Florida health subcommittee members

A day after Florida’s House Education Committee voted to send a memorial to Congress seeking fewer strings tied to federal education funding, a health policy panel made the same request for health care funding.

The House Health Innovation Subcommittee on Wednesday approved sending a memorial to Congress asking lawmakers to consider giving Medicaid funding to the states in the form of block grants.

“As you know, Medicaid is supposed to be a partnership. In reality, the federal government is in control,” said state Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, who introduced the memorial at the hearing.

“More than at any time in the past, states have the opportunity to have a serious, thoughtful discussion with the federal government about the nature of federal-state partnerships, like Medicaid, and what those successful block grants in Medicaid and other programs might look like,” White said.

White said effective Medicaid block grants would be based on the number of enrollees and adjusted for health risks and income levels. He argued that the states need flexibility to design programs tailored to their specific demographic and geographic needs.

In the public testimony on the memorial, speakers offered a mix of caution and enthusiastic support.

“In the redesign of health care, would you like to be in charge, as the state legislature? Or would you like a bunch of people in Washington to be in charge, dictating terms, creating more requirements, limiting your ability to manage the utilization of your own Medicaid program?” asked U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a freshman Republican who previously represented the Panhandle in the state House.

Gaetz agreed that there were still details to iron out about how the block grants would work, but cited his previous experience as a state legislator and current experience in Congress as he told the subcommittee members that they were best suited to determining Florida’s needs.

“I can say with clear eyes that Washington screws everything up,” he said.

Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute, voiced his support for motivating Congress to move in the direction of federalism and allowing solutions for state-based health care access.

“The most efficient and effective way to guarantee access to actual care is the method of moving subsidization down to the state level where it can actually intersect with the specific needs of each state’s health population,” Nuzzo told the subcommittee.

Michael Daniels, executive director of the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology lobbying group, asked the members to proceed with caution, and to continue including the ultimate stakeholders — Florida patients — in the conversation.

Karen Woodall, policy director for the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, argued that in the context of block grants, flexibility equaled an erosion of the protections afforded by federal benefit mandates.

Several Democratic lawmakers offered similar concerns.

The subcommittee approved the memorial on an 8-5 vote along party lines.


House panel would allow interest payments on noneconomic verdicts

Insurance interests are up in arms about a House committee’s approval of a bill that would allow plaintiffs to recover prejudgment interest on noneconomic claims, including pain and suffering.

HB 469 says that plaintiffs who prevail in lawsuits could collect interest — at a rate now set a 4.9 percent, but varying with inflation — from the date of a loss.

They could collect against attorney fees and costs, too.

Exiting law provides for prejudgment interest on economic claims only, or when provided for by contract.

The Civil Justice & Claims Subcommittee approved the measure Thursday on an 11-4 vote. Details here (scroll down).

A companion measure, SB 334, by Sarasota Republican Greg Steube, has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sponsor Shawn Harrison, an attorney from Tampa, said plaintiffs could not collect interest on punitive damages.

The bill would clarify a “gray area” in the law, he said.

“A person who is damaged by a tortfeasor is just as damaged regardless of whether they have an action in contract or in tort,” Harrison said. “Why should there be a difference?”

Katie Webb, representing the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, warned the measure would increase pressure on carriers to settle unworthy claims.

“It could create an incentive for insurance companies to settle cases early, prior to thoroughly investigating and defending, when appropriate, certain claims that are questionable,” Webb said.

Representatives of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the American Insurance Association, and the Florida Justice Reform Institute were among those who opposed the bill, warning of the potential to increase the cost of doing business.

James Gustafson, representing the Florida Justice Association, argued existing law makes an unfair distinction between economic and noneconomic damages — say, loss of vision. Such an injury “every bit as significant and important and real” as an out-of-pocket loss, he said.

Committee members Erin Grall noted that before prejudgment interest becomes an issue, there has to be a judgment or verdict.

“For anybody to take for granted how easy it is to prove causation, you have not presented in front of a trial court in Vero Beach, Fla.,” she said.

George Moraitis Jr. thought it unreasonable to expect defendant companies to calculate pain and suffering awards.

“It’s a speculative number, and no one really at the beginning can say what do they think a potential jury of unknown people at the time a case starts, how much is that going to be worth,” Moraitis said.

“No one is going to settle a case that they truly believe they are in the right on because of an extra 5 percent that might be awarded,” Harrison said. “We are talking about sophisticated corporate defendants here. They know how to play this game.”

