Legislative Session Preview: Ana Maria Rodriguez again targets condo fraud, school zone speeders, PACE changes

She hopes to carry several rerun bills across the finish line this year.

There are many maxims to which Doral Republican Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez likely subscribes. One of them is certainly this: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Of the many bills Rodriguez is running for the 2023 Legislative Session, the ones she is most passionate about are reruns of past proposals that fell short of the proverbial finish line. This year, she hopes they’ll break through.

First on the list is SB 950, which would change Florida’s Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, a financing model that allows consumers to repay the cost of certain home upgrades through assessments on their property tax bill.

True to its name, the program mostly concerns home overhauls for energy efficiency, like solar panels and insulation. But there’s been a push at state and local levels in recent years to expand the program to include flood mitigation and septic-to-sewer conversions as eligible projects.

For the last several years, Rodriguez and Republican Rep. Randy Fine have led those efforts in the Legislature but haven’t yet succeeded in getting them through.

They’re doing it again this year. Fine’s bill (HB 669) is, for now, identical to Rodriguez’s.

In addition to expanding what projects can be financed, SB 950 would give the program a new name — Resiliency Energy Environmental Florida (REEF) — and add several safeguards to protect homeowners who may not understand the costs they’d incur upon opting in.

That’s a welcome fix, according to Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, who told the Miami Herald there is currently “zero oversight in Florida over PACE loans.”

And it’s led to some troubling situations. In 2018, an octogenarian Miami Shores resident named Julnor Jean installed solar panels to his home after speaking with a representative from Ygrene Energy Fund, a company that provides PACE financing in Florida. The panel installations and hurricane-proofing Jean opted into raised his annual property tax bill by more than $8,000, nearly rendering the Social Security-dependent homeowner homeless.

Rodriguez said her bill — which would require contractors to disclose more information to consumers in PACE/REEF transactions — would help prevent that from happening again. The bill would not change the funding model.

“The program has had a bad rap in some circles, and perhaps there are some bad actors in that environment,” she said.

“The goal of this legislation is to go after those bad actors and add more consumer transparency. And as Chair of the Environmental and Natural Resources Committee, I’m very passionate about making sure that our state helps people convert their properties from septic to sewer as much as possible.”

Another measure Rodriguez has resurrected this year is SB 1136, which would create a “Condominium Fraud Investigation Pilot Program” within Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Department of Legal Affairs to investigate condo-related malfeasance in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Rodriguez, who chairs the Miami Dade County legislative delegation, filed the same bill for last year’s regular Session with support in the House from Miramar Republican Rep. Tom Fabricio. Both bills died without a single hearing.

The program would establish a condo fraud team, composed of investigators with law enforcement, clerical and finance backgrounds. The team would respond to complaints of unscrupulous conduct and misuse of condo funds and have the power to subpoena witnesses and audit records.

If the team found cause, it would then refer the case to Moody’s Office for prosecution.

“I’ve tried to pass this bill on numerous occasions,” she said. “It’s something I would have liked to have seen done in the other reforms during that Special Session where we added inspection requirements for condos, but they didn’t want to add it, so we never got it off the ground.”

There’s also SB 588, which would help curb school zone speeders. The bill — to which Republican Rep. Traci Koster filed a House companion (HB 657) for the upcoming Session — would simply allow camera enforcement of school zone speed limits.

Counties and municipalities would be able to install radar detection devices in and around school safety zones to target motorists traveling 10 mph or more over the posted speed limit. The systems could capture photos or videos of vehicles at the time of a violation. Cameras would solely target speeders — not motorists who run red lights or commit other traffic infractions.

A version of the bill Rodriguez filed last Session made it all the way to the Senate floor before stalling out. Similar legislation former Democratic Rep. Nick Duran ran in the Legislature’s lower chamber never got a committee hearing.

“From what I’m hearing, it’s got a better shot this year in the House,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez is similarly optimistic about SB 54. The bill would change the source of financing for projects under the Florida Keys Stewardship Act, which uses about $20 million in state funds annually to address environmental and resiliency issues in Monroe County.

Funding for those projects currently comes from a yearly appropriation by the Legislature. SB 54 would have the money instead come through a recurring set-aside from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. As its name suggests, the fund helps local governments acquire, restore, manage and improve conservation and recreational land.

Republican Rep. Jim Mooney of Islamorada, whose district encompasses the Florida Keys in Monroe and a portion of south Miami-Dade, filed the bill’s House companion (HB 135). He and Rodriguez, whose Senate district is the only one that covers the Keys, filed the same legislation last year, though neither bill went far.

Rodriguez also sponsored the measure in 2021, when Republican Rep. Rick Roth ran twin legislation.

“If we passed this bill, we wouldn’t have to go to the Legislature every year and ask for that money; it would just be automatically appropriated,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not easy to get money every year, and that fund is important.”

The 2023 Legislative Session runs March 7 to May 5.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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