Florida Legislature Archives - Page 7 of 41 - Florida Politics

FAIR names Jeff Atwater Florida’s ‘Consumer Champion’

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is the state’s “Consumer Champion” for 2016, an insurance industry watchdog organization announced this week, citing his support for legislative crackdowns on health and life insurers.

The Florida Association for Insurance Reform bestowed the accolade Thursday night during its annual awards ceremony.

The awards “recognize insurance and policy leaders whose work has made a meaningful difference in the lives of Floridians,” the group said.

“I believe that Floridians need strong representation when insurance issues are discussed, and it’s my privilege to go to bat for the people I’ve been elected to represent,” said Atwater, whose Department of Financial Services oversees the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

“I am honored to receive this award, and I thank the FAIR team for the work that they do on behalf of Florida’s more than 20 million residents,” he said.

FAIR cited Atwater’s successful push last year for legislation banning “balance” or “surprise” billing of patients by medical providers for out-of-network medical costs not covered by insurance.

Separate legislation addressed what FAIR called a “disturbing industrywide business practice that drastically reduced the number of life insurance policies that were paid out properly and in a timely manner.”

That last bill passed without a single dissenting vote.

FAIR bestowed its Outstanding Legislator Awards upon state Sens. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican, and Maria Sachs, a Democrat from Delray Beach; and State Rep. Holly Raschein, a Republican from Key Largo.

Citizens Insurance fears being left in lurch during workers’ comp fight

Will next year’s legislative battle over workers’ compensation rates prove so all-consuming that other state priorities starve for attention?

Fears that it might emerged during the quarterly board meeting this week of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which wants the Legislature to clamp down on the assignment of benefits agreements blamed for driving up its own premiums.

“Workers compensation is such a huge issue, it’s going to take up a lot of the agenda,” said Barry Gilway, president of the state-owned property insurer of last resort.

“It’s going to chew up a lot of legislative focus. It’s going to be harder to get our issues acted upon in an environment where we can take the economy down.”

Gilway referred to the potential for job losses as businesses absorb the 14.5 percent workers compensation premium increase approved Tuesday by the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. The increase applies to new and renewal policies; existing policies would absorb the shock as they come up for renewal during the next year.

The pain will extend throughout Florida’s economy.

“Everybody who earns a wage in this state has an employer who’s paying this,” Bill Herrle, executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business in Florida, said Tuesday.

House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran said Citizens need not worry. “No one in the Legislature fails to fully comprehend the issues facing Citizens,” he said via email.

“We will address all issues facing Florida with equal vigor and thought,” Corcoran said. “Citizens’ issues with the Legislature in the past have been driven by their failure to comprehend the operation and need for robust free markets as well as failing to fully appreciate the needs of customers and the exposure of taxpayers.”

Business interests chiefly blame two Florida Supreme Court rulings that lifted both the cap on attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases and a 104-week statutory limit on temporary permanent disability benefits. That disappearing fee cap accounted for fully 10 percent of the 14.5 percent increase, according to state regulators.

Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce are leading efforts to undo the Supreme Court rulings when the Legislature next meets, setting up a conflict with the trial bar. Plaintiffs’ lawyers, in turn, insist attorney fees won’t add much to insurance costs in practice and prefer to see insurers dip into their surpluses.

Corcoran, too, blamed “judicial activism.”

“The premium increase announced yesterday clearly demonstrates that Florida has a serious problem,” he said “Namely, judges who don’t respect the separation of powers and the prerogative of elected bodies to set policy. I can say that there is a deep and broad appetite for reform in the House.”

Citizens has its own gripe with the trial bar, and it involves those assignment of benefits agreements, or AOBs, particularly involving non-weather-related water damage, such as from burst pipes.

These represent a way for homeowners to secure quicker repairs by assigning their insurance claims to third parties — chiefly, contractors.

But they drive litigation, according to Citizens. Nearly 88 percent of the AOB claims the insurer received this year have gone into litigation. That increased costs of resolving claims by 300 percent.

