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Contractors mount defense of assignment of benefits agreements

Home repair contractors lashed out against calls for a crackdown on assignment of benefits agreements during testimony before a key Senate committee Tuesday, insisting such contracts protect homeowners and reputable remediation businesses.

They argued instead for increased regulation of their industry, to put fly-by-night contractors out of business.

“Would you please regulate us?” said Dave DeBlander of ProClean Restoration and Cleaning in Pensacola.

“Regulate us like mold (remediation) is regulated. Get rid of those bad companies there in South Florida. Don’t ruin it for the whole state by messing with the AOB. The AOB protects the homeowner, and we can fix it just with that regulation.”

The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation has declared assignment of benefits reform its No. 1 priority in the Legislature this year. Insurers including Citizens Property Insurance Corp. blame abuse of such agreements for escalating rates and litigation, especially in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties since 2012.

But during hearings Tuesday, the Banking and Insurance Committee heard from defenders of such agreements.

“AOBs protect us little guys — the David against the Goliath,” DeBlander said. Rather than take away the rights of homeowners who sign such contracts, which shift control of insurance claims from policyholders to contractors who undertake repairs, “their rights are enhanced,” DeBlander said.

“How is that homeowner going to explain to the insurance company why there’s five dehumidifiers in there, and why there’s 15 air movers,” he said. “Tear that away and the consumers on their own.”

He and other contractors blamed insurance companies for unduly delaying claims.

“They’re lying to contractors. They’re lying to homeowners. That’s what the AOB is for — to protect the homeowners and their contractors,” said Brian Christensen of Restoration 1 in Orlando.

Relying on insurance-company-preferred contractors is not the answer, he said.

“I go behind these preferred vendors all the time,” he said. “Something as simple as a couple of thousand-dollar water claim turns into a $10,000 to $20,000 mold claim because they didn’t do their job.”

AOB reforms did draw support from Cam Fentriss, legislative counsel to the Florida Roofing and Sheet Metal Contractors Association, including a ban on liens by contractors against policyholders who sign the contracts.

At one point, Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democratic trial lawyer from Broward County, launched a terse exchange with Citizens Insurance president and CEO Barry Galway over attorney costs associated with AOBs, during which Gilway interrupted the senator several times.

“Please do not interrupt me!” Farmer insisted.

Gilway said the defense costs amounted to $56 million during 2016 but that he did not know how much plaintiffs attorneys collected. “We do not have access to that information.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s just not accurate. You know what you are ordered to pay, or what you agreed to pay in settlements, to consumers’ lawyers. So you know that number. What it is?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but that is not correct. We do not know the amount of plaintiffs (attorney) costs included in a settlement.”

 

Seminole Compact, other gambling issues expected to be top priority in House Commerce committee

The House Commerce Committee is poised to tackle everything from assignment of benefits to economic incentives, but it’s the most narrowly defined subcommittee that could be the busiest in the months leading up to, and during, the 2017 Legislative Session.

The full House Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, met Tuesday morning to get an overview of topics expected to come up in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.

“So it begins,” said Diaz. “We’re going to be busy. We will be dealing with some of the weightiest issues of the state.”

While each of the subcommittees laid out what could be considered jam-packed agendas, Rep. Mike La Rosa, chairman of the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, outlined an aggressive schedule largely focused on gambling in Florida.

The subcommittee will spend the next few weeks tackling different aspects of the industry, looking first at the Seminole Compact. The subcommittee is scheduled to hold a two-hour panel discussion Thursday to discuss issues relating to the Seminole Compact.

A federal court judge in November sided with the Seminole Tribe saying the state broke its exclusivity deal with the tribe allowing it to keep blackjack tables until 2030.

“With everything we did last year, we thought we were going to be able to pass a bill, but it didn’t get across the finish line,” said Diaz. “We feel like the opportunity to negotiate (is still there). We’re having negotiations with the Senate, and we’ll pass a compact or bill that’s in the best interests of the citizens of Florida that invests money in the right places.”

Diaz said the Legislature is still “in the early stages of conversation,” but warned the end of session will be here before lawmakers know it.

“If you have concerns with the compact, if you want to make sure (issues are) addressed, now is the time to have the conversation,” he said.

The compact isn’t the only issue the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee will tackle. La Rosa said he expects the committee to discuss slot machines, decoupling, and online fantasy sports. The committee might also take up destination resort casinos, a constitutional amendment restricting the expansion of gambling, and whether to establish a statewide gaming commission.

La Rosa said members will be tasked with addressing concerns about VISIT Florida, which falls under the committee’s responsibilities. The agency has recently faced criticism about the way it handled a secret marketing contract worth up to $1 million with Pitbull.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran filed suit to force the Miami superstar to disclose the contents of his contract. Pitbull released the details of his contract on Twitter one day later.

The controversy led to the firing of two top VISIT Florida officials, and Gov. Rick Scott called for former CEO Will Seccombe’s resignation. The organization’s board of directors on Tuesday agreed to pay Seccombe, $73,000 as part of a severance agreement.

On Tuesday, Scott announced Ken Lawson, the former Secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, would take the helm of agency.

“Ken understands the responsibility we have to be transparent with every tax dollar. He has tirelessly fought to make it easier for Florida businesses to create jobs, has helped cut millions of dollars in fees and has streamlined the agency to ensure the state reduced burdensome regulations,” said Scott in a statement. “A native Floridian and military veteran, Ken has an incredible appreciation and understanding for our great state. I know he will use his unmatched experience and love for Florida to promote tourism while bringing much needed reforms to VISIT FLORIDA so our state can break even more tourism records.”

The House Commerce Committee and its subcommittees are also expected to take up assignment of benefits, personal injury protection insurance, economic incentives, and deregulation during the 2017 Legislative Session.

_The Associated Press contributed to this report, with permission.

Dan Raulerson qualifying challenge now in judge’s hands

A Tallahassee judge now will decide whether a lawsuit challenging state Rep. Dan Raulerson‘s re-election over the use of “Wite Out” will go forward.

“I’m going to review this and get an order out,” Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson said Tuesday, after a half-hour hearing. “Good luck.”

Raulerson’s attorney had moved to toss out the case, saying it was moot with the Plant City Republican having won in November and been sworn in to represent House District 58. 

Only the House of Representatives, which is constitutionally the sole judge of its membership, now has jurisdiction over any challenge to Raulerson being seated, lawyer Emmett Mitchell said.

Vazquez (via Facebook)

Jose N. Vazquez Figueroa, who is representing himself, is seeking to disqualify Raulerson; Vazquez was his unsuccessful Democratic opponent last year.

The suit says Raulerson’s notary had incorrectly used “correction fluid” on his filing paperwork. The state’s notary manual says no correction fluid of any kind is allowed on notarized documents.

Specifically, Vazquez has said Raulerson’s notary “improperly completed” his paperwork by whiting out the date on her notarization of his financial disclosure, changing it from an April to a June date.

He sued Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer; Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s chief elections officer; and Kristi Reid Bronson, records bureau chief for the Division of Elections, faulting all of them for not catching the error and allowing Raulerson to run in the first place.

“I never challenged his constitutional qualifications,” Vazquez told the court. “That’s a big difference … the fact is, Mr. Raulerson never qualified as a candidate. The document is not valid and so it’s a forfeit.”

Otherwise, Vazquez added, “we open a big Pandora’s box in the state of Florida where anybody can just ‘white out’ documents.”

Dodson did not say when he would issue an order.

Vazquez made the news in 2008 when he ran for the District 58 seat as a state prisoner. He was serving time on a charge of driving on a revoked license, records show. He himself was disqualified when he failed to include his full name on a written oath.

Ken Lawson picked as next head of VISIT FLORIDA

Ken Lawson, the secretary of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, now will be the next president and CEO of VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s public-private tourism agency.

The move comes a few days after FloridaPolitics.com suggested that he was Gov. Rick Scott‘s preferred choice to lead the embattled organization. The VISIT FLORIDA board voted Tuesday morning on Lawson’s hiring.

