Influence Archives - Florida Politics

Too soon to know? Regulators weigh worker’s comp rates

Regulators pressed representatives of a workers’ compensation insurance rating service Wednesday about whether two Florida Supreme Court rulings had in fact increased the cost of administering claims, as many had feared.

The answer: Still too soon to say.

Nor is it clear that carriers adjusted their reserves or other practices in response to the rulings to any degree of consistency.

“At this point, the data is too immature,” said Jay Rosen, senior actuary for the National Council on Compensation Insurance, which proposed rates for around 240 Florida carriers.

“Not much of the data that has been impacted by these court decisions has been reported to NCCI, and therefore it is not reflected in this particular rate filing,” Rosen said.

Rosen and other NCCI representatives said the 9.3 percent average premium rate drop the council has proposed is mostly driven by a downward trend in payouts to injured workers. In other words, notwithstanding the court, workplaces have been safer.

“This is really the major driver behind this proposed rate decrease,” said Jeff Eddinger, an executive with NCCI.

If approved by the Office of Insurance Regulation, the new rates would take effect on Jan. 1

The office approved a 14.5 percent average premium increase last year, blaming Florida Supreme Court rulings in Castellanos v. Next Door Co. and Westphal v. City of St. Petersburg that critics said would encourage litigation by claimants.

Steve Alexander, an actuary who studied NCCI’s numbers for Florida Workplace Advocates — that is, plaintiffs’ lawyers — argued NCCI’s proposal didn’t reflect carriers’ investment earnings. He suggested a rate decrease of 15.4 percent, plus the opportunity for insurers to deviate from NCCI’s rates or to earn discounts.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier said following the hearing that he’ll consider those options, and otherwise look for ways to stabilize Florida’s workers’ compensation premiums.

Advocates president Mark Touby underscored Alexander’s argument in a written statement.

“The lack of transparency throughout NCCI’s process portrays the perception that its analysis is outcome-driven — rather than based on an unbiased presentation of the data,” Touby said. “What is clear is that NCCI’s unpredictable rollercoaster ride of rates is unquestionably bad for Florida’s businesses and the workers they employ.”

Bill Herrle, Florida director for the National Federation of Independent Business, issued a statement of his own, expressing anxiety about the lingering effects of those court rulings.

“While the possibility of a rate reduction is exciting for small business owners, NFIB members are very aware that the problem of out-of-control attorneys’ fees lingers, leaving rates and small business owners in a cone of uncertainty,” Herrle said.

“Lower rates are always good news, but NFIB remains cautious about the unknown ramifications of the Castellanos decision.”

Tobacco bond cap repeal teed up again in Legislature

Tobacco companies are hoping next year’s try at a bond cap repeal doesn’t go up in smoke.

Legislation that would do away with the limit on the amount of money tobacco companies have to put up as appellate bonds has again been filed, this time for the 2018 Legislative Session. 

The one-line bill (SB 124) simply repeals the section of state law requiring the bonds.

But once more, the measure sets up another potential Session ‘food fight’ between tobacco companies, who have opposed a repeal, and the state’s trial lawyers, who back it. An attempt last year died during the committee weeks leading up to the 2017 Legislative Session.

Here’s how it works: Tobacco companies are required to put up bonds before they appeal unfavorable damages awarded to former smokers, but the state places limits on how much those bonds are.

The tobacco companies have said a repeal would be unfair because, in part, bonds would fall under the “150 percent of judgment” rule without a cap. And with some verdicts in the billions of dollars, bonds could be unreasonably large under that standard, they say.

The state’s trial lawyers, however, have supported a bond cap repeal. They say it will force settlements and end decades-long litigation over plaintiffs’ claims of irreversible illness or early death from smoking.

“Florida law gives the cigarette manufacturers a special deal that other businesses don’t get,” said Paul Jess, executive director of the Florida Justice Association, the state’s trial lawyers organization.

“This bill would repeal that special deal which allows cigarette manufacturers to post a lower appeal bond than other businesses,” he added. “This sweet deal allows the cigarette manufacturers who have lost in court to delay paying victims of their negligence.

“Often these victims and their families die before they can receive justice,” Jess said. “This legislation will end cigarette manufacturer’s legal gamesmanship to delay justice. It will restore equity with how other businesses are treated and promote efficiency in our judicial system by bringing these cases to closure more quickly.”

The tipping point for 2017 seemed to be comments from a CSX Transportation spokesman who told a Senate panel that a repeal of the tobacco companies’ bond cap would be an “erosion of reasonable tort reform” taken by the state in recent years.