Following the vote, Personal Insurance Federation of Florida President Michael Carlson issued a written statement reiterating that the bill would inflate insurance and business costs.

“PIFF member companies believe that people who suffer damages through the wrongful action of others should be fairly compensated for their losses. Florida law currently provides access to redress and means for full compensation and should not be changed to suit special interests,” he said.

VIDEO: Lawmakers, supporters speak out on school recess

Sen. Anitere Flores, Rep. Rene “Coach P” Plasencia, and a throng of “recess moms” spoke with reporters Thursday in support of legislation that would mandate school recess.

The Senate Education Committee this week voted unanimously to approve this year’s bill (SB 78). Its House companion (HB 67) has not yet heard a hearing.

It requires school districts to provide at least 20 minutes of recess each day to students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

This may well be the year the bill passes the Legislature. A version was OK’d by the House last year but died in the Senate because then-Sen. John Legg refused to hear the measure in the Pre-K-12 Education Committee he chaired.

That was despite the fact former Senate President Andy Gardiner supported the bill.

“He did not believe in the policy and he did not hear the bill,” Gardiner said in an INFLUENCE magazine interview last year. “He felt, and it’s legitimate, that that’s a local issue and we should allow local school districts to make that decision.

“Some said I should have forced him to hear that (bill),” Gardiner said. “I talked to him about but ultimately it was his decision. He’s the chair. That was just my style.”

A Periscope video of Thursday’s news conference in the Capitol’s 4th floor rotunda is below.


House panel votes to raise the bar for proposed constitutional amendments

A lively debate on governing principles broke out Thursday as a House committee voted unanimously to ask the voters to raise the threshold for amending the Florida Constitution.

HJR 321 would require approval by 66 2/3 percent of the voters to change the state’s foundational document. At present, that requires 60 percent approval.

Sponsor Rick Roth, a freshman Republican from Loxahatchee, acknowledged his proposal would make it harder to change Florida’s basic law.

“I watch politics very closely, and have for 30 years, and it seems like it’s becoming, more and more, who has the money to put something on the ballot,” he said following the 14-0 vote by the Oversight, Transparency, & Administration Subcommittee.

“This is a great opportunity for debate, actually,” Roth said.

As his proposal advances through the legislative and, potentially, electoral process, “people will become more informed, I hope, of what kind of government we have and how important the Constitution is,” he said.

The proposal advances to the Rules & Policy and full Government Accountability committees. There’s a Senate companion bill — SJR 866 by Dennis Baxley.

The change would go to the voters in 2018 if approved by three-fifths of the House and Senate. Of course, more than 60 percent of the voters would have to agree to raise the bar against themselves.

Critics argued the measure would weaken voters’ control over government.

“Why are we continuing to make it harder for our citizens to get something on the ballot in Florida?” wondered Kelly Quintero, of the Florida League of Women Voters.

“We have the most stringent citizens’ initiative in the United States,” said Gail Marie Perry, of the Communications Workers of America.

Medical marijuana activist Melissa Villar called the proposal “an affront to democracy.”

In fact, the medical marijuana initiative on last year’s ballot would have met the proposed threshold — it won 71 percent of the vote in November.

Republican Cary Pigman said there should be a high bar to changing the Constitution. Unlike the legislative process, which allows for changes as bills proceed through the committee process, proposed amendment language is fixed, he said.

“We are a republic of elected representatives,” Pigman said. “I stand for election every two years, and anyone can run against me. And I’m term-limited. That is where the people are heard.”

Blaise Ingoglia echoed the point. “The people’s will is electing representatives to come up here to represent them in our districts,” he said.

“Amending the Constitution should be hard, and it should not be taken lightly. I would submit that amending our Constitution right now is a little too easy.”

Katie Edwards, the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, argued the Constitution has become cluttered with provisions the Legislature finds ways not to observe. “That is the real affront to our democracy,” she said.

Still, “after going back and reading this cluttered mess, I’ll support you today,” Edwards told Roth.

In other action, the panel voted, 14-0, for HB 397, creating an exemption in the Sunshine Law for information that would identify victims of sexual harassment in state government.

The subcommittee also voted to tighten internal auditing controls and oversight at local agencies; and to extend Sunshine Law exemptions for Department of Citrus research, peer review panels at two programs researching cancer and other serious ailments, and Social Security and other personal-identification information among unclaimed property administered by the Department of Financial Services.

