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20 posts from April 16, 2013

April 16, 2013

Wage theft bill headed to House floor

A bill that would outlaw new “wage theft” ordinances—similar to the one in Miami-Dade County—is headed to the House floor after a partyline vote in its final committee.

The vote came on the same day that employee activists called a press conference to protest the bill as an anti-worker intrusion on local government.

Proponents called it a way to create a statewide solution to the problem of wage theft, or employers not compensating their workers. That solution encourages the worker to take the case to small claims court, rather than county-based programs established by ordinance.

The bill, HB 1125, is the latest in a multiyear attempt by the business lobby to outlaw local laws that govern the act of “wage theft,” or employers refusing to pay employees. The push has failed in previous years, and a judge upheld Miami-Dade’s program last year.

Miami-Dade County created a program in 2010 to address wage theft, launching an administrative process that helps employees recover lost wages from their employers. The program has recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid wages since it was created via ordinance in 2010.

In Miami-Dade and Broward County, the bill would leave the ordinances intact. Any counties looking to enact wage theft ordinances in the future—including Alachua County—would be banned from doing so in the future.

The bill would force victims of wage theft to take their case to civil court, after giving their employer a “demand letter,” allowing them 15 days to pay the disputed amount. Courts could only award “economic damages,” and awards for punitive damages or repayment for attorneys fees would be prohibited. The bill also reduces the statute of limitations for wage theft claims from two years to one year.


Major Citizens Insurance bill pulled moments before vote. Sponsor: 'I have the votes'

A major bill to reform Citizens Property Insurance Corp. was pulled right before a floor vote on Tuesday, with the Senate sponsor saying he needed more time to make changes and build “consensus.”

The vote was already expected to be close—as the 100-page bill includes several controversial provisions that could increase insurance rates in places like South Florida and Tampa Bay.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said he was adding new language in the bill to more closely target “wind-only” policies, typically found in coastal areas.

Simmons said that some of the reports about 60-percent rate increases caused by the bill were only for the wind-only policies, which he said were incredibly underpriced.

“There is a group of people paying below market rates,” he said. “These people are getting a free ride.” Simmons said his bill, once amended, would mostly affect new policyholders with wind-only policies, allowing current homeowners to remain under the 10 percent glidepath.

Continue reading "Major Citizens Insurance bill pulled moments before vote. Sponsor: 'I have the votes'" »

Miami-Dade Democrats to host forums on Dolphins stadium proposal


The Miami-Dade Democratic Party plans to host four town-hall style meetings to discuss the county's proposal to help pay for a $350 million renovation to the Miami Dolphins' stadium.

Party Chairwoman Annette Taddeo-Goldstein opposed the deal in a statement last week, on the heels of an extraordinary vote a week earlier by the Miami-Dade Republican Party that also gave the plan a thumbs-down. The proposal goes before voters in a May 14 countywide referendum.

In a news release Tuesday, the party said the forums will include "both sides" of the proposal.

"The Party believes that an educated voter is the best voter and that the public should have the opportunity to gather all the facts before the referendum," the statement said.

Here's a list of the meetings:

Continue reading "Miami-Dade Democrats to host forums on Dolphins stadium proposal" »

As Senate reworks elections bill, supervisors are enraged

Senate Republicans on Tuesday revised a major elections bill that addresses some voting problems that made Florida a target of national ridicule in 2012, but they rejected changes Democrats sought and added a provision -- aimed at Miami-Dade's top elections official -- that angered election supervisors.

A final vote was delayed. The bill expands early voting sites in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's long lines, and mandates eight early voting days for up to 12 hours each day. County election supervisors could voluntarily extend early voting to 14 days, including on the Sunday before the election.

The bill addresses the widespread problem of sloppy absentee ballots by giving absentee voters the ability to fix a problem with their ballots -- such as a missing or non-matching signature -- up to 5 p.m. on the Sunday before an election. Bowing to
growing opposition, senators also dropped a provision that would have required absentee voters to have their ballots witnessed by an adult.

The  bill prohibits paid absentee ballot solicitors from receiving more than  two ballots for people other than family members, and it prohibits people from assisting more than 10 voters at the polls -- which a Miami-Dade civil rights group, Florida New Majority, says would result in the disenfranchisement of some voters. 