Bob O’Malley further warned of a slippery slope, saying a bond cap repeal could lead to “repeal of the general bond cap, (which) would be a disaster for businesses.”

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, again is sponsoring the bill, as he did last Session. It’s been referred to the Regulated Industries, Judiciary, and Rules committees.

An identical House companion was filed by Rep. Cord Byrd, a Neptune Beach Republican. His bill has been referred to that chamber’s Civil Justice and Claims Subcommittee, Appropriations Committee, and Judiciary Committee.

Tom Lee may file constitutional amendment to ban dog racing

State Sen. Tom Lee, who also sits on the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), has been gauging support for a constitutional amendment to end greyhound racing, sources told Florida Politics on Tuesday.

Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican running for state chief financial officer in 2018, has called some of the state’s dog track owners to “take their temperature,” said one industry lobbyist, who asked not to be named.

“There’s not many people that know about that,” Lee confirmed after a CRC meeting Tuesday. “It’s something that has been on my mind … There’s no question I’m considering it.”

The details still haven’t been sussed out, he added, including whether to make it immediate or phase it in over time. He’s also still weighing what effect it will have on jobs. Commissioners face an Oct. 31 filing deadline.

“It wouldn’t be optional; this isn’t decoupling,” Lee, a former Senate president, said of his proposal. “This would be a mandatory ban for dog racing in Florida, to just prohibit it.”

“Decoupling” is the term for removing provisions in state law requiring dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling, such as cardrooms. Under decoupling, tracks could still choose to run dogs.

Lee also said his amendment wouldn’t affect any other gambling now permitted at tracks.

Efforts to remove the live racing requirement have failed in the Legislature in recent years, including this past session, as lawmakers continually fail to pass comprehensive gambling legislation.

Yet another lobbyist said the Lee amendment “is not an (pari-mutuel) industry thing … We didn’t bring this to him.”

That person added, “My guess? It’s a feel-good animal rights issue that probably polls well.”

Some pari-mutuels want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline every year. Horse and dog interests say ending live racing will kill their business, many of whom have bred dogs for generations.

But track ownership’s reaction to his proposal has been a “mixed bag,” said another racing industry consultant. “Despite what they tell you, some tracks still make quite a bit of money” from dog racing, the consultant said.

Flagler Dog Track, for instance, reported nearly $4 million in revenue from greyhound races for 2015-16, according to state records. And Palm Beach Kennel Club reported close to $9.3 million in revenue from the “handle,” the total amount wagered at a track in a racing season.

Jack Cory, the lobbyist who represents the Florida Greyhound Association and National Greyhound Association in Florida, said “let it roll” when told of the proposal.

“That would be fine,” Cory said. “That is the only proper way to eliminate live pari-mutuels in this state, and that is what we would be talking about. Of course, that would also create mini-casinos throughout Florida.

“… But again, if (the commission) wants to run that amendment, hey, lock and load,” he added.

The Constitution Revision Commission is formed every 20 years to review and suggest changes to the state’s governing document. Any amendments it places directly on the 2018 statewide ballot must be OK’d by 60 percent of voters to be added to the constitution.

The panel is required to wrap up its work by May 10, 2018. 

Regulators deal with FPL nuclear license, costs

Grappling with a long-discussed nuclear project in Miami-Dade County, state regulators Tuesday backed Florida Power & Light continuing to pursue a critical license for two new reactors — but turned down a company request involving costs.

The decisions by the state Public Service Commission were the latest chapter in years of controversy about a 2006 law aimed at increasing nuclear power in the state and FPL’s subsequent proposal to build the reactors at its Turkey Point complex. Julie Brown, who chairs the Public Service Commission, pointed Tuesday to key issues surrounding the project.

“Whether the (2006) statute has worked out for customers is a question that everyone has,” Brown said. “And whether Turkey Point 6 and 7 (the proposed reactors) are going to come online and are feasible, are practical, are realistic is a question that we as regulators have. Like it or not, nuclear power has been (a) very important (part) of our fleet over decades for many, many Floridians. It’s provided clean energy, it’s been reliable.”

The issues confronting the commission Tuesday were rooted, at least in part, in the 2006 law, which allowed utilities to recover money from customers during the early stages of work on nuclear projects. That is different from the way utilities typically recoup money after power plants are finished and start producing electricity.

As of the end of 2016, FPL had spent $260 on licensing efforts for the reactors and is likely within months of receiving a critical federal approval known as a “combined operating license,” according to a Public Service Commission staff recommendation.

But in a filing this year, FPL proposed what it described as a “pause” in recovering project costs incurred after Dec. 31, 2016. The request effectively sought to defer for a number of years costs that customers would pay and temporarily eliminate the need for annual regulatory hearings on the project.

Opponents of the request, however, argued FPL had not submitted a needed study that would show whether the nuclear project is feasible. They contended that the company should not be allowed to continue running up costs and then be able to come back in the future and recover the money from customers under what is known as the “nuclear cost recovery clause.”

Public Service Commission staff members recommended rejection of the utility’s request to defer costs without the feasibility study. Commissioners went along with that recommendation Tuesday, turning down FPL’s proposal in a 4-1 vote, with Commissioner Gary Clark dissenting.

FPL customers also will not pay any nuclear costs in 2018. Commissioners made clear, however, that FPL might have other avenues in the future to try to recoup the money it is spending on the combined operating license — outside of the nuclear-cost recovery clause. That could include seeking recovery through the process of setting base electric rates.

State Public Counsel J.R. Kelly, whose office represents consumers in utility cases, expressed concern after Tuesday’s meeting that FPL could seek the money through another route. Kelly’s office opposed allowing the deferral of costs.

“Are you giving the utility two bites at the apple?” Kelly said. “And we think that would be inappropriate.”

During the meeting, the commission also unanimously supported a finding that it is reasonable for FPL to continue pursuing the combined operating license. Commissioner Art Graham said the license would provide a long-term option for the utility to eventually build nuclear reactors.

“I think the COL is basically a 20-year option,” Graham said. “Are we going to do it in the foreseeable future? Are we looking to have that option on the table? And I think we’ve come this far, you need to have that option on the table.”

Brown and Clark said the state has become increasingly dependent in recent years on natural gas to fuel power plants, suggesting that it might need nuclear power to help diversify in the future. They also pointed to the large amount of money already spent on seeking the license.

“I think that the continued pursuit of this license is critical from an infrastructure standpoint, from a base-capacity standpoint,” Clark said. “Our current dependence on natural gas is extremely alarming to me.”

FPL spokesman Mark Bubriski released a statement after the meeting saying the utility will continue pursuing the license from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

“We have a responsibility to provide for the energy needs of our customers today and well into the future,” the statement said. “As we invest in high-efficiency natural gas energy and one of the largest solar expansions on the Eastern seaboard, we continue to believe having the option to add clean, zero-emissions nuclear energy is important for Florida’s energy future.

“After nearly a decade of working through lengthy, stringent regulatory processes at the local, state and federal levels, we are on track to receive final approval from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the coming months, and we intend to complete the licensing process such that the option of new nuclear power is available for our customers for many years into the future.”

The utility also touted a less-controversial move Tuesday by regulators that approved a $7.3 million rate reduction for customers in 2018. That reduction stems from what is known as an “over recovery” of nuclear-project costs from customers in 2015 and 2016.

Tahirih Justice Center thanks lawmakers for bills banning child marriage

An organization dedicated to ending violence against women and girls lauded Florida lawmakers Tuesday for filing bills that would make child marriage illegal under state law.

Republicans Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto and Reps. Jeanette Nuñez and Frank White filed identical bills in the House and Senate – HB 335 and SB 140 – that would outlaw marriage for anyone under 18.

Democratic Rep. Daisy Baez filed a similar measure, HB 71, earlier this year in response to news reports of a Cutler Bay man who committed suicide rather than face possible legal repercussions for sexually abusing multiple girls — one of whom he married — lured into his home as foreign exchange students.

She also filed a bill, HM 99, that would provide stricter background checks for would-be host families.

The Tahirih Justice Center thanked the lawmakers for putting those bills forward.

“Allowing children to marry robs them of a childhood and forces them into mature situations for which they are not physically, emotionally, or financially prepared,” said Jeanne Smoot, the senior counsel for policy and strategy at Tahirih.

“Once married, they can face abuse and find themselves trapped in a violent relationship for years without the resources or options an adult would have to escape. We are incredibly grateful to Senator Benacquisto and her Senate co-sponsors as well as Representatives Nuñez and White for joining together to tackle this problem and offering well thought out solutions to protect Florida’s children.”

The lawmakers who filed the bills aren’t the only ones on the case. Earlier this year Florida’s child marriage  problem caught the attention of Senate Majority Leader Wilton Simpson, who was floored after hearing the story of a constituent who became pregnant at age 10 and was married off to her rapist at age 11.

“When you first watch a story like that, it makes you angry and it’s kind of like, how is this possible?”, Simpson told WTSP, the news outlet that shined a light on the child bride story over the summer, before vowing to push for a law change in 2018. “A 17-year-old can’t buy a house, can’t sign a contract, can’t do anything legally binding, but a 10-year-old can get married. That’s about a ridiculous thing that I have ever heard and sometimes an ounce of common sense goes a long ways.”

Since the turn of the century, more than 16,000 Florida minors have been named in marriage licenses issued and approved by the state. More than 3,000 of those marriages occurred this decade.

Tahirih said sexual contact between the spouses in 400 of those marriages would constitute a sex crime if the pair were not married. It added that more than 100 of the marriages since 2010 featured a minor marrying an adult at least a decade older than them.

The organization also provided a top-10 list of counties where the most child marriages have occurred over the past six years, and it reads like the list of the 10 most populous Florida counties with Jacksonville’s Duval County being the lone exception.

The list accounts for about half of the 3,000-marriages cited by the group since 2010.

Tahirih’s Tuesday statement follows their recent report, “Falling Through the Cracks: How Laws Allow Child Marriage to Happen in Today’s America.”

In addition to providing legislative guidance for ending child marriage, the report includes eye-opening data on the practice’s prevalence in the United States: only three states have outlawed the child marriage, while half of the states have no minimum marriage age on the books, and in eight states plus D.C. a clerk can approve a child marriage without the input of a judge.

Cabinet approves protecting Okeechobee ranch land

Gov. Rick Scott and the state Cabinet agreed Tuesday to spend about $5.7 million to conserve more than 2,500 acres of ranch land in a deal that nearly depletes this year’s funding for a program used to keep agricultural property from development.

The deal — known as purchasing a conservation easement — allows the owners of the Corona Ranch in Okeechobee County to continue using the land for cattle, but it prevents future development of the property, which drains into the Kissimmee River.

Owned by the Corona family, the land, which is less than five miles south of Kissimmee Prairie State Park, houses species such as gopher tortoises, fox squirrels, and burrowing owls and has had three recent Florida Panther sightings, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.

About 34 percent of the land is considered wetlands. The Corona family, which started in the cattle business in the mid-1800s in Cuba, has been ranching in Florida since 1961, including since the 1980s on the Okeechobee property.

Money for the deal comes from the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program, which has been championed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. The program has been used 31 times by the current Cabinet since 2011 to preserve 35,644 acres.

“With more than 1,000 people moving to Florida every day, we must continue to prioritize the conservation of our agricultural lands and world-renowned natural spaces,” Putnam said.

In the 2017-2018 budget, $10 million was set aside for the Rural and Family Lands Protection Program.

Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said after Tuesday’s meeting the deal uses the remaining funding from the program.

“We’re going to go back the Legislature and ask them to put more money in the program,” Draper said. “It’s been so successful it’s already generated 38,000 acres of land that has been conserved (since the program’s start).”

Republicans should at least give Competitive Workforce Act a hearing, business leaders urge

A coalition of Florida business leaders is calling on the GOP-led Legislature to ensure a bill seeking a statewide ban on discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation at least gets heard in the House and Senate in the 2018 Session.

Florida Competes is comprised of 10 Fortune 500 companies, 30 major employers and more than 450 local businesses. The coalition sent a letter Tuesday to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, demanding the bill — at a minimum — be heard in committee.

HB 347, also known as The Competitive Workforce Act, was introduced in the House Monday by St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond and Titusville Republican Rene Plasencia, and by Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens in the Senate.

The 2018 Session will mark the 10th year in a row the bill will be introduced, as it slowly gains more sponsors. During the 2017 Session, a record number of bipartisan co-sponsors — 70, with 19 Republicans and 51 Democrats — joined to support the bill.

Despite that backing, the measure failed to be placed on either the House or Senate calendars.

Signatories include Eric S. Woolworth, the president of the Miami HEAT/American Airlines Arena; Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association; Joe York, president of AT&T Florida and Julio Fuentes, president and CEO of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Absent a statewide law, twelve counties and 30 municipalities have already passed local ordinances banning discrimination. But Florida Competes says that’s not good enough.

“This patchwork system is a hindrance to economic development,” they write. “In fact, a 2015 Chamber-sponsored study revealed that Florida employers were losing $362 million annually in productivity and turnover due to discriminatory practices.”

A complete list of coalition members and more information is also available online at FLCompetes.org.

A poll commissioned by business supporting the bill in the fall of 2015 said that 68 percent of Floridians supported changing the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

Jason Fischer, Jeff Brandes introduce self-driving cars bill

Self-driving cars would be able to legally cruise Sunshine State highways under a bill filed by Jacksonville House Republican Jason Fischer.

His legislation (HB 353) would allow for the safe and legal operation of “autonomous vehicles.” The bill also calls for updating sections of Florida’s motor vehicle laws that “require or presume” there’s a human behind the wheel.

