Hurricane Irma – Page 7 – Florida Politics

Health care spending, regulations confront lawmakers

Battles over health-care spending and regulation of Florida’s vast health-care industry are likely to command a great deal of time and attention when the Florida Legislature convenes in January for its annual Session.

Lawmakers are again expected to engage in a tug-of-war about what type of regulations should be in place for health care facilities, but a main focus will be on Florida’s strained safety-net health program at a time of tight state finances.

Florida’s Medicaid program already costs $26 billion and covers an estimated 4 million people.

A July snapshot by the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that Medicaid along with a major children’s health-insurance program provide coverage to two out of every five low-income people in the state, half the state’s children and more than three-fifths of all nursing home residents.

The bulk of money for Medicaid comes from the federal government, but this year more than $6 billion comes from general revenue, the state’s main budget account funded primarily by sales taxes.

House Health Care Appropriations Chairman Jason Brodeur, a Sanford Republican, said hurricanes Irma and Maria put “a bit of a strain” on the budget he oversees, and as a result that could hamper any requests for new social-services spending.

“From the explicit costs of providing more health and human services to a larger than anticipated population, to the implicit costs of things like the overtime paid to our (state employees) who are in charge of registering and providing (benefits) to all those new enrollees, all of those costs must be paid for before we can start looking at new programs,” he said.

Nevertheless, Brodeur said members have filed more than 200 requests to fund local projects “which is the exact opposite of `small government.’ ”

During the 2017 Session, legislators agreed to change how the state pays nursing homes to provide care for the poor and seniors who rely on Medicaid. Lawmakers decided to scrap a longstanding system where nursing homes have been paid based on audited cost reports and agreed to implement a prospective payment system where payments are determined in advance, regardless of the intensity of the services provided.

While lawmakers agreed to change the payment methodology, they delayed implementation of the new system until 2018. Brodeur said the conversion “is our next step in efficiency.”

Senate President Joe Negron, though, wants the Legislature to do more than pull the trigger on the prospective-payment system. He wants to increase the amount of money the state directs to paying nursing homes.

“That’s a very strong priority of mine,” said Negron who, quoting Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, notes that the average Medicaid-funded nursing home resident in Florida is an 85-year-old woman.

“These are the women who shaped our communities. We have a responsibility to give them the highest level of care,” Negron said.

The Stuart Republican also said he would like to help the industry offset the costs of generators that Gov. Rick Scott has mandated for nursing homes after deaths at a Broward County nursing home following Hurricane Irma. Negron predicted that the generators “will ultimately be a shared endeavor between the state and the industry.”

But Negron’s push to increase reimbursement for nursing homes and offset the costs of generators also comes at a time when two state agencies are requesting funding to help plug deficits.

The Agency for Persons with Disabilities is asking for $34 million in general revenue to help cover a $89 million deficit in a Medicaid waiver program that enables developmentally disabled people to live in communities instead of institutions. Also, the Department of Health is requesting $25 million to plug a shortfall in the Children’s Medical Services program, which pays the health care costs for medically complex children covered by Medicaid.

Negron downplayed the deficits in the programs and the effects they could have on new funding requests during the 60-daysession, which starts Jan. 9.

“You have to make difficult decisions,” Negron said of crafting the state budget. “That’s why I think the budget process is fascinating.”

While the annual budget is the only bill the Legislature is required to pass when it meets, it isn’t the only piece of health-care legislation that members will focus on.

Indeed, there are hundreds of bills filed for consideration, from requiring birth centers to report adverse events to state health care regulators (SB 510 and HB 673) to authorizing new needle-exchange programs to try to prevent the spread of infectious diseases (SB 800 and 579).

The Legislature will once again consider passing a bill that would allow ambulatory surgical centers to keep patients overnight. Florida law currently requires the surgical centers to release patients the same day they are admitted and cannot keep patients overnight.

“It’s silly that people have to be discharged the `same work day’ and not 24 hours. The marketplace could open up for consumers if they could adjust their schedules for the 24-hour standard,” Brodeur said.

The legislation (HB 23) is already ready for the House floor. While the House bill also would authorize and license so-called “recovery care centers,” to provide post-surgical and post-diagnostic care to patients for up to three days, the Senate version (SB 250) would only authorize overnight stays at ambulatory surgical centers.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican sponsoring the Senate version, said he does not plan to take the House bill as it has been drafted. “It’s my intention just to get the 24-hour piece done,” he said.

The House also is poised to vote on a measure (HB 27) that would eliminate a controversial regulatory program for hospitals that’s known as certificate of need. Bill sponsor Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, a Fort Myers Republican, said ending the regulations would remove “barriers to entry” and increase competition in the hospital industry.

“I think competition is healthy in almost all settings,” she said.

But critics have raised questions about how lifting the regulations, which require state approval of new facilities and programs, would affect older public hospitals that provide a wide array of services.

And while the legislation is touted as eliminating artificial barriers that impede competition, the bill would only eliminate so-called CONs for hospitals. New nursing home beds and facilities would still be regulated by the CON program.

The Florida Health Care Association, a statewide nursing-home group, has lobbied against legislative efforts to eliminate CONs for long-term care providers.

House Health Quality Subcommittee Chairman Rep. James Grant said he supports eliminating CONs for hospitals and nursing homes but said he won’t vote against Fitzenhagen’s bill for not including nursing homes.

“Some repeal is better than no repeal,” Grant, a Tampa Republican, said.

The Senate does not have a companion bill, though, and the potential CON elimination is opposed by much of the powerful hospital industry.

Florida Hospital Association President Bruce Rueben said certificate-of-need requirements have ensured that low-income communities and rural communities have access to inpatient, acute-care health services.

“CON deregulation would allow a proliferation of these services in affluent communities and undermine hospitals serving communities with high numbers of uninsured and underinsured Floridians,” Rueben said.

Airbnb a key player in record-setting year of Florida tourism

Florida and Airbnb are making an excellent pair, as a new report shows users of the global vacation rental website had a significant role in the state’s record-setting tourism year.

In 2017, nearly 40,000 Florida Airbnb hosts earned a combined $450 million from approximately 2.7 million guests, according to company figures released Thursday. That is a 75 percent increase over the previous year, with each host earning an estimated average of $6,700 annually.

In addition to its regular Florida tourism revenue, Airbnb also played a vital role in the aftermath of September’s Hurricane Irma, as many hosts offered their properties at no charge to evacuees of the storm as part of the company’s Disaster Sponsor Program.

The report’s statewide data suggests the vacation rental community complements — not harms — the state’s hotel industry with strong growth in occupancy rates, prices and revenue throughout 2017. This also indicates the use of vacation rental websites such as Airbnb actually opens Florida to a broader range of tourists, instead of restricting competition, as some in the hotel industry argue.

For example, Airbnb extends options for the nontraditional traveler, such as visitors unable to afford higher-end hotels or those families preferring an affordable vacation, wanting to stay together under one roof.

“We are proud to contribute to Florida’s record-setting tourism by opening up the state to new segments of visitors,” said Jennifer Frankenstein-Harris, President of the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association (FVRMA). “We are committed to partnering with the Governor and lawmakers to further infuse Florida’s economy with additional revenue and elevate Florida’s status as a global hub for family-friendly tourism.”

Not only do Airbnb hosts enjoy additional personal income renting everything from apartments and homes to villas and tree houses, but the overall expansion of the state’s short-term rental industry generates more money for both the state and dozens of communities where the company has tax agreements.

While Airbnb pays state sales tax on all Florida bookings, it also collects and pays local bed taxes in 39 of the Sunshine State’s 67 counties. This year, the company secured new tax arrangements with Miami-Dade, Broward, Sarasota, Polk, Hillsborough and Leon counties.

Florida’s top Airbnb county for 2017 was Miami-Dade, with more than 667,000 hosts generating $134.6 million, followed by Osceola with $39.6 million from 358,000 rental hosts.

As well as vacation rentals, Airbnb in 2017 developed Experiences, a program that gives users exclusive access to communities and their unique activities as recommended by locals.

Courtesy: Airbnb

New survey shows Tampa voters really like Bob Buckhorn, police

Tampa residents really like Bob Buckhorn.

A new citywide poll is showing three-quarters of Tampa voters approve of the mayor’s job performance — and more than half will support a mayor like Buckhorn, one who will continue his policies.

They also favor Tampa developing a citywide rail system to ease traffic congestion, paid for by taxpayers.

The survey, taken in late November, was from Washington D.C.’s Keith Fredrick, a frequent Buckhorn campaign pollster. The poll asked 350 registered city voters — nearly half on cellphones — with a margin of error of +/- 5.3 percent.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said the city is headed in the right direction, with about 26 percent saying it was mixed (or they didn’t know); 12 percent say Tampa is going the wrong way. Fifty-one percent said they want the city’s next mayor — Buckhorn is term-limited from running again — to be “like Buckhorn and will continue with his policies.”

In addition to Buckhorn’s job approval — 75 percent saying he is either “excellent” (23 percent) or “good” (52 percent) — 88 percent of respondents said they liked the job performance of Tampa police. Seventy percent felt safe and “free from the threat of crime.” And 68 percent were feeling positive about race relations.

African-Americans in Tampa gave the police very or somewhat positive ratings (82 percent), as did 90 percent of Hispanic respondents and 88 percent of Anglos.

Among other issues, 64 percent of city voters support a higher sales tax for a citywide rail system; 28 percent opposed. Traffic congestion is the biggest concern on the minds of Tampainians (51 percent said it was either first or second on a list of six top issues), followed by “better-paying jobs” (34 percent and “street flooding and sea level rise” (27 percent).