Lawson, Ken (DBPR secretary)
Lawson

Lawson “has demonstrated an unwavering commitment to serving Florida families,” Scott said in a statement. “Ken understands the responsibility we have to be transparent with every tax dollar.”

Scott had called on former CEO Will Seccombe to quit, continuing a bloodbath at the organization that saw two other top executives fired. That was from the fallout over how it handled a secret marketing contract worth up to $1 million with Miami rapper superstar Pitbull.

Lawson “has tirelessly fought to make it easier for Florida businesses to create jobs, has helped cut millions of dollars in fees and has streamlined the agency to ensure the state reduced burdensome regulations,” Scott said. “At DBPR, he oversaw crucial parts of Florida’s tourism industry and knows that tourism is important to the economic growth of our state.

“I know he will use his unmatched experience and love for Florida to promote tourism while bringing much needed reforms to VISIT FLORIDA so our state can break even more tourism records,” Scott added.

But Scott also has called for an overhaul of how VISIT FLORIDA does business—and Lawson, a former federal prosecutor and Marine Corps captain, was the right man for the job.

He’s a loyal Scott soldier, and has “has held numerous regulatory positions within the private sector and federal government,” according to his official bio.

He’s been Assistant Secretary of Enforcement for the U.S. Department of Treasury, and Assistant Chief Counsel for Field Operations at the Transportation Security Administration, his bio says.

Lawson also was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Criminal Division for the Middle District of Florida in Tampa.

“In the private sector, he spent two years with Booz Allen Hamilton as a consultant, including a year as Chief of Party for the Financial Crimes Prevention Project in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he directed international anti-money laundering, anticorruption, and counterterrorist financing projects,” according to the bio.

And he was vice president for compliance at nFinanSe Inc., a financial services company in Tampa.

Lawson is paid $141,000 a year as DBPR secretary; Seccombe was paid $293,000 a year, plus bonuses, records show.

Later Tuesday morning, Lawson sent an email to DBPR staff alerting them of his departure.

“As I move forward in this new role, my hope is to bring effective improvements to an agency so vital to our state’s continued growth and economic success,” Lawson wrote. “I want to thank the Governor for his leadership and allowing me to serve at DBPR these past six years.

“From saving our licensees over $19 million in fees to streamlining the permitting process and reducing 213 burdensome regulations, we have made it easier to get to work, start a business, and create jobs in our state. I am very proud of our accomplishments, and I thank you for helping us achieve them together.

“Lastly, I want you to know how important each and every one of you is to me. The last six years working as the Secretary of DBPR has truly been an honor in every sense of the word. You have changed me for the better, and I will always cherish my time here.”

He signed it, “Ken.”

Capital correspondent Jim Rosica contributed to this post.

Kristin Jacobs: Kratom lobby ‘just like Hitler’

On Friday, Florida Politics brought you the first look at a House bill that would add Kratom to the state’s controlled substance list.

House Bill 183 would add Mitragynine and Hydroxymitragynine, constituents of Kratom, to the schedule of controlled substances, offering an exception for any FDA approved substance containing these chemicals.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kristin Jacobs, a Coconut Creek Democrat who has filed anti-Kratom legislation in three straight sessions, framed this bill as a “fall on the sword issue” for her, while framing the Kratom lobby in the harshest possible terms.

“They have a story,” Jacobs told us Monday via phone. “Just like Hitler believed if you tell a lie over and over again, it becomes the truth.”

For Jacobs, the issue is personal: a legislative quest against a “lie machine … a powerful lobby with a lot of money,” undertaken by one representative who isn’t being backed financially to fight this issue.

“It’s not just what they’re doing here,” Jacobs said. “They’re doing [the same thing] around the country.”

Jacobs, who believes Kratom is a “scourge on society,” expects the DEA to temporarily schedule Kratom as Schedule 1 now that its period for public comment has elapsed; that would leave it up to state legislators to move toward rulemaking in the session.

Jacobs also stresses that her legislation is intended to punish the industry, not the “unfortunate people who [are] addicted.”