The problem is particularly acute in South Florida, where increased costs and decreased availability of private coverage is driving customers to Citizens, despite its efforts to shift policyholders into the private market.

Miami-Dade County alone accounts for 65 percent of the lawsuits filed against Citizens; add suits from Broward and Palm Beach counties, and the region accounted for 95 percent of Citizens’ caseload during the first seven months of this year. Look here for details.

Citizens losses from water-damage policies are projected to increase from $377 dollars per claim in 2011 to a projected $2,083 by this time next year.

Florida insurance regulators cited such data Sept. 18 in approving a 6.4 percent statewide average increase for Citizens policies next year.

“Were it not for water loss, more than two out of three Citizens homeowners’ policyholders would have seen a rate reduction in 2017,” the insurer said in a written statement Wednesday. “In contrast, Citizens’ 2017 approved rates will provide decreases to only 23,000 out of 142,000 homeowners’ multiperil policies.”

Citizens staff said 10 attorneys account for 57 percent of the litigation against it, mostly in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

And the plaintiffs’ side is not interested in working out amicable solutions.

“The contractors that are associated with these AOB claims are non-responsive — they’re not interested in settling claims,” chief of claims Jay Adams said. “They just want to move straight into litigation. When we try to negotiate and settle those claims pre-litigation, a lot of times, they don’t even return phone calls.”

Last year, he said, Citizens drew 650 lawsuits per month. This year, the number was 790 per month through July, 1, 153 in August, and 826 thus far in September.

“We’ve been waiting throughout 2016 to see whether we are seeing an anomaly in this increase in suit volume, or if this is a new trend,” Adams said. “Where we sit today, we believe it obviously to be a new trend.”

Citizens has been encouraging policyholders to call it first, before undertaking repairs. Additionally, the company wants the Legislature to impose new limits on these agreements.

Board member Don Glisson Jr. urged Citizens’ executives to recruit consumer organizations to the lobbying push. “They’ve got to wake up and realize they’re paying for this,” he said.

Gilway said his team is doing just that. He also noted support by South Florida newspapers for AOB reform. “It’s going to take a combination of all these groups to be heard sufficient to make changes in the Legislature,” he said.

Board member Gary Aubuchon agreed. Policyholders who signed AOBs frequently are “appalled by the absurd expenditures of the remission companies doing work beyond what’s needed to rectify the problem,” he said.

“If we can get some of these policyholders to the committee meetings in Tallahassee, that presumably would have a greater effect than the rest of us in suits making presentations.”

The insurer might even find support among the trial bar, board member James Holton suggested.

“I’m hearing from a lot of lawyers in Miami-Dade that the courts are being clogged up as a result of all the AOB litigation there,” Holton said.

“There is a division in their ranks, and a lot of people in the legal community perceive this cottage industry of the AOB lawyers as being really outliers,” he said. “The stars are aligning to take them on in the next session.”

Rick Scott, Legislature scolded over cuts to Enterprise Florida

One of Florida’s best-respected business leaders read Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature the riot act Tuesday over insufficient support for business development.

Charles Cobb Jr. was polite about it — courtly even — during an address to the Economic Club of Florida in Tallahassee.

But he was clear that the state’s leaders need to invest more in building Florida’s economy.

“For the Legislature to totally gut Rick Scott’s recommendation of $250 million for Enterprise Florida, I think, is not wise,” Cobb said.

“Many of these large incentives are questionable. I think we do not have a good enough read on investment analysis to know whether some of these incentives are good. But not funding Enterprise Florida is really wrong.”

Scaling back or eliminating the organization “would be very, very unwise,” he said.

Cobb is senior managing director and chief executive officer of Cobb Partners, an investment company. Previously, he occupied top posts at some of Florida’s most prestigious companies — including Disney Development Co. and Arvida Corp. He has served on the boards of directors of nine of the country’s largest corporations and as ambassador to Iceland under George H.W. Bush.

He’s been active in Florida’s economic development for decades, and during his speech recounted the somewhat bumpy history of those efforts. In biotech, for example, “a new industry has been created. New jobs have been created,” Cobb said.

A legislative initiative during the Charlie Christ administration, allowing the Florida pension fund to invest 1.5 percent of its assets in venture capital, Cobb deemed “a roaring success.” Florida has reaped an 11 percent compounded return, he said, plus 15,000 jobs paying an average $85,000.

“Florida is one of the leaders in biotech because of that initiative. In my judgment, it has to be expanded,” Cobb said.

“Florida has been blessed,” he said. “We’ve had really good governors — Republican and Democrat. We’ve had really good legislatures — Republican and Democrat. We’ve had really enlightened business leadership.”

Yet the state no long leads in economic development, Cobb said.

Scott’s No. 1 priority in office has been job creation. Cobb criticized the governor for vetoing a $100,000 appropriation that would have allowed Enterprise Florida to lobby foreign governments.

“There is going to be [business] consolidation in the Americas,” Cobb said. “And, right now, Panama City is ahead of Florida. Some other regions in this country — Atlanta and Houston — are more aggressive in that area than Florida.”

Enterprise Florida is the state’s public-private development agency and has become something of a political football of late. The Legislature this year quashed Scott’s push to secure $250 million for the organization; opponents called the effort corporate welfare.

Bill Johnson, the organization’s director, stepped down shortly after the end of Session, and Enterprise Florida slashed its budget. A search committee plans to select from among five finalists to replace him at the end of this month.

Cobb doubts whether Enterprise Florida can attract top talent given its resources and the salary on offer — in the low six digits, he said.

“In my judgment, we’re not going to get a superstar to really drive Florida forward with the budget that has been created,” he said.

Cobb was asked what he thought of Donald Trump’s pledge to impose punitive tariffs if elected president. “I think it’s a disaster. It’s just a disaster,” he said. “As is his policy on trying to punish our NATO allies.”

The United States is a trading power that has done well through trade agreements including NAFTA and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Trump and Hillary Clinton both now oppose, he said.

“My judgment is that it’s bravado. Whenever President Trump or President Clinton gets into office, they’re going to recognize the reality,” Cobb said.

“I’ll bet anybody in the room whatever you want to bet: The Trans-Pacific Partnership will be approved, even though we have both presidents saying they’re against it. It’s so important.”

Florida universities may push for summer scholarships

Florida’s state university system may ask legislators to expand the state’s popular Bright Futures scholarship program to cover summer courses.

The Board of Governors plans to discuss this week whether to ask the Florida Legislature to set aside nearly $50 million so eligible students can use the scholarship for classes taken during the summer terms. Currently, Bright Futures scholarships can only be used during the fall and spring semesters.

Gov. Rick Scott has previously advocated for expanding the program to summer classes but legislators have been unwilling to go along with the idea.

A presentation prepared by state university system officials says that expanding the scholarships could help students graduate faster and improve the state’s overall college graduation rate.

The Board of Governors is meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Sarasota.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Lawmakers get grim budget news for next year

Florida is likely to basically break even next year in terms of its state budget, lawmakers heard Monday.

The Joint Legislative Budget Commission met in the Capitol to hear the latest financial outlook for 2017-18: Present income and outgo estimates leave Florida with a relatively scant $7.5 million left over out of about $32.2 billion in available revenue.

The current year’s budget is roughly $82 billion, for example, after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a total of $256 million in spending. Roughly two-thirds of the yearly budget goes toward health care and education.

After the meeting, Republican lawmakers stressed the state didn’t have a revenue shortage, it had a spending problem, painting a picture of government profligacy.

But, since the GOP has controlled the Legislature for nearly two decades, it’s a picture they’re prominently featured in.

House Speaker-designate Richard Corcoran said education and health care spending won’t be immune to cuts next year.

“If you’re asking me, do I think we are misspending or wasting money, or not getting an efficient return from money that’s spent on 70 percent of our budget, the answer is yes,” he said. “Every single government person comes up here and spends money like a teenager in the mall for the first time with a credit card. We’ve got to start cutting up the credit card.”

But first on the chopping block, Corcoran suggested, was Enterprise Florida (EFI), the state’s public-private economic development organization. It got $23.5 million for operations, marketing and other initiatives in the 2016-17 state budget.

“Spending money on economic development is a bad idea,” the Land O’ Lakes Republican said. Lawmakers this year did reject Scott’s request for a $250 million incentives fund to be administered by Enterprise Florida.

When asked whether the organization needed to be dissolved, he said: “I think that’s definitely a discussion that’s going to take place this coming session.

“But you have to understand, over the last umpteen (years), EFI has been in the acquisition of power,” he quickly added. “There’s lots that has been put into EFI that doesn’t belong in EFI that probably still has a function that the state would want to keep.”

“Enterprise Florida is committed to ensuring every Floridian has access to a quality job,” spokesman Mike Grissom said in an email. “We will continue to work until we have accomplished that goal.”

Corcoran, who was House Appropriations chair the last two sessions, said “unequivocally, there are tons of things in the budget that need to be cut, should be cut, and will be cut.” He didn’t offer specific proposals.

State Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican who chaired the Senate Appropriations committee, cautioned that the numbers were preliminary and could change.

Chief legislative economist Amy Baker, however, earlier told the panel the current forecast “could be the good news” and later outlooks “may not be this good.”

“It’s very clear … spending levels in this Legislature are just not sustainable,” said Lee, who will be succeeded as Senate budget chief by Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican.

“We are, by every economic metric, growing and growing very well … unemployment is down, there’s wage growth, sales tax is up … we’re just struggling to balance our spending with those revenue streams,” Lee said.

Expert witness standard takes center stage at Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Bar squared off Thursday against a coalition of corporate and criminal defense lawyers over a change to the state’s expert witness standard.

The Florida Supreme Court heard more than an hour of argument on whether to adopt a change to evidence law that lawmakers passed in 2013. The Bar is against it; defense counsel supports it.

The switch would align Florida’s courts with the federal system. The federal courts now follow a stricter standard of allowing certain scientific expert testimony, known as the Daubert standard.

It usually requires a sort of “mini-trial” before a judge decides whether an expert can appear in front of jurors. Most other states also use Daubert.

Florida, however, historically has used the less restrictive Frye standard, which gauges whether expert testimony is “generally accepted” in a particular scientific community. Both standards are named after court cases.

It’s generally considered easier for plaintiffs to get damaging expert testimony before a jury under Frye, and much harder to do so under Daubert, which is seen as more defense-friendly. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and conservative lawmakers favor the move to Daubert.

But Thursday’s argument added the wrinkle of criminal cases, where Daubert might help defendants’ lawyers hold police crime labs more accountable, in cases involving drug-sniffing dogs and testing for arson, for example.

Overall, “the idea is to keep expert testimony that is not based in knowledge out of courts,” said attorney Stephen Mahle, arguing for Daubert. “Jurors are wonderful contributions to our system of justice, but you’ve got experts that make millions of dollars a year convincing jurors of things that may or may not be true.”

He used the example of jurors interviewed after the O.J. Simpson murder trial who said Dr. Henry Lee, a renowned forensic scientist, came off as credible because he “looked over and smiled at us every day.”

But John W. Hogan, representing the Bar, told the justices the question was whether they “should not trust jurors to be able to distinguish between the testimony of a variety of experts that over the years (have been) permitted” to testify. The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors voted to recommend against the change. 

Those pushing the Daubert standard want to try “to keep juries from doing what juries are, by Constitution, supposed to do,” that is, evaluate any witness testimony for themselves, and instead are “suggesting that individual trial judges … are better able to make that kind of determination. They don’t have the time and they don’t have the resources.”

The court heard the case in part because of a question over whether changing the expert testimony rule is substantive or procedural.

The Supreme Court may periodically consider “whether to adopt, to the extent they are procedural, the Legislature’s changes to the Evidence Code,” according to the state Constitution, It gives lawmakers sway over substance and the Florida Supreme Court authority over procedure.

State Rep. Larry Metz, who sponsored the law that included the Frye-to-Daubert swap, told the court the change “gets to the fundamental purpose of courts,” having “a greater standard of reliability so we can get to the truth in cases.”

The Yalaha Republican, who chairs the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said that includes criminal cases in which defendants need to challenge flawed scientific evidence that could otherwise result in wrongful convictions.

Plaintiff’s attorney Howard C. Coker said Daubert hearings are burdening federal judges — “they’re breaking at the seams” — and causing extra attorney’s bills to clients.

Justice Barbara Pariente asked if Daubert was being misused to keep out, for instance, ordinary medical testimony in a personal injury case.

Coker suggested it was, saying it’s being used as “a tactical tool … used to challenge causation in the simplest of cases,” though he didn’t mention specific cases.

But Pariente also said it was up to trial judges to call balls and strikes on lawyers’ invoking the use of the Daubert standard. And when lawyers abuse the process, judges can and should sanction them, she added.

As usual, the court did not set a timeframe on when they would rule.

Greyhound racing reform group endorses in Florida primaries

A group trying to reform — and eventually end — greyhound racing in Florida has announced several endorsements in the upcoming Aug. 30 Florida Legislature primary, including five Republicans and four Democrats.

Grey2K USA Worldwide helped fund and promote efforts to get a greyhound protection measure on the Seminole County ballot and has been trying for years to get similar measures through the Florida Legislature.

“We need lawmakers who care about this issue and understand this issue in Tallahassee,” Grey2K USA Executive Director Carey Theil said.

The group’s endorsements include Republicans state Rep. Marlene O’Toole, who is running for the Senate District 12 seat in The Villages; state Rep. Dana Young, who is running in SD 18 in Tampa; state Rep. Matt Hudson, who is running in SD 28 in Naples; state Rep. Paul Renner, who is running for re-election in House District 24; and Randy Fine, who is running HD 53 in Palm Bay.

Democrats endorsed are state Rep. Darryl Rouson, who is running for re-election in HD 19 in St. Petersburg; Alex Barrio, who is running in HD 48 in Orlando; Carlos Guillermo Smith, who is running in HD 49 in Orlando; and David Silver, who is running in HD 87 in West Palm Beach.

“When I was a legislative analyst I followed this issue closely, including the injury reporting bill and decoupling legislation. Injury reporting passed but decoupling legislation still has not. I am staunchly opposed to expanded gambling and would love to see it pulled back, especially if it meant saving the lives of dogs,” Barrio stated. “Dog racing is a cruel, inhumane practice and I want to to see it end. Grey2K knows that I can be and want to be a champion for their issues.”

Rick Scott updates lawmakers on Zika outbreak

Gov. Rick Scott told state lawmakers Friday he will continue to take steps to protect its residents and visitors from the Zika virus, but said he was unsure whether their federal counterparts would step up to the plate.

The Naples Republican updated lawmakers on the Zika crisis during a conference call Friday. During the 20-minute call, Scott told lawmakers what the state is doing to combat the spread of the virus and what they can do to help.

The call comes one week after Scott announced the first cases of locally acquired Zika virus were discovered in Florida. The virus is believed to have been transmitted in the Wynwood neighborhood, a trendy arts district in Miami.

Scott visited the area Thursday, and said the state was able to clear a 10-block area in the northwest corner of the zone. The state Department of Health, he said, determined there was no local transmission occurring in the area.

In June, the governor used his executive authority to allocate $26.2 million in state funds for Zika preparedness, prevention and response. The money was to be used for mosquito surveillance and abatement, training mosquito control technicians, and purchasing more prevention kits from the CDC.

But that isn’t enough, and Scott said President Barack Obama and Congress must provide more money to Florida. The president has said he would send $5.6 million to Florida to help combat the spread.

The Senate failed to act on a $1.1 billion Zika spending plan before they left for their summer recess. Senate Democrats blocked the House-approved bill, which, among other things, included provisions to defund Planned Parenthood in Puerto Rico.

“We don’t know if the federal government will be our partner and provide the resources they should,” said Scott. “We’re going to do everything we can to keep (residents and visitors) safe.”