Buckhorn also received high marks for how he handled Hurricane Irma, with 81 percent saying it was either “excellent” (45 percent) or “good” (36 percent). On that, Hispanics were the most favorable, with 91 percent applauding both the city and mayor in how they handled September’s storm.

Seventy-eight percent of voters overall also support the mayor’s welcoming residents of Puerto Rico to Tampa after Hurricane Maria. Fifteen percent opposed.

The also poll asked how Tampa residents felt about President Donald Trump and how he managed Puerto Rico relief efforts in the wake of Maria. Nearly two-thirds (62 percent) of respondents felt either somewhat or very negative about Trump and how he managed the territory after the storm; only 28 percent were positive. As for Republicans, however, they approved of the president 67 to 23 percent.

Pollsters also asked whether voters agreed with a national organization recently rating Tampa as one of America’s Best Cities to live; 81 percent agreed overall — with Republicans favoring most (88 percent), followed by independents (80 percent) and Democrats (79 percent). Only 15 percent of all respondents disagreed.

Irma brings ideas – and costs – for state

As the state House plows through a long and potentially expensive menu of options to recover from Hurricane Irma and brace for Florida’s next hurricane, Senate President Joe Negron is confident the storm that walloped the state in September won’t blow a hole in the upcoming budget.

But potential public and private costs from Irma are staggering:

– Agriculture officials have estimated Irma caused a $2.5 billion hit on crops and facilities.

– The insurance industry is facing $6.55 billion in property damage claims.

– Utility customers could be asked to pay more than $1 billion to cover the costs of getting power restored.

– The Florida Division of Emergency Management said that as of Dec. 14, federal agencies had provided more than $2.49 billion to help cover Irma-related losses.

State officials have yet to put an overall price tag on Florida’s costs from Irma, which left destruction from the Keys to Jacksonville. Added to that are potential costs from Hurricane Maria, which is impacting Florida as evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have moved to the state.

Negron said during an interview this month that as lawmakers await a February update on tax revenues, the short-term effect of Irma on the state has been “modestly negative.”

While Irma cut revenue in September, Negron said forecasters anticipate an uptick in post-storm revenue to offset the losses.

He retained optimism about drawing up a 2018-2019 budget, which economists had expected to be tight even before Irma hit.

“I don’t think that it dramatically alters how we build our budget,” Negron said. “I still think there will be room for environmental priorities, educational priorities, and so I don’t think the hurricane spending will necessarily mean that there are other things that simply can’t be done. They’re not going to displace priorities that the House and Senate have. We’re going to have to address it, but we’ll still be able to do other things as well.”

But as the annual 60-day legislative session prepares to start Jan. 9, ideas for addressing hurricane issues – some of them potentially expensive – have continued to emerge.

Members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness have continued to revise and offer recommendations that they will discuss Jan. 8 on the eve of the session. Any recommendations would need approval from the full House and Senate, but the ideas touch a wide range of issues.

For example, some lawmakers are looking for ways to speed evacuations when big storms threaten the state. Among proposals tossed out are using passenger trains, using a cruise ship to get people out of the Lower Keys or extending the Suncoast Parkway toll road north of the Tampa Bay area.

Other potentially high-profile recommendations include such things as strategically locating petroleum distribution centers and requiring utility lines to be placed underground.

Cape Coral Republican Rep. Dane Eagle, who offered the proposal to use passenger trains to get people out of evacuation zones, also suggested the state look into the Florida Department of Transportation purchasing emergency generators for vital highway-railroad crossings.

“It is in the public interest to ensure that railroads in Strategic Intermodal System corridors are able to quickly resume operations following a hurricane event in order to deliver critical fuel supplies, bulk liquids such as chlorine for water treatment plants, building materials and other relief supplies to affected areas of the state,” Eagle’s recommendation said.

Republican Rep. Elizabeth Porter from Lake City earlier suggested the state consider using rail transport before, during and after hurricanes to speed fuel to impacted areas.

Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties and barreled up the state, was Florida’s first major hurricane since the devastating 2004 and 2005 seasons. Along with evacuation issues, Irma also caused widespread damage in the agriculture industry, left millions of Floridians temporarily without electricity and led to problems in cleaning up debris.

Lawmakers are discussing a variety of those types of issues as they prepare for the session.

For instance, Rep. Ben Albritton, a Wauchula Republican who is a citrus grower, outlined several proposed tax exemptions for the citrus industry. That included exemptions for material used to repair or replace damaged fences and structures and for fuel used to transport crops during an emergency.

Meanwhile, deaths at a Broward County nursing home that lost its air conditioning system after Irma have resulted in a number of proposals, including Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration pushing forward with requirements for nursing homes and assisted- living facilities to add generators that can keep buildings cool.

Rep. Robert Asencio, a Miami Democrat, suggested an “at risk registry” to identify vulnerable people at care facilities, as well as creation of an industry panel to review and approve emergency plans for nursing homes and other facilities.

House Select Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Nunez, a Republican from Miami, suggested the state explore on-site options to maintain care for dialysis patients in nursing homes during disasters.

Nunez also has offered one of the few proposals that came with a price tag already attached, $1.46 million to serve as a match for federal funds to install generators at Florida’s 42 shelters for victims of domestic violence.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bob Rommel, a Naples Republican, would like the state to require each county to determine how much fuel it needs to operate generators for critical infrastructure and first responders during the first 72 hours following a storm. The proposal also would let counties build or maintain fuel depots or create agreements with current fuel depots.

Some of the proposals deal with the difficulties of cleaning up communities and rebuilding after major storms.

Key Largo Republican Rep. Holly Raschein suggested a pilot housing program that would use $2.85 million from the state as a match for federal Community Development Block Grant money that could be used to build temporary and permanent affordable housing in storm-battered Monroe County.

Trying to help post-storm cleanup efforts, Rep. Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican, has recommended prohibiting tree trimming and discontinuing non-containerized yard waste collection services 72 hours before hurricanes. He also suggested traditional garbage collection be suspended 48 hours before storms.

“Time is needed in order to get our employees off the street, so they can prepare for the storm and make sure materials in trucks have time to dispose of items and landfills have time to process,” the recommendation from Grant said.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Jim Rosica’s review of top state government stories of 2017

Spoiler alert: If you’re a regular of this site, and reading this story, you can guess what the #1 pick is.

Otherwise, 2017 still offered a bounty of material to Tallahassee’s reporting ranks. We still chuckle at the uninitiated who ask, “What do you write about when the Legislature isn’t in session?”

Without further ado, here’s the admittedly subjective list of the Top 10 (and a half) stories to come out of the Capitol in the Year That Was:

#10 — State finally passes ride-sharing legislation: After years of trying, lawmakers OK’d, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, a bill (HB 221) creating statewide regulations for ride-booking companies like Uber and Lyft. In fact, lawmakers had considered such legislation for four years before passing a bill this year.

The legislation, among other things, requires Uber, Lyft and similar “transportation network companies” to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury or death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged into the app, but hasn’t yet secured a passenger. When a driver gets a ride, they need to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill also requires companies to have third parties run criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and other rules on transportation network companies, or TNCs.

The losers? Local governments, whose attempts to regulate or rein in ride-share got pre-empted, and, well, taxi companies.

#9 — Rick Scott, Aramis Ayala and the debate over the death penalty: Ayala, a Democrat and the Orlando area’s top prosecutor, enraged Scott and conservative lawmakers when she announced in March she would not seek capital punishment in any murder cases.

Scott, a Naples Republican, began unilaterally reassigning death penalty-eligible cases to another state attorney. Republican Rep. Bob Cortes of Altamonte Springs called for Ayala to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

The controversy made it to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Scott has the authority to transfer murder cases away because she refuses to pursue death. Ayala, elected in 2016, responded by announcing she would set up a special panel to review the death penalty’s appropriateness of each case.

But as of this month, Ayala and Scott were still sniping, with the governor accusing her of missing a deadline and blowing a capital punishment prosecution. Ayala denied that but did cut a plea deal with Emerita Mapp, in which she pleaded guilty in exchange for a life sentence for a Kissimmee slaying.

#8 — Puerto Rico migration could remake Central Florida: With many still without power after Hurricane Maria slammed the island in September, more than 250,000 residents of Puerto Rico have now decamped to Florida, most to the Central Florida region, with one advocate calling it a “migration of biblical proportions.”

Curbed said the “sudden influx will also put pressure on housing, social services, and the job market that have yet to be fully addressed by state, local, and federal officials.”

But Scott ordered the opening of “disaster relief centers” providing state services to thousands. Cortes filed a bill to address housing needs for evacuees. Sen. Vic Torres, a Kissimmee Democrat, pressed FEMA to provide more housing relief. U.S. Reps. Darren SotoStephanie Murphy, and Dennis Ross co-signed a letter to the feds for Florida get its full funding as a host state to support the migration.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is working on a plan to allow Puerto Rican high schoolers to receive Puerto Rico diplomas in Florida, in case they can’t meet Florida’s graduation requirements. And those are just a few examples.

#7 — The fight over HB 7069: The wide-ranging education law passed this May — a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran — has been called a “brew of bad policy” and “a textbook example of a failure in government transparency” by opponents.

They say it will benefit charter schools to the detriment of traditional public schools. Supporters counter that it “helps all students” by holding failing public schools to account.

The law offers all kinds of changes, including requiring recess and reducing mandatory testing. It accelerates state tax dollar funding to for-profit and nonprofit charter and private schools, expands parents’ abilities to choose schools, and tightens Tallahassee’s control over what local school boards can and cannot do.

A group of school boards sued in the Supreme Court to block the law; the justices, in a 4-3 decision, have since transferred the case to a Tallahassee trial court to handle. 

#6 — Enterprise Florida, VISIT FLORIDA survive a hit: Corcoran went full frontal this year, trying to scuttle Scott’s favored organizations and a multitude of business incentives last Legislative Session.

He derided Enterprise Florida, the state’s jobs-creating organization, as little more than a dispenser of “corporate welfare.” Though a public-private partnership, it doles out mostly public dollars.

He slammed VISIT FLORIDA, the tourism marketing group, for secret deals and an overall lack of transparency. Scott and lawmakers eventually worked out a deal to save the agencies and create an $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, focused on promoting public infrastructure and job training.

Meantime, the organizations now are subject to heightened oversight. And Ken Lawson, the former DBPR secretary whom Scott moved to head the tourism agency, toured the state to meet with local tourism leaders. “I want to earn your trust and learn from you first hand. This has been a hard year for all of us,” he said.

#5 — Special elections churn the Legislature: The turnover in legislative seats began with former South Florida Sen. Frank Artiles resigning after an epithet-laden tirade against two black lawmakers was made public, eventually leading to the seat flipping to a Democrat, Annette TaddeoRepublican Jose Felix Diaz lost that race but had to resign the House to run, meaning his House seat is open.

Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson quit the House this year for health reasons; Republican Lawrence McClure won the District 58 seat in a December special election. Republican Alex Miller, just elected in 2016, also resigned her Sarasota-area House seat this summer. She cited a need to “spend more time at home than my service in the Legislature would allow.”

But wait — there’s more. Democratic Sen. Jeff Clemens quit after his extramarital affair with a lobbyist came to light. Republican Neil Combee resigned the House to take a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the GOP’s Eric Eisnaugle also left the House to become an appellate judge, and Democrat Rep. Daisy Baez resigned before pleading guilty to perjury in a criminal case over her residency in Coral Gables-based House District 114.

#5(a) — Speaking of Artiles … : He resigned his Senate seat rather than face a hearing that could result in his expulsion. The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at The Governors Club.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor, but Thurston filed a Senate rules complaint. Artiles, elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, initially called efforts to remove him politically motivated. (Sound familiar?)

#4 Speaking of Clemens … : The Lake Worth Democrat was the first in the Legislature this year to resign after reports of sexual misconduct. “I have made mistakes I ashamed of, and for the past six months I have been focused on becoming a better person,” he said in a statement to news media. 

“But it is clear to me that task is impossible to finish while in elected office. The process won’t allow it, and the people of Florida deserve better. All women deserve respect, and by my actions, I feel I have failed that standard. I have to do better.”

Clemens, the incoming Senate Democratic Leader, apologized for having an affair with a lobbyist during the last legislative session. That woman “came into possession of Clemens’ laptop, gained access to all his contacts and personal information, then informed his wife of the tryst,” according to POLITICO Florida.

#3 — Jimmy Patronis replaces Jeff Atwater: Patronis had been a Panama City restaurateurstate representative and Public Service Commissioner when Scott tapped him to replace Atwater and become the state’s fourth Chief Financial Officer this June. Atwater quit his term early to become chief financial officer of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.

As CFO, Patronis — a Scott loyalist — now is one vote on the Florida Cabinet, in addition to Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. And he has since announced he will seek a full term as CFO in 2018.

The position heads a roughly 2,600-employee agency that includes the state treasury and insurance regulators, as well as being state fire marshal. The CFO also oversees management of the state’s multibillion-dollar financial portfolio. The office was created after the 1997-98 Constitution Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

#2 — The politics and policy of Hurricane Irma responseIrma’s size and strength put the entire state on notice; thousands of residents and visitors left in advance of catastrophic winds and flooding.

The most significant casualties were in a South Florida nursing home. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was evacuated Sept. 13 after the facility lost power to its air conditioning system. Eight elderly residents died, with another six perishing in the weeks that followed. Most died from heat exposure. The deaths were later classified as homicides, with a police spokeswoman saying, “Who gets charged is part of the continuing investigation.”

Scott took his own heat after Democrats charged that he had ignored calls for help from the home’s administrators to his personal mobile phone; he said his staff took the messages and forwarded them to the appropriate state officials.

The governor also ordered an emergency generator rule to “ensur(e) that facilities across Florida are coming into compliance and are installing generators to keep their patients safe during a disaster,” he said. But the facilities themselves challenged that move.

The Florida House formed its own special panel to consider the state’s readiness to deal with monster hurricanes. The Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has been meeting since October. 

#1 — Jack Latvala quits the SenateIn the face of two damning reports on his alleged serial sexual harassment, Latvala turned in his resignation, not effective till Jan. 5, on Dec. 20.

The Clearwater Republican said in a statement he “never intentionally dishonored my family, my constituents or the Florida Senate.” He first served in the Senate 1994-2002, then returned in 2010. Latvala was term-limited next year.

In his characteristically defiant manner, he said: “Political adversaries have latched onto this effort to rid our country of sexual harassment to try to rid the Florida Senate of me.” The 66-year-old Latvala admitted, however, that he “ … perhaps (had not) kept up with political correctness in my comments as well as I should have.”

An investigative report found Latvala “on multiple occasions” offered to trade his vote for sex with an unnamed female lobbyist. That bombshell came toward the end of retired appellate Judge Ronald V. Swanson‘s report into a complaint filed by Rachel Perrin Rogers, a top aide to future Senate President Wilton Simpson.

Perrin Rogers accused Latvala of sexually harassing her and assaulting her on a number of occasions over several years. A second investigation into sexual harassment claims against Latvala, prompted by a POLITICO Florida story, turned up another witness who bolstered an allegation that the senator would offer to trade sex for favorable votes on legislation.

More Floridians, more members of Congress

Florida’s congressional delegation may grow by two, to 29, in 2020 based on new Census numbers and population projections by the Manassas, Va.-based political consulting firm Election Data Services.

The U.S. Census estimates Florida’s population is now 20.98 million, with the state growing at a 1.6 percent clip — tied with Arizona for the fifth-largest percentage population increase between July 1, 2016 and July 1, 2017.

Only Idaho, Nevada, Utah and Washington expanded at larger percentages, as the nation’s estimated population stands at 325.7 million, a 2.3 million increase.

The addition of 327,811 Floridians over the past year, and a projection by Election Data Services for the state to hit 22.23 million in 2020, accounts for the likely expansion of the state’s congressional delegation.

Election Data Services projects Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Oregon would each gain a seat, while Texas could grab three, after the 2020 Census.

Meanwhile, to keep the U.S. House at 435 members, Alabama, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and West Virginia would each drop a seat. Illinois could lose one or two, having to battle Minnesota for the other seat.

Illinois was one of eight states that lost population in the latest Census estimate, dropping by 33,703 people, the most of any state.

Election Data Services President Kimball Brace cautioned the projections are “very preliminary.”

“The change in administration and the lack of a Census director could have a profound impact on how well the 2020 Census is conducted, and therefore the counts that are available for apportionment,” Brace noted in a release. “Having worked with Census data and estimates since the 1970s, it is important to remember that major events like (Hurricane) Katrina and the 2008 recession each changed population growth patterns, and that impacted and changed the next apportionment.”

California, 39.5 million, and Texas, 28.3 million, remain the only states ahead of Florida in terms of population. California grew by 240,177, the third-largest increase. Texas topped the growth list in adding 399,734 people.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Imported citrus numbers continue to grow in Florida

An increase in imported orange juice is anticipated by the Florida Citrus Commission to offset a decline in tax revenue from the state’s hurricane-battered growers, who await congressional action on disaster relief.

The commission – during a brief conference call Wednesday – agreed to shift $556,147 from reserves to help cover the Department of Citrus’ budget for the current fiscal year, with the transfer leaving a $682 negative balance. Taxes on citrus pay for the department’s operations.

Christine Marion, commission secretary, said continued demand by Floridians for orange juice is expected to increase the need for citrus to be imported, which – because it is taxed like citrus grown in the state – should offset the negative balance.

Unlike in past years, imported citrus now accounts for more than half – currently topping 55 percent – of the citrus taxed by the state.

Meanwhile, Florida agriculture leaders, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and Citrus Commission Chairman G. Ellis Hunt, rushed to Washington, D.C. as some kinks emerged in a reported deal announced Tuesday to include $2.6 million for crop losses – with an emphasis on citrus – in an expanded $81 billion disaster-relief bill.

“It’s a roller coaster up here,” Hunt said Wednesday morning. “We’ve had some good news yesterday, and then we a little jumped the tracks, maybe, at the moment. … There’s quite a team assembled and we’re all working extremely hard and trying to kind of push this thing over the finish line.”

The overall relief package – nearly double the White House’s requested $44 billion proposal – has been attached to a short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open through January 19.

The resolution was initially expected to go before the U.S. House on Tuesday, but is now expected to come up for a vote later this week. The measure would then go before the Senate.

Issues have emerged regarding reauthorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in the package, while Texas officials are pushing to get more money for its post-Hurricane Harvey recovery.

The plan is the third disaster-relief package this year in response to hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico and wildfires in California. The biggest parts are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.

Gov. Rick Scott released a statement Wednesday saying disaster relief is critical for the agriculture industry, as well as local school districts educating students who came to Florida from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He also said the package needs to be clear that money would go to infrastructure projects such as repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

“As Hurricane Irma was bearing down on our state, we were forced to evacuate communities surrounding the lake due to safety concerns identified by the Army Corps of Engineers,” Scott wrote. “The lake reached dangerous levels, and Florida cannot go through another hurricane season without exploring all avenues of federal funding to fix the dike.”

For Florida’s citrus growers, on pace for the lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season, the impact of Hurricane Irma in September came after they have struggled for a decade against citrus greening disease.

Putnam’s department estimated in October that the state’s agriculture industry suffered a $2.5 billion hit from Irma, with the citrus industry losses at $761 million. The citrus figure is expected to top $1 billion as damages continue to be reported and some growers in the southwestern part of the state face 70 percent to 90 percent losses.

Putnam, in seeking citrus-industry aid in the disaster relief package, has warned that imports could take hold in greater numbers as the state’s signature crop continues to struggle while beverage companies seek alternative sources of citrus.

“You have the major brands, Coke, Pepsi, Florida’s Natural, who are trying to meet the needs of consumers,” Putnam said last week. “And in many cases, it’s going to result in additional imports from Brazil, which also undermines Florida citrus and its market share.”

The Citrus Commission, while determining revenue for the Department of Citrus’ $17.8 million budget, had previously projected that orange juice imports – primarily from Brazil and Mexico – would surpass, in terms of volume, the amount of oranges grown this season.

A so-called “box” tax on growers, which provides revenue for the Department of Citrus, was set in October with a projection of 124.34 million 90-pound boxes being filled with oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits by Florida growers and through imports.

The agency charges growers 7 cents on each box of processed oranges, grapefruit and specialty fruits.

In the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture forecast, Florida growers were projected during the current growing season to fill about 51.5 million boxes, of which 46 million were expected to contain processed oranges.

When setting its budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, the Department of Citrus projected – based upon June figures – that imports would account for 37.5 million boxes, almost all oranges.

Since then the import projection has already been raised to 63.9 million boxes.

Marisa Zansler, director of the agency’s Economic and Market Research Department, has indicated the imports will likely continue to grow to reach the budget projections.

The agency is awaiting the January crop estimate for Florida and revised data from Mexico and Brazil to determine if a revision is needed.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Disaster relief package would help citrus industry

Florida’s storm-battered citrus growers are closer to landing federal relief sought since Hurricane Irma devastated large parts of the state’s agriculture industry in September.

The U.S. House on Wednesday will consider providing $2.6 billion for lost farm crops as part of an $81 billion disaster-relief package, which has been attached to the latest short-term “continuing resolution” needed to keep the federal government open.

The overall relief package, nearly double the amount requested in November by the White House to aid communities recently damaged by hurricanes and wildfires, comes after Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said last week there was no “plan B” for the state’s citrus industry without federal assistance.

“Today’s announcement of proposed emergency funding for Florida agriculture is the first bit of good news we’ve heard in months,” Putnam said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

If the package passes the U.S. House on Wednesday, it then would go to the Senate for consideration.

Putnam and Gov. Rick Scott have pushed Florida’s congressional delegation to attach assistance for the citrus industry to post-storm relief packages.

“I am glad to say we finally cleared the first major hurdle by securing this funding in the latest disaster supplemental bill,” U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, a Republican who is the only Floridian on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, announced late Monday.

The Florida agriculture industry, which Putnam’s department estimated took a $2.5 billion hit from Hurricane Irma, was left out of two earlier disaster-relief packages approved by Congress.

Florida is expected to get a large part of the money for farmers, with crop losses covered for citrus growers.

The biggest parts of the relief package are $27.6 billion that would go to replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster-relief account and $27.8 billion for community development block grants that could be used toward flood prevention and infrastructure repairs.

Another $12.11 billion would go to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair damage from the natural disasters and to bulk up facilities from future risk, including $537 million for flood control and coastal repairs.

Another $3.99 billion would help public and private schools handling displaced students.

Florida citrus growers, including many in the southwestern part of the state who were hit hard, incurred an estimated $761 million in damage from Irma. However, that estimate from early October is expected to top $1 billion as flood damage to trees continues and as harvest numbers drop.

U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican, said the funding will help the industry, which before Irma had been fighting citrus greening disease and is now on pace for its lowest harvest since the 1944-1945 growing season.

“We finally reached a deal that will help Florida farmers recover from the storm with $2.6 billion and prevent these jobs from going overseas,” Ross said in a prepared statement. “While we still have a long road ahead, I’m glad that Florida citrus will have a fighting chance.”

Also Wednesday, the Florida Citrus Commission will discuss shifting about $556,000 from reserves — nearly matching the amount in its reserves as of Oct. 31 — to cover programs in the current fiscal year.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

Irma insurance claims near 866,000 as pace slows

Estimated insured losses from Hurricane Irma have topped $6.55 billion, with the number of claims approaching 866,000, according to information released Monday by the state Office of Insurance Regulation.

The latest report showed that 865,974 claims from the September storm had been filed with insurance companies as of Friday, with 719,512 involving residential properties.

While people have several years to file claims, the numbers indicate a slowing in reported damages, as numbers posted by the state office on Dec. 4 showed 853,356 claims with estimated losses of $6.3 billion.

Lynne McChristian, spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, said Irma could have been “much worse” for homeowners and the industry.

“The insurance companies have been well-capitalized,” McChristian said. “They have been waiting for this. There may be some claims that will continue to be filed, but insurance companies know that this is what happens when you are dealing with Florida’s hurricane risk.”

While figures are not available from individual private insurers, state-backed Citizens Property Insurance reported last week it had received 63,500 claims from Irma. Most were in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.

Citizens anticipated its number of Irma claims will grow to 70,000, with $1.2 billion in damages, over the next year.

Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway also said Wednesday that he expected the storm to increase Citizens’ policy count from “about 442,000 policies back up to 500,000” in the next year.

In the overall industry, Miami-Dade County has the largest number of Irma-related claims, with 114,078 as of Friday, according to the Office of Insurance Regulation numbers. Other counties with large numbers of claims included Broward, 71,970; Orange, 68,306; Lee, 65,311; Collier, 63,644; and Polk, 50,180.

Irma made landfall Sept. 10 in Monroe and Collier counties, causing widespread destruction and at least 84 deaths in Florida. The insurance industry has closed 48 percent of Irma claims with some payment. Another 31 percent were closed without any payments.

In most cases where money did not change hands, the damages failed to meet policyholders’ deductibles, McChristian said.

To reduce risk in Florida, the House Select Committee on Hurricane Response and Preparedness has received a number of potential housing changes — as part of the more than 140 recommendations — for lawmakers to consider during the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January.

Among the proposals, Rep. Holly Raschein, a Key Largo Republican, suggested the state identify areas where rebuilding after disasters might be high-risk and to consider options for not rebuilding, including the possible purchase of the properties. The land, she suggested, would be used to create additional open space and natural buffers.

Meanwhile, Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, and House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, of Tampa, introduced a proposal (SB 1282 and HB 1011) last week that would require insurance companies to disclose to homeowners when coverage lacks flood insurance.

“I’ve met many constituents who had no idea that their hurricane coverage did not include protections when their homes flooded,” Taddeo said in a prepared statement. “This is especially problematic in South Florida as we face sea level rise and stronger storm surges from climate change.”

Assisted living group challenges generator rule

A statewide long-term care association has challenged a proposal by Gov. Rick Scott‘s administration to make permanent a controversial rule that requires assisted-living facilities to have generators and enough fuel to provide 96 hours of backup power.

Attorneys for the Florida Senior Living Association filed a petition Friday in state administrative court arguing that the Florida Department of Elder Affairs overstepped its legislative authority and that the new proposed rule puts requirements on assisted-living facilities that are not authorized in state law.

The Florida Senior Living Association, formerly known as Florida Argentum, also argues in the petition that the proposed rule is vague. The group represents more than 350 assisted living facilities across the state.

“The proposed rule is impermissibly vague as evidenced by DOEA’s (the Department of Elder Affairs’) inability to answer basic questions relating to standards it intends to enforce should the proposed rule go into effect,” one part of the petition says.

The proposed rule closely tracks an emergency rule the Department of Elder Affairs issued in September following Hurricane Irma. That rule and one issued by Agency for Health Care Administration that affects nursing homes were invalidated in October after a trio of industry groups, including The Florida Senior Living Association, challenged them.

Despite the invalidation decision by an administrative law judge, the Scott administration maintains that the emergency rules remain in effect and has been enforcing them. A Scott spokesman also fired back against the new rule challenge filed Friday.

“This rule is solely focused on saving lives. This association should focus on keeping seniors safe and not on lawsuits,” Scott spokesman McKinley Lewis said.

The rules stem from the deaths of eight residents of a Broward County nursing home on Sept. 13, three days after Hurricane Irma hit the state. The nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, lost its air conditioning system in the storm and did not have a backup power system to cool the building.

The emergency rules drew criticism and opposition from nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, in part, because of a short timeframe to install generators and add fuel supplies.

Amid the legal wrangling about the emergency rules, the Scott administration proposed the more-permanent rules. Also, lawmakers are expected to consider several proposals during the upcoming legislative session about requiring generators and fuel supplies.

State estimates indicate that complying with the generator and fuel-supply requirements would cost $280 million for assisted-living facilities and $186 million for nursing homes. The large price tags mean the rules would have to be ratified by the Legislature before they could take effect.

The Scott administration also has moved to revoke the license of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which is fighting the decision. A multi-day hearing is scheduled to start Jan. 29 in that case.

Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.

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