A last-minute amendment to the bill gives the Secretary of State the power to place a county supervisor of election on "noncompliant status," including the loss of $2,000 in salary, for up to three years for incompetence. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who has been critical of Miami-Dade  Supervisor Penelope Townsley's handling of the 2012 election, sponsored  the provision. Townsley is the only supervisor among 67 who's appointed, not elected.

"It's more symbolic than anything else," Diaz de la Portilla said. "It's not about removal from office. Only the governor can do that."

Election supervisors are elected constitutional officers, like sheriffs, and the governor has the power to suspend them from office. Some supervisors were livid at Diaz de la Portilla's maneuver, which had never been heard in a committee.

"It was heavy-handed and truly a ham-fisted attempt to go after his own supervisor of elections," said Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards, a former state House member. "It was a typical inside Tallahassee backroom deal."     

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, manager of  the bill, said he was persuaded to support the provision, recalling how former Gov. Jeb Bush had to suspend Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant from office for ineptitude.

"I don't think it should get to that," Latvala sai. "This is a token kind of thing that could be used by the Secretary of State to get the attention of supervisors who are not doing the job they were elected to do."

Senate Democrats tried in vain to make early voting mandatory on the Sunday before the election; to make "any suitable location" available for early voting; and to limit future ballot questions to no more than 150 words.  The bill (HB 7013) now returns to the full House for a vote, as county election supervisors try to strip out the "noncompliant" language.

-- Steve Bousquet

Cat Fund bill survives two special interest cat fights, headed to House floor

A bill to shrink Florida’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund survived substantial debate and parallel cat fights between special interests Tuesday, clearing its final House committee. It now heads to the House floor. 

HB 1107 by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, would reduce the state’s $17 billion reinsurance fund, while also exempting medical malpractice insurers from potential “assessments” levied by the fund. 

Both issues—shrinking the low-cost reinsurance fund and exempting medical malpractice—sparked opposing arguments among lawmakers and groups that have a financial interest in the outcome. 

Hager said he sponsored the bill because the Cat Fund may not be able to meet its obligations to pay claims for Citizens Property Insurance and other private insurance companies that buy its reinsurance. 

“This is the time for us to belly up to the bar,” he said. “We’ve made promises. Promises we know that we could not keep.”

Continue reading "Cat Fund bill survives two special interest cat fights, headed to House floor" »

Teachers sue the state Board of Ed, challenge new educator evaluation protocol

Seven Florida teachers filed a federal lawsuit against state Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and the Board of Education on Tuesday, alleging that the state's new protocol for evaulating educators is unconstitutional.

Their claim: Evaluating teachers based on the performance of students they don't teach -- or based on student test scores in subjects they don't teach -- violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The seven teachers have the support of the state and national teachers' unions.

“Teachers in Florida are being evaluated using a formula designed to measure learning gains in the FCAT math and reading tests," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said Tuesday. "But most teachers, including the seven in this lawsuit, don’t teach those subjects in the grades the test is administered. One of the teachers bringing this suit is getting evaluated on the test scores of students who aren’t even in her school.”

Senate passes texting while driving bill

The Senate unanimously passed a texting while driving bill on Tuesday and sent it the House. For the first time, it looks like Florida could get a law restricting texting. Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice,  who has been trying to get a bill passed for four years,  said the offense "needs to stop, this is the year."

The bill (SB 52) makes texting while driving a secondary violation, which means a motorist would have to commit another offense, such as careless driving, in order to be pulled over. Once stopped, a driver could receive two tickets, one for the infraction and one for texting.

"Everyone is in support of this bill," Detert said. "The general public supports it by 89 percent. We really don't need the statistics... We see it every day as we drive."

Detert credits House Speaker Will Weatherford for allowing the bill to be heard in the House. This is the first time representatives have had the chance to vote on the measure, which has cruised  through committees this session.

The texting problem, Detert said, has become an "epidemic" with 11 teenagers dying every day in the country due to texting. Florida is one of five states without any type of texting ban.

Senate Democrats agreed to roll over a third reading of the bill and make it available for a final vote. "The bill is long overdue," said Minority Leader Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "We've lost too many young people, too many people in general."