Dozier School task force schedules meetings

A new task force on the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys will meet in August.

The panel will meet on Aug. 3 and Aug. 19, according to a Wednesday press release from the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources. (A membership list is here.)

Under legislation (SB 708) passed this year, the panel was set up “to submit recommendations regarding the creation and maintenance of a memorial honoring the children who lived and died” at the school in Marianna, Jackson County.

The school, opened in 1900 about 60 miles west of Tallahassee, was shuttered in 2011. It began as a home for children convicted of serious crimes. But the covered offenses were expanded to include minor offenses including truancy.

Some former students have accused school officials of physical and sexual abuse, especially in the 1950s and ’60s. Many former Dozier inmates call themselves “The White House Boys” after the white building where they say the worst abuse took place.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement looked into the allegations, concluding it couldn’t substantiate or dispute the claims because too much time had passed.

University of South Florida researchers concluded a multi-year investigation of the campus and exhumed dozens of bodies buried there. Their final report says nearly 100 people, including two adult staff members, died at Dozier between 1900 and 1973.

“The task force is also charged with recommending the location of a site for the re-interment of unidentified or unclaimed remains that were part of a forensic investigation conducted by the University of South Florida at the school,” the release said.

The task force has to turn in a written report of its findings by Oct. 1.

Both meetings will start 9 a.m. Central time/10 a.m. Eastern time at Marianna City Hall, 2898 Green St.

The first meeting will be organizational, beginning with a vote by task force members to approve an agenda and then focusing on reviewing the task force’s responsibilities under the law, the release said.

“The meeting on Aug. 19 will include an opportunity for public comment,” it added. “At this meeting, the task force members will also vote on their recommendations to be included in the final report to the Legislature.”

For more information on the task force, send an email to flheritage@dos.myflorida.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this post, reprinted with permission.

Florida’s jobs agency gives checks to departing employees

Amid a major shakeup pushed by Gov. Rick Scott, the Florida agency responsible for luring jobs to the state is paying nearly a half-million dollars to departing employees.

Florida taxpayers are picking up the majority of the cost for severance payments and payouts for unused leave. Records requested by The Associated Press show that 10 departing employees at Enterprise Florida are receiving more than $430,000.

Rank-and-file state workers are not allowed to receive severance payments, but employees at Enterprise Florida aren’t considered state workers even though taxpayers pick up most of the tab for the economic development organization.

Many Enterprise Florida employees — including the president and CEO — have resigned or were forced out as part of an overhaul initiated by Scott, who also serves as the chairman of the Enterprise Florida board.

Scott and the board agreed earlier this month to streamline the operations of the 20-year outfit, including eliminating jobs, shuttering international offices and canceling contracts with outside consultants. The cuts are expected to save about $6 million.

“EFI is current undergoing a restructuring of its core functions to ensure our personnel contacts are the most cost effective,” said Mike Grissom, a senior vice president with Enterprise Florida.

But those employees who are leaving had contracts that guaranteed them severance payments.

Bill Johnson, the head of the organization who appears to have been forced to resign earlier this year, received a severance check of $132,500 and he also was paid more than $14,000 for unused leave. Grissom said that private donations were used to pay Johnson.

Johnson took over the post in 2015 at the start of Scott’s second term. But he wound up clashing several times with the Florida Legislature over the amount of money needed to lure new companies to the state.

Scott wanted legislators this year to set aside $250 million for a new fund that would be used for business incentives. But legislators rejected the entire request and some top Republicans such as incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran contend that the incentives are a form of “corporate welfare.”

Nine other employees at Enterprise Florida — ranging from an office manager to a senior vice president — received severance payments paid from public money that ranged from $5,000 to $60,000. Two senior vice presidents were given nearly $30,000 in lump sum payments for unused leave.

So far, Scott and Enterprise Florida officials have not said what they will do with the roughly $6 million cut from the budget of the organization. Enterprise Florida can’t legally direct it to the programs that the Legislature refused to fund. Grissom said the board will discuss in September what it plans to do with the savings generated from the cuts.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons