Florida Legislature Archives - Page 7 of 42 - Florida Politics

Will ‘fair districts’ in Florida lead to a fairer outcome?

Six years ago, Florida voters approved constitutional amendments with the catchy title of “Fair Districts” that promised to end the political games that surrounded drawing legislative and congressional districts.

Due to expensive court battles and standoffs in the Florida Legislature, this year’s election will mark the first time the full effort to end gerrymandering will be in place.

As Election Day nears, however, it’s becoming apparent that the changes have not caused any major disruptions politically. Republicans are expected to retain control of the state Legislature. The gap between Democrats and Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation will probably shrink, but the GOP will likely remain in the majority.

“We never expected this to be a revolutionary change, it was an evolutionary change,” said Pamela Goodman, president of the Florida State League of Women Voters, whose organization challenged in court how legislators enacted the standards.

There have been some shake-ups as a result of the amendments finally kicking in: Two incumbent members of Congress, both Democrats, will be leaving office this year due in part to their reshaped districts. And several Republican members are also in tight battles that could result in their defeat Tuesday.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist, who was once a Republican but is now running as a Democrat, may revive his political career if he wins a redrawn Democratic-leaning seat in Pinellas County.

Florida has long been divided politically, and has emerged again as a key battleground in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton.

President George W. Bush, a Republican, carried the state in 2004, but President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won the next two elections. Critics have long complained that the districts don’t reflect the close divide of the electorate.

Florida voters in 2010 overwhelmingly approved the “Fair Districts” amendments which mandated that legislators cannot draw districts intended to help incumbents or a member of a political party. The group that backed the amendment was financed largely by unions and donors aligned with Democrats.

Legislators adopted new maps in 2012 that they said followed the guidelines, but a coalition of groups sued. The legal battles resulted in several key rulings, including one where the state Supreme Court ruled that GOP operatives had “tainted” efforts to draw up congressional districts.

Legislators deadlocked over how to respond, leaving the final map put in place by the court. A separate battle over state senate districts also resulted in a circuit court judge saying that legislators had acted with “partisan intent.”

The final result, which came after the Legislature spent more than $12 million in taxpayer money fighting the lawsuits, means that congressional and state senate districts were put in place by judges not legislators. State House seats adopted by legislators were not challenged.

Matthew Isbell, a data consultant who tracked redistricting and has worked for Democratic-leaning organizations, said while the changes “have put more seats in play” it will not result in Democrats taking back either chamber in the Legislature. Currently the GOP holds a 26-14 edge in the 40-member state Senate that could narrow some. Isbell predicts the 17-10 split in the congressional delegation will also shrink, but Republicans will still be in the majority. Part of it, he said, is due to the GOP’s fundraising advantage in the state.

“It’s a long game for Democrats,” Isbell said.

Ellen Freidin, a South Florida attorney and one of the main architects of Fair Districts, said she is satisfied with the outcome. She said because of the power of incumbents “you can’t judge the merits on one cycle.” But Freidin maintains there has been more competition for legislative and congressional seats this year and more people have chosen to run for office.

“This idea has always been about the rights of people of the state of Florida to choose their representatives instead of representatives choosing voters,” Freidin said.

Top Republicans, however, don’t share the enthusiasm.

State Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican who led House redistricting efforts last year, says that the “Fair Districts” amendments are nearly impossible to implement and that all it has done has shifted power over to judges who can also act in a partisan manner.

“Anytime something has ‘fair’ in it, it’s anything but fair,” said Oliva, who is line to become House speaker in 2018. “The only thing we did with Fair Districts is we diluted one branch of government.”

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

Insurance regulators provide additional details of legislative priorities

Cracking down on shady contractors and attorneys is the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation’s top priority for the 2017 legislative session, but officials made clear Wednesday they intend to protect consumers’ rights in drafting their proposals.

“It’s our No. 1 priority, but we would like to fix it in a surgical way,” Caitlin Murray, the department’s director for government affairs, said during the office’s biannual industry conference in Tallahassee.

She was referring to assignment of benefits contracts, a way for property insurance policyholders to sign away their insurance rights to contractors or attorneys in exchange for quicker repairs.

Critics contend they are easily abused, leading to inflated or shoddy repairs and rising premiums. For example, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. blamed these deals for a 6.4 percent rate hike that takes effect Feb. 1.