In a statement, Fischer stressed the safety that autonomous vehicles will bring to Florida.

“Every year in the United States, tens of thousands of people are killed in motor vehicle-related crashes, and more than 90 percent of those crashes are caused by human error,” he said. “Because autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce or even eliminate this error, I plan to do everything in my power to bring these life-saving technologies to the Sunshine State.”

The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, who has been a champion for AV technology.

“Transportation technology is poised to radically reshape our lives,” Brandes said. “Florida has been a leader in exploring this technology, and with this bill, we continue our commitment to providing Floridians the best options to increase safety, spur redevelopment in our cities and lower costs.”

The American Council of the Blind is supporting the bill.

“At the American Council of the Blind, the foundation of our work is our belief that it is the right of every blind person in this country to be included in society and it is the responsibility of government at all levels to provide the infrastructure of services and equipment that will allow us to fully participate in our communities,” said Anthony Stephens, Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs with the American Council of the Blind.

The U.S. House of Representatives has begin moving legislation that could accelerate the rollout of self-driving technology.

The Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act, or “SELF DRIVE” Act, quickly cleared the House with unanimous support, and now moves to the Senate. If it passes there, it could become the first national law for self-driving cars in the United States.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has expressed concern about the SELF DRIVE Act, writing a letter to congressional leaders asking for clarification between the federal government and the states when it comes to regulating vehicle safety and operations standards.

More variances sought on nursing home generators

At least 21 more long-term care providers have filed requests for variances with the state Agency for Health Care Administration as they seek additional time to comply with Gov. Rick Scott‘s mandate that they add generators that can power air-conditioning systems.

The latest requests were published Monday in the Florida Administrative Register and are in addition to 33 requests for variances published last week. Scott’s administration issued emergency generator rules in September for nursing homes and assisted living facilities after eight residents of a sweltering Broward County nursing home died. Six more residents died later after being evacuated.

Hurricane Irma knocked out the air conditioning at the nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which did not have a backup generator for the cooling system.

Long-term care facilities are seeking the variances because a Nov. 15 compliance deadline is nearing, and facilities that aren’t in compliance face steep penalties, including possible license revocation.

Florida law allows variances, saying that the “strict application of uniformly applicable rule requirements can lead to unreasonable, unfair, and unintended results” and, as a result, agencies are authorized to grant variances and waivers to rules that cause a substantial hardship.

To clarify the process, the Scott administration last week issued another emergency rule that, in part, laid out information the Agency for Health Care Administration wants providers to include in the requests for variances. Meanwhile, three industry groups have challenged the rules in the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

A judge is expected to issue a decision within two weeks.

Americans for Prosperity urges Bill Nelson to support Republican budget bill

The conservative fiscal policy organization Americans for Prosperity-Florida Monday urged Florida’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson to vote yes on the U.S. Senate’s Republican budget bill.

AFP-FL stressed that the bill contains a set of parameters for a tax reform package that could pass the U.S. Senate by a simple majority vote. The budget blueprint outlined Sept. 29 by the Senate Budget Committee calls for $1.5 trillion worth of tax cuts over the next decade.

“A vote against the budget is a vote to obstruct tax reform,” AFP-FL State Director Chris Hudson stated in a news release. “Tax reform will unrig the economy by making the tax code fairer and simpler, and stopping the politicians and well-connected from gaming the code for their personal benefit. If Senator Nelson is serious about helping middle-class Floridians, he should vote ‘Yes’ on the Senate Budget Resolution.”

On Monday the national Americans for Prosperity, a political advocacy group founded and heavily funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, sent a letter to Nelson and other senators urging them to vote yes on the Republican proposal.

AFP-FL also indicated it would begin airing an ad urging voters to urge Nelson to do so.

“We urge you to vote YES on the Senate Republican fiscal year 2018 budget resolution. Americans for Prosperity will include this vote in our congressional scorecard,” the letter opens.

“The Senate budget resolution includes many important reforms that would restore responsibility in our federal finances. It reins in federal non-defense discretionary spending by $632 billion, respects the overall discretionary spending caps established by the Budget Control Act, and includes many other provisions that would incite economic growth. Most notably, it provides a pathway for passing comprehensive, pro-growth tax reform,” the letter states. “The resolution includes reconciliation instructions that give the Senate Finance Committee the flexibility it needs to fix the broken tax code.

“Passing a budget resolution is the first step toward delivering a fairer, flatter, and simpler tax code that works better for everyday Americans,” the letter continues. “A vote against the budget resolution is effectively a vote against tax reform. A vote against the budget resolution is a vote for the status quo and the status quo is unacceptable. Conservatives in Washington should not miss this once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

 

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