Background on those bills is available here.

casino table

House gambling bill gets thumbs up on first look

With its chair saying he wants to “freeze” gambling in the state, a House gambling panel on Thursday cleared that chamber’s overhaul bill, including a renewed blackjack agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d the measure (PCB TGC 17-01) on a 10-5 party-line vote.

But the bill, which isn’t yet assigned to another committee, differs greatly from the Senate’s gambling legislation. Its proposal (SB 8) now is cleared for consideration by the full chamber after a 14-2 vote in the Appropriations Committee, also Thursday.

The House is looking to contract gambling overall; the Senate would expand some gambling opportunities though bill sponsor Bill Galvano has said it contracts gambling overall.

State Rep. Mike La Rosa, the House panel’s chair, was hopeful about reaching compromise, though he made clear the Senate would have to vastly change its position.

“I think their expansion and where they’re going with it would be a non-starter here,” the St. Cloud Republican told reporters after the meeting. 

For example, the House outlaws designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all cardroom operators … offer designated player games,” and the House would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines. No Casinos, the anti-gambling expansion group, supports the House bill.

Moreover, the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money – $3 billion over seven years – would go to education, split three ways among “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools,” and “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

But state Rep. Jared Moskowitz criticized the bill for doing exactly what the House’s GOP majority says it hates: Picking winners and losers.

“The winners are the Seminoles, and the losers are everybody else,” he said. The Coral Springs Democrat had tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to delete a legal requirement that racetracks run live races to also offer other gambling, like poker.

This is not free market—this is a corporate mandate,” he said of the legislation. Moskowitz also pointed out the many gambling policy conflicts between the chambers.

“What are we doing here? I have no idea, actually,” Moskowitz said. “…We’re debating something we know is already dead.”

State Rep. Joe Geller of Aventura, the panel’s Democratic Ranking Member, suggested that the bill’s funding mechanism would disproportionately benefit privately-run charter schools.  

“It’s not corporate welfare” for charter schools, La Rosa told reporters.

Where the money goes exactly isn’t “solid yet,” he added, but “who’s actually benefiting is the student (who doesn’t have to go) to a failing school.”

Senate Appropriations votes 14-2 to OK gambling bill, now cleared for Senate floor

A wide-sweeping gambling bill is now ready to be heard by the full Senate when the 2017 Legislative Session kicks off next month, after it cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning.

The bill (SB 8), sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, ratifies the 2015 Seminole Compact, subject to the approval of amendments to conform the agreement to provisions outlined in the bill and other actions to be taken by the Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida, and would expand the number of facilities where slot machines can be operated.

“Florida is a diverse state and our constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming. This legislation does not attempt to make value judgments about the private activities of free, taxpaying Floridians, instead it presents a comprehensive approach to regulating a voter-approved industry that has contributed billions of dollars to our economy for education, health care and infrastructure, while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Floridians over the course of nearly 100 years,” said Galvano in a statement after the vote.

The bill passed 14-2, with Sens. Aaron Bean and Kelli Stargel voting against it.

“I don’t feel like we need to go down this path,” said Bean, who commended Galvano for his effort. “I see us going on the continued road of a slippery slope.”

The measure was amended Thursday to add a bingo provision for charitable organizations. Under the new section, veterans’ organizations may conduct instant bingo using electronic tickets instead of paper tickets.

The amended bill also appears to outlaw advance deposit wagering, a form of gambling in which the bettor must fund his account being allowed to place betters. The amendment makes it a third degree felony to accept those wagers on horse races, but not on dog races.

It also toughens standards for race animal doping; changes the name of the Office of Amusements, which would regulate fantasy sports, to the Office of Contest Amusements; and gives regulators no more than 45 days to approve “rules for a new authorized game submitted by a licensed cardroom or provide the cardroom with a list of deficiencies as to those rules.”

Several members expressed hesitation about what the bill could mean for the state’s future, before voting for it. Sens. Anitere Flores and Rob Bradley were among those who said they faced a difficult decision, but felt inaction was no longer an option.

“This is a difficult issue for me,” said Bradley. “If I could do one thing to wave a magic wand in our state government, I would get rid of the lottery and move on in a different direction on gaming, because I think Florida is about something different. We’re about beaches and sunshine. Not gaming. But ladies and gentlemen, I don’t have a magic wand, none of us do.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, called the measure a jobs bill and said he hoped it will be “one more place where the Senate comes down strong for jobs.”

The House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee OK’d its own gambling bill Thursday.

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