Fully 72 percent of rate filing increases were for increases thus far this year, Murray said, suggesting much of the blame falls on these so-called AOBs.

As with its other legislative priorities, the office plans to confer with all interested parties in drafting a legislative solution, she said.

“We want to make sure we hone in on the real problems and simply get it done,” Murray said. “As the saying goes, pigs get fat; hogs get slaughtered.”

She stressed: “I want to make it clear that the office is absolutely intending on proposing legislation to address this issue. Our No. 1 priority has been and continues to be to hold consumers harmless. With that, we are still looking into attorney fees provisions, however with a consumer-centric plan to fix it.”

Another priority is shoring up the health maintenance organization industry, where revenues have increased significantly but profits have declined, apparently due to higher loss ratios.

“Medical expenses are increasing faster than revenues, and HMOs are running very tight margins,” she said. “So any unexpected increases in losses could challenge solvency.”

Long-term care insurance is in a similar pickle. Notwithstanding premium increases, the business is suffering and the numbers of carriers is declining, leading to “a serious loss in consumer confidence.”

Continuous care retirement homes provide for 30,000 Floridians, and need additional oversight, Murray said.

“Changes to the business model have outpaced statutory changes that are necessary to maintain efficient and effective regulation of the industry, leaving a very vulnerable segment of the population without adequate protections,” she said.

“We are looking at ways to strengthen and streamline the licensing and acquisition process. We want to establish stronger consumer protections and any other revisions that may be necessary to clarify statutory requirements and provide the office with adequate regulatory authority.”

The office plans to monitor legislative proposals on workers’ compensation and personal auto insurance, but not propose fixes itself. It does plan to propose a regulatory clean-up bill.

“This is strictly for the purpose of regulatory efficiency, and is not intended to be an omnibus or catch-all insurance bill, or vehicle to throw on unrelated insurance issues,” Murray said. “We hope.”

December hearing set for environmental Amendment 1 lawsuit

A pivotal hearing in a lawsuit over the state’s environmental funding is coming up in December.

Lawyers for the Legislature and environmental advocacy groups are set to argue over a summary judgment motion Dec. 5 before Circuit Judge Charles W. Dodson in Tallahassee.

Granting such motions allows parties to win a case without a trial.

Florida Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club and others had filed suit over the “Water and Land Legacy Amendment,” the constitutional change approved by voters in 2014 that mandates state spending for land and water conservation.

“Plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment because (the amendment) prohibits the Legislature from appropriating land acquisition and restoration funds for any other purpose, but the Legislature appropriated most Amendment 1 monies to salaries and ordinary expenses of four state agencies,” their motion says.

Those agencies are the Department of Environmental Protection, Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Department of State, and the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Attorneys for state lawmakers responded: “While plaintiffs might have struck a different balance than that struck by the Legislature … the Constitution commits that policy decision to the Legislature. Within constitutional limits, the Legislature alone is responsible for the appropriation of public funds.”

Amendment 1 requires state officials to set aside 33 percent of the money from the real estate “documentary stamp” tax to protect Florida’s environmentally sensitive areas for 20 years. This year, that number is expected to total more than $740 million.

The amendment, which needed a minimum of 60 percent to pass, got a landslide of nearly 75 percent, or more than 4.2 million “yes” votes.


State’s DHSMV seeking permission to use drones

The state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) will ask lawmakers next session to consider legislation to “allow law enforcement to use drones for traffic crash management.”

The proposed bill is part of a “legislative concepts” package Executive Director Terry Rhodes plans to present at Tuesday’s Florida Cabinet meeting.

The state law governing drones, the Freedom from Unwarranted Surveillance Act, already includes an exception for “aerial mapping.” But a DHSMV spokeswoman says it doesn’t apply to the agency.

The department reports to Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet: Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

The document explains that state law now prohibits law enforcement agencies from using drones “for surveillance and evidence gathering.”

Lawmakers in Florida and across the country have been passing laws related to drone aircraft in recent years. In Florida, the concerns have been mostly about invasions of privacy.

But the Florida Highway Patrol, which falls under the DHSMV, wants to use the remote-controlled flying machines “for complex traffic crash scenes where aerial photos and scene mapping can aid in clearing roads.”

Most commonly, drones are small helicopter-type craft used by hobbyists and others, and often equipped with cameras.

In 2013, Florida first enacted a measure limiting law enforcement from using drones to gather evidence in criminal cases. Two years later, the law was amended to prohibit using drones to photograph private property without the owner’s consent.

The law, however, says it “does not prohibit the use of a drone … for aerial mapping, if the person or entity using a drone for this purpose is operating in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration regulations.”

DHSMV spokeswoman Beth Frady explained that “state law … is more restrictive than federal law.”

“This means FHP is currently unable to collect aerial photos or aerial scene maps from traffic crashes, which can aid in clearing Florida’s roads more expeditiously,” she said in an email. “The legislative concept … could create a pilot program with specific criteria and measures that could be reported to the Legislature to determine the recommendations of the program.

“The pilot seeks to allow law enforcement the ability to use drones for traffic crash management and clearance in hopes of partnering with the (Department of Transportation’s) traffic management operations.”


Insurers hope for drug price transparency legislation — at a minimum

An insurance lobbyist hopes at least to win legislation next year allowing the state to negotiate drug prices for Medicaid patients, and requiring drug companies to disclose more information about their pricing, as a means to control pharmaceutical costs.

Price controls, said Paul Sanford of the Florida Insurance Council, would be a much bigger lift, and would have to happen on the national level.

But requiring price transparency as a condition of doing business in Florida might be realistic within a year or two, he said.

“If you really want to cut costs, you’re going to have to take some draconian steps,” Sanford said during a panel discussion on high drug costs sponsored by the Campaign for Sustainable Rx Pricing, a national group just beginning to work in Florida.

“Transparency in drug pricing – I think that’s the key,” said campaign representative Christina Johnson, who chaired the talks. She said the campaign itself does not support price controls.

“When an EpiPen goes from $50 to $500, that’s the problem,” she said. “It happens overnight, without warning,” forcing patients “to make a decision between medicine and a mortgage.”

Also represented on the panel were the Florida Association of Health Plans, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Elder Care Services in Tallahassee, and Tallahassee Memorial Health Care.

The coalition comprises 23 organizations that provide health care in some form, including the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Academy of Neurology, the AARP, the Federation of American Hospitals, and Wal-Mart.

Prescription drug spending represents nearly 20 percent of health care costs, according to the campaign, and is growing faster than any segment. Spending increased by more than 13 percent during 2014, the largest annual increase since 2003, and by another 12.2 percent in 2015, the campaign said.

Largely driving the trend are the costs of specialty medications — drugs for conditions including cancer, multiple sclerosis, and hepatitis C — that require special handling.

These expenses exceed the consumer price index and are expected to comprise 44 percent of spending on drugs by next year. They account for 73 percent of spending on medicine.

Spending on 10 breakthrough drug therapies will cost the government nearly $50 billion over a decade, the campaign said.

Regarding Medicaid drug price negotiations, Sanford said following the panel discussion: “That’s not a stick in the eye to drug manufacturers like transparency, filing your prices.”

Yet it might seem attractive to lawmakers facing a tight budget next year.

If we can say, ‘We’re going to save some half-billion dollars by negotiating,” they’ll become very interested in doing it.”

Speaking for consumers was David Rothschild, a Parkinson’s patient who lives in Tallahassee. He said his out-of-pocket costs for one medication would hit $700 per month, if he didn’t buy it for $45 online.

“I wasn’t going to give my retirement entirely to the drug companies,” he said.

Even then, he has problems with misdirected deliveries.

“If I take the medicine, I don’t have to go to a nursing home, or I don’t have to go to a hospital. But if I couldn’t take the medicine, if I couldn’t afford it, I would be forced into one of these facilities. I think you’re well aware of the costs to pay for me in one of those facilities.”

“Rising prices drive up health care costs for all of us,” Johnston said.

“Businesses are forced to raise costs and cut wages. Consumers are forced to chose between paying for medicine and paying their bills. Workers delay care, live sicker and are less productive.”

Panel finds no easy answers on costs of voter rights restoration

A state panel struggled Monday to figure out a price tag for the proposed Florida Voter Restoration Amendment, which would automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences.

The Financial Impact Estimating Conference heard testimony from a variety of state criminal justice agencies indicating it might be hard to nail down what the amendment would cost. The panel planned to reconvene next week for additional study.

Amy Baker, coordinator for the Legislative Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the Legislature’s policy-analysis arm, said lawmakers might have to clarify the meaning of key terms.

“We’ve got several issues we are struggling with,” Baker said during a break in proceedings.

The proposed amendment’s ballot summary says: “This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case-by-case basis.”

State elections officials certified in September that supporters had collected 71,000 petition signatures to place the initiative on the ballot, pending review by Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Supreme Court. It could go on the ballot in 2018.

The budget implications could prove significant, particularly if the amendment applied retroactively. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement says the state has returned more than 1.1 million felony convictions since 1950, not including federal convictions and those in other states against offenders now living in Florida.

The Florida Commission on Offender Review, which monitors offenders following their release, says roughly 375,000 already have secured reinstatement of their civil rights.

That leaves perhaps 600,000 potential applicants under the amendment, less offenders who have died or moved away, Baker said.

The conference estimates that perhaps 35 percent of those offenders might seek reinstatement of their voting rights, based on academic research.

That would still leave a sizeable “bubble” of offenders, she said.

“There’s a lot of caveats about these numbers,” Baker said. “We think it gives a good order of magnitude.”

One question is whether to pre-clear offenders regardless of whether they seek the right to vote. Another, cheaper, alternative is to wait until they file voting registration cards. But the Legislature “would not necessarily gravitate toward the low-cost solution,” she said. “They’ll do whatever policy decision they think best.”

Additional questions involve legal definitions for felony sexual offenses or murder — might that latter include manslaughter or attempted, members of the panel wondered.

And does “complete all terms of their sentences” include victim restitution? Orders to repay court costs and fees? And what if those orders have been converted into civil judgments for nonpayment — would that bar an ex-felon from recovering his or her voting rights?

“It is likely the Legislature is going to have to get involved in determining what the different terms mean,” Baker said.

Florida Court: Jury must unanimously agree on death penalty

The fate of convicted killers on Florida’s death row – as well as the fate of people awaiting trial for murder – was put in limbo Friday after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that death sentences require a unanimous jury.

By a 5-2 vote the court struck down a newly enacted law allowing a defendant to be sentenced to death as long as 10 out of 12 jurors recommend it. The court added that the new law can no longer be applied to pending prosecutions in the state.

Meanwhile, in another important decision Friday, the court opened the door to inmates already on death row getting their sentences reduced.

By a 5-2 vote, justices concluded that Timothy Lee Hurst — convicted of a 1998 murder at a Pensacola Popeye’s restaurant- deserves a new sentencing hearing.

A jury had divided 7-5 over whether Hurst deserved the death penalty, but a judge imposed the sentence. The state Supreme Court initially upheld his sentence, but the U.S. Supreme Court this past January declared the state’s death penalty sentencing law unconstitutional and forced the state court to reconsider.

That ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court led the state to halt two pending executions. State legislators responded by overhauling the law and requiring that at least 10 out of 12 jurors must recommend execution for it to be carried out. Florida previously required that a majority of jurors recommend the death sentence.

But justices said that change didn’t do enough.

“If “death is different,” as this Court and the United States Supreme Court have repeatedly pronounced, then requiring unanimity in the jury’s final recommendation of life or death is an essential prerequisite to the continued constitutionality of the death penalty in this state,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in a concurring opinion with one of the rulings.

Justices in their ruling did reject a request that all 385 inmates on Florida’s death row have their sentences reduced to life in prison. But based on the court’s decision in the Hurst case other inmates may wind up seeking new sentences.

Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott, said the governor’s office was “reviewing” the ruling and did not have any further comment.

The court’s decision means the Florida Legislature will have to overhaul the death penalty law once again. Lawmakers are scheduled to return to the Capitol for a one-day organizational session in November, but they are not scheduled to hold a regular session until March.


Reprinted with the permission of the Associated Press

Bob Sparks: The unconstitutional burden of voter registration deadlines

Floridians now have an extra week to register to vote. The State of Florida, according to a federal judge, has set up “unconstitutional” firm deadlines for voter registration, which must be remedied.

The offending statute is 97.055 Florida Statutes that says voter registration “must be closed on the 29th day before each election and must remain closed until after that election.” (emphasis added)

In this matter, the 29th day was Oct. 11. In a shrewd move, the Florida Democratic Party (FDP) sought an injunction to suspend the provisions of Florida law due to violations of the federal “Voting Rights Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

As most anyone paying the slightest bit of attention now knows, the FDP prevailed. The defendants, Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner, did not contest the lawsuit.

Scott played it by the letter of the law and refused to extend the deadline, prompting the lawsuit. Even in ruling Florida law erects “unconstitutional obstacles” to voting, U.S. District Judge Mark E. Walker opined “it appears Defendant Scott lacked the authority to extend the deadline.”

In other words, despite having two years to register, the Florida Legislature created unnecessary barriers to voting by having firm deadlines. Walker pointed out some states allow registration to take place on Election Day.

Walker put forth a confusing statement on page 11 of his order. He states that “In no way, can Defendants argue that there is some sort of limitation that requires them to burden the constitutional rights of aspiring voters.”

Did he not say within the same order that Scott “lacked authority to extend the deadline?” Detzner is an appointee of Scott, meaning he would have even less authority.

Had the FDP included the Florida Legislature as defendants, Walker’s statement would make more sense.

The purpose here is not to criticize Walker. Indeed, last year I praised this Barack Obama appointee’s restraint and deference to the Legislature in a case involving the Florida Education Association and teacher evaluations.

It is at this point that everyone should pause to remember those who have lost homes, livelihoods, perhaps even a loved one to Hurricane Matthew. To some of those, getting their lives back together is their highest priority right now. Others genuinely want to cast a ballot.

Matthew notwithstanding, the letter of the law reflects the peril of waiting too long to register. The law was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor in good faith to help maintain some order, not keep anyone from voting.

To be fair, there were some silly steps taken in the past such as limiting the mechanism for early voting.

Judge Walker’s passion for going the extra mile for potential voters is noteworthy, but all too often the passion of judges far exceeds that of such “voters” themselves. There are those of us who believe judges should give due deference to state laws passed in good faith.

But thanks to Judge Walker, there is another week to register voters. Republicans have the same opportunity to add supporters as do Democrats.

That being said, voter registration should have ended on Oct. 11 as the duly-enacted law stipulated. Natural disaster clauses could have been implemented for future elections.

Now that all of this has been settled for this year, it is time to get back to attack ads and poll tracking.

Water rate hike approved for Pasco community, but with big string attached

State regulators approved a 5.5 percent increase in water rates Tuesday for residents of a Pasco County retirement community.

But Utilities Inc. of Florida can apply the new rates only after it switches from its own discolored, malodorous and nasty-tasting supply to cleaner county water.

The new rates will amount to $48,235 per year — an average $2 per customer per month — once the Florida Department of Environmental Protection finds that the water supply meets state and federal standards.

“We want to make sure they have clean water by Christmas,” Flip Mellinger, a utility administrator for Pasco County, said after the Public Service Commission voted for the rate increase.

The money will pay to connect the Summertree community to county water and retire utility company wells blamed for the substandard water. Residents said the problems have existed for decades — and that they pay a combined $1.5 million per year for water filtration and treatment and bottled water.

You can find the docket with background material here.

The transition faces hurdles — not least the condition of Utilities Inc.’s pipes, which may be significantly deteriorated and contaminated, Mellinger said. They still might carry contaminants into customers’ homes, and may not withstand the county’s higher water pressure.

Utility representatives wanted to begin charging the higher rate as soon as the connection is made, without regard to water quality. Attorney Martin Friedman saw “no need to delay implementation of the entire rate increase because of the water quality issue.”

But commission chairwoman Julie Immanuel Brown suggested the water-quality contingency “would be a sign of good faith,” and the board unanimously agreed.

Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, proposed an amendment this year to make it easier for public utilities to take over private monopolies through eminent domain, but ultimately withdrew it. Pasco County last year offered $2 million for the Summertree system.

Simpson told the commissioners he plans fresh legislation revamping regulation of private utilities, including the return on investment to which they are legally entitled. Utilities Inc. has secured multiple rate increases over the years, but the water quality remains poor, he said.

“That should not be legal in any state, for any monopoly or for any utility. You have to deliver what you promised,” Simpson said.

“Your hands are tied, but the Legislature’s are not. We are going to deal with this next year.”

Meanwhile, Utilities Inc. wants the commission to let it consolidate its Florida holdings under a single rate structure. Simpson was dubious of that proposition.

“You put all these organizations together, and they get so complex and so complicated that no one can every unravel them to deal with a certain unit. I don’t want to tell them how to run their business, but it has to protect the consumer,” he said.

“Private industry can do some things better than the government,” Simpson said. “This may not be one of them.”

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.

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