That said, she sees no functional difference between the use of Kratom and opiate addiction. Jacobs is comfortable talking about Kratom in the same breath as heroin and the late and unlamented pill mills.

Kratom, said the representative, “is an opiate.” And Jacobs believes it’s used because it’s legal, and “people turn to something.”

Jacobs paints nightmare scenarios: babies born with withdrawal symptoms to pregnant mothers who enjoyed kava tea during their pregnancy; emergency room physicians treating Kratom addicts who are in the throes of withdrawal symptoms.

And, implies Jacobs, it is that dependency on a drug that leads activists to mobilize in Kratom fights outside of their home areas.

“Why do addicts in Michigan care about what’s happening in Florida?”

Meanwhile, says Jacobs, “the Kratom Association stands to lose a lot of money if they aren’t able to continue profiting off the misery of addicts.”

Those “addicts with glassy eyes and shaky hands,” claims Jacobs, are having to go to the same places that sell “bongs and gasoline” for their fixes.

“How come pharmacies don’t sell it? How come GNC doesn’t sell it?”

Jacobs is girding up for a presence of Kratom advocates in Tallahassee this session, complete with “cute little t-shirts.”

Those are the tactics, the representative says, that are being used across the country.

But to her, the fight is worth it.

“How many more are going to die?”

Charles Canady may be off Donald Trump’s Supreme Court wish list

The Above The Law legal website is “handicapping Donald Trump’s Supreme Court shortlist” – and Florida Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady isn’t on it.

“In case you missed it over the holidays, Jan Crawford of CBS News, one of the most plugged-in Supreme Court reporters around, revealed Trump’s five finalists” to replace the late Antonin Scalia, who died last February.

In alphabetical order, they are Judge Steven Colloton (8th Cir.) of Iowa; Judge Thomas Hardiman (3d Cir.) of Pennsylvania; Justice Joan Larsen of Michigan; Judge William Pryor (11th Cir.) of Alabama; Judge Diane Sykes (7th Cir.) of Wisconsin, according to Crawford.

“These five judges all appeared on Trump’s first SCOTUS list of 11 names, suggesting that his supplemental list of 10 names might represent something of a second tier,” ATL reported.

Canady’s name was on that second list.

The former lawmaker has been one of two reliable conservative votes on the state’s highest court, along with Ricky Polston. But now joining them is conservative jurist C. Alan Lawson, replacing retired Justice James E.C. Perry.

Canady, a Lakeland native, served three terms in the Florida House of Representatives (1984-90) and four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives (1993-2001) as a Republican, rising to chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution.

He became general counsel to Gov. Jeb Bush, who later appointed him to the state’s 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland in 2002, the bio says.

Gov. Charlie Crist then named him to the state Supreme Court in 2008. Canady also served as the court’s chief justice in 2010-12.

 

Jeff Brandes’ legislation would reform why state suspends driver’s licenses

Republican state Senator Jeff Brandes is once again filing a bill that would prevent Floridians from having their driver’s licenses suspended for a reason unrelated to a driving violation.

The legislation would reduce the number of offenses for which license suspension is prescribed and prohibit suspensions for those who show in court an inability to pay fines and fees. St. Petersburg Democrat Daryl Rouson is co-sponsoring.

“Florida suspends hundreds of thousands of licenses each year, often because a person is saddled with debt for fines that may have nothing to do with driving,” Brandes said in a statement.

“With compounding fees and collections costs, the prospect of reinstating a license may seem insurmountable to some of the poorest in our communities,” he added. “This bill provides people with an opportunity to regain mobility, find employment, and get their lives back on track.”

Brandes introduced a similar bill during last year’s session that didn’t make its way out of the the Senate Appropriations Committee. He said he did so after reading reports showing that more than 1.2 million driver’s license suspensions occur annually in Florida.

A study conducted in 2014 said that the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles suspended 1.3 million driver’s licenses in fiscal year 2012-13, and 167,000 were for non-driving reasons, such as failure to pay fines or court fees or child support.

An August, 2015 report in the Miami Herald found that 77 percent of all license suspensions in Florida between 2012 and 2015 occurred because of a failure to pay fees.

A similar bill was proposed in the House last year by Rouson and was co-sponsored by Republicans Dana Young from Tampa and Sarasota’s Greg Steube. All three of those members have moved on to the Senate this year, presupposing there could be support for the bill there.

The bill will likely have a negative impact on local tax collectors and clerks of court who retain a portion of revenues from certain driver’s license sanctions when issuing reinstatements, in addition to other fees retained by them associated with license suspensions and revocations. That was an issue with the bill last year.

Beer Rees

Personnel note: Jonathan Rees joins Anheuser-Busch

Jonathan Rees, a member of the 2016 class of FloridaPolitics.com’s “30 Under 30,” will be joining Anheuser-Busch as the state affairs manager for Florida, effective Monday.

Rees will be responsible for leading Anheuser-Busch’s legislative agenda, political giving and stakeholder engagement in Florida.

The company brews more than 100 brands in the United States, including its flagship brands, Budweiser and Bud Light, and holds a 45.8 percent share of the beer market.

Rees also will continue to highlight the company’s commitment to Florida, including its nearly 1,000 employees in the state, its Jacksonville brewery and tour center, and the $180 million expansion of Anheuser-Busch’s Jacksonville can plant that’s expected to be completed in 2017.

Rees will report to Jose Gonzalez, who will continue to serve as Anheuser-Busch’s regional vice president of state affairs.

Rees has nearly seven years of experience in Florida politics. Most recently, he was the deputy legislative affairs director for the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services under Commissioner Adam Putnam, where he lobbied for the commissioner’s priorities.

Before that, Rees served as the legislative assistant to state Rep. Ross Spano, a Dover Republican, first working to elect Spano in 2012.

Rees also is a former governmental and political affairs coordinator for Associated Industries of Florida. Rees graduated magna cum laude with an undergraduate degree in International Affairs from Florida State University.

Personnel note: Dale Patchett moves to Johnson & Blanton

Veteran lawmaker and lobbyist Dale Patchett is joining the Johnson & Blanton lobbying firm.  

“Dale Patchett brings an incredible history and perspective to our firm,” firm founder Jon Johnson said. “He has seen government operate from every angle as both an elected legislator and appointed official. He was Republican in Florida before it was fashionable … and not just a rank and file Republican but an early pioneer and leader in the party.”

Patchett was elected seven times to the Florida House of Representatives (1976-90), serving as Republican Leader in 1984-90 in the days before term limits and a GOP majority. He represented Indian River County, St. Lucie County, Brevard County, Osceola County, and Okeechobee County throughout his tenure.

“As a young political intern I would observe him from the House of Representatives gallery when he served as Republican leader,” Johnson said. “Never would I have been able to forecast that almost 30 years later we’d be working together. We are excited that he will be joining our team.”

Patchett was born and raised in Illinois where he attended Southern Illinois University. Immediately following graduation, he began working for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Forestry in Vero Beach.

He also owned and operated a commercial landscape business as well as a commercial and agricultural real estate business during his time in the legislature. Patchett is a founding board member of the Indian River National Bank and has 43 years of experience in policy, budget, and appropriation matters.

After he left the legislature and relocated to Tallahassee, he worked for the old Department of Natural Resources as Deputy Secretary. He has also won numerous awards and recognitions, including being named one of America’s top ten Republican legislators of 1986 by the National Republican Legislators Association.

“I had the pleasure of serving with Dale during much of his service, during the initial years right next to him on the House Natural Resources Committee,” wrote newspaper columnist and former lawmaker Bob McKnight in 2012.

He called Patchett “a solid conservative, but also very supportive of protecting the environment.”

“He was credited for moving former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez to a pro-environmental position during the 1986-1990 sessions of the Legislature,” McKnight wrote.

“Although pro-business developers continually attacked the state’s laws protecting the environment, Patchett stood tall and strong in defense of the existing statutes,” he added. “Advocates of the environment almost get giddy reflecting on the ‘what if’ administration” had Patchett been able to become House Speaker.

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