Update: Voters groups say Senate elections bill becoming elections hurdle bill

The long-awaited elections reform bill (SB 600) comes before the Florida Senate today and a recent amendment has some voters groups clamoring that it has gradually become an election hurdles bill.

A last minute amendment added to the measure by chief sponsor, Senate Ethics and Elections chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, would impose new restrictions on volunteers who assist non-English speaking voters on Election Day. An effort to remove the language was rejected by the full Senate on a voice vote.

The change, conceived and proposed by former Miami Republican Rep. J.C. Planas, would ban any volunteer from helping a voter in the voting area who doesn’t read or speak English unless that person is known to the voter prior to Election Day and limits the volunteer from helping no more than 10 voters. It was added to the bill at the last committee on a vote along party lines. 

“Why add this change at the last minute?,’’ asked Gihan Perera, executive director of the Florida New Majority in an email to supporters on Monday. “Perhaps it’s because in 2012, local community residents decided to pitch in to help election officials in North Miami and other heavy immigrant areas in servicing hundreds of people who needed basic language assistance in casting their ballot.”

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Will do-nothing Congress kill lawmakers call to fight $5b tax-ID fraud industry?


Tax Day is no longer just a deadline for citizens to rush and file their returns.

It’s now a day for members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans alike —to file legislation or announce ways to prevent an estimated $5 billion in tax-identification fraud, which is particularly virulent in Florida and especially South Florida.

The effort by local lawmakers is nothing new, nor is the fact that the measures have died year-after-year in a do-nothing Congress.

On Monday, Miami-area Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Joe Garcia and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen all promoted legislation to put an end to the practice. Florida Sen. Bill Nelson announced a bill last week.

“Something needs to be done,” said Jon Simpkins, a Miami-Dade businessman who appeared with his wife, a tax-ID fraud victim, at Garcia’s press conference.

It took the Internal Revenue Service until April 8 to supply the family their tax-refund money from last year — a week before this year’s tax-filing deadline.

“I’m surprised they haven’t fixed this yet,” Simpkins said, detailing the delays and difficulties of just getting the IRS to do its job.

Continue reading "Will do-nothing Congress kill lawmakers call to fight $5b tax-ID fraud industry?" »

Five Things To Know for Tuesday's Legislative Session

TALLAHASSEE Tuesday gets off to a quick and busy start at the Capitol, with the Senate hitting the chamber floor first thing in the morning and the House considering a slate of high-profile bills in committee throughout the day.
* The Senate will vote on a property insurance overhaul (SB 1770) that is expected to lead to higher premiums for Citizens Property Insurance policyholders in some parts of the state. Supporters say the goal is to bring fiscal stability to the state-run insurer, but opponents rallying at the Capitol on Monday said it will hurt the housing market and ratepayers.
* The Senate will discuss, but is not scheduled to vote, on the proposal that would make texting while driving punishable as a secondary offense (SB 52). A similar measure passed the Senate last year but was not heard in the House. Also on the special order calendar is the elections reform package (SB 600) that would allow elections supervisors to offer more hours of early voting at more locations. Senate Democrats have said the reforms do not go far enough.
* The House Regulatory Affairs Committee will scrutinize the state’s 2006 law allowing utility companies to collect fees from customers for nuclear power projects before they are built. HB 7167 prevents utilities from charging customers before they get a license for the plant and does not allow for fees to be collected for new plants.The committee will also hear a bill in its final committee stop that aims to allow for easier transfer of event tickets (HB 163). StubHub supports the measure, but sporting venues say it may just lead to more ticket-scalping.
* A bill that would allow for certain employees designated by a principal to carry a gun on school property will be heard in the House Judiciary Committee (HB 1097). The panel will also hear the contentious "wage theft" measure (HB 1125) that would prevent local governments from prosecuting wage theft, or employers refusing to pay employees. "Wage theft" ordinances in Miami-Dade and Broward counties would be grand-fathered in but new local laws would be preempted by the state.
*The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee is scheduled to hear a bill that would eliminate the state’s no-fault auto insurance requirement (SB 7152). The committee postponed a vote on the measure last week.
(Katie Sanders, Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau)