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20 posts from April 24, 2013

April 24, 2013

Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote

Voting on a major insurance overhaul was postponed again Wednesday, indicating that fear of skyrocketing rates is weighing down the bill in the Florida Senate. 

Bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said last week that he has enough support for the bill, but wanted more time to make amendments and build more consensus. 

He pulled the bill from the agenda right before the first scheduled vote last week. The same thing happened Wednesday, when the bill was again “temporarily postponed.” After cruising through the committee process, the bill has been delayed on the floor of the Senate three times in the last two weeks. It has been amended nearly 40 times.

Simmons said he would amend the bill in order to address concerns of lawmakers who are worried about the pocketbook impact on their constituents. 

The 100-page bill seeks to shrink the level of risk carried by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. by raising its rates and forcing its policyholders into the private market. The rate hikes are mostly focused on new policyholders at the state-run Citizens and those who have high-risk “wind-only” coverage. 

Citizens’ president Barry Gilway said earlier this month that the bill could lead to rate hikes of 60 percent or more in 11 counties across the state. Many of those large increases would be for the wind-only homeowners.

Continue reading "Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote" »

Scott remains unwilling to embrace campaign contribution increase

Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that the campaign finance bill moving through the House and Senate today may not be one that he can support.

"I continue to say this, no one has shown me a rationale for raising these limits, so I don't know why we would do it,'' he told reporters on Wednesday. "I haven't seen a rationale yet."

The bill raises the campaign contribution limits from $500 in current law to $3,000 for statewide candidates, thereby giving the governor and any potential opponent an easier way to raise campaign cash.  It is part of a two-part compromise between the House and Senate in which the chambers pass both ethics and campaign finance rewrites today.

If the bills reach the governor's desk during the session, he will have seven days to accept or veto them. Scott wouldn't commit to a veto on the campaign finance bill and said that "on the ethics bill, I'm reviewing that." 


House passes ethics bill, part 2 of the grand compromise

The Florida House unanimously passed an ethics bill on Wednesday that tightens rules on elected officials and was hailed by lawmakers as landmark reform.

The measure will be sent directly to the Senate, which passed its version on the first day of the legislative session, as the Senate sends the House the campaign finance bill. 

“I believe this bill will raise the ethical standard for all elected officials in the state of Florida,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Among the provisions

  • imposes a two-year ban on legislators from becoming executive branch lobbyists
  • allows legislators to accept honorarium under the state’s gift ban
  • loosens limits on dual employment that existed in previous versions of the bill -- exempting legislators if several criteria are all met – such as having the job publicly advertised and being qualified for the job.
  • Increases the time violators can be held accountable for their fines from four to 20 years.

Time running out for Weatherford's pension overhaul

Upon becoming Florida House Speaker last year, Will Weatherford said pension reform was going to be one of his top priorities.

But with a little more than a week left in session, Weatherford has for the first time acknowledged time is running out on passing his legislation.

“Nobody ever bats 1.000,,” Weatherford told reporters Tuesday. “No one ever expects to get everything single thing they asked for at the beginning of session.”


Continue reading "Time running out for Weatherford's pension overhaul" »

Common Cause: campaign finance 'reform' bill is a 'farce'

Common Cause Florida is not happy about HB 569, which passed the Florida Senate unanimously earlier today. The non-profit watchdog group has been an advocate of campaign contribution limits and accused lawmakers of "inviting more money into the process" with the bill that raises campaign contribution limits. 
"The notion that lawmakers are seriously considering campaign finance reform is a farce,'' wrote Brad Ashwell, of Common Cause Florida in a statement. " The bill passed today by the Senate does nothing to lessen the flow of money pumping through the political process at every turn and creates little transparency which was supposedly leadership's main goal."
More from his statement: 
"While the Senate's bill only raised individual contributions by $500, it still invites more money into the political process in one area while doing nothing to limit money flowing through political committees or the  parties. Several amendments and recommendations have been presented that may pass constitutional scrutiny. They simply were not seriously considered by the sponsors in either house.
"We also disagree with Senator Latvala's statement that there's a limited amount of money flowing through the process. Large influxes of cash often flood in from multiple sources at critical moments in close races. If you were to ask most people on the street, I think they would tell you that there's far too much money influencing the political process. Unfortunately, this bill does nothing to address that problem while inviting more money into the process. 
"We continue to adamantly oppose the incumbency protection provision of this bill which allows candidates to carry $20,000 from one campaign to the next. As Senator Clemens correctly pointed out on the floor, and as we argued in committee, they could allow members to carry over a nominal amount if their intent was truly to provide a convenience for candidate. The bottom line is that this amount of money will be a significant advantage for incumbents in smaller races and a good head start for candidates in larger races. 
"The notion that any good is served by eliminating CCE's is delusional. The legislation merely calls these committees a different name and even the sponsor admitted that it will be easier to set up the new political committees than it was to set up CCE's. 
"The fact that the Senate bill is marginally better than the House versions is a poor justification for this bill. The bottom line is that it will do very little to improve the campaign finance process and likely will do some harm. We do like that the bill requires some extra reporting in the final days leading up to an election and we also support the provision limiting turn-back funds between candidates and the political party to $25,000. We would like to see this returned to the older $10,000 cap but the bill does represent a positive step on this issue." 

Senate finishes campaign finance bill, first piece of ethics compromise

The Florida Senate completed its campaign finance bill Wednesday as part of a sweeping compromise with the House that will send the campaign finance and ethics bills to the governor today.

The Senate voted unanimously for the campaign finance rewrite. That bill, and the ethics bill up for a vote in the House, are top priorities of House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who have been shamed by ethics and elections year excesses that gave lawmakers a black eye. 

The package eliminates the Committees of Continuing Existence and creates powerful new political committees that can accept unlimited amounts of campaign contributions. The measure also raises some campaign finance limits from $500 in current law to $3,000 for statewide candidates, and to $1,000 for legislators and all other candidates.

Proponents hailed the accelerated reporting requirements in the bill that will require statewide candidates and their political committees to report daily in the last 10 days before a campaign. Other campaigns will have less aggressive reporting rules.

Continue reading "Senate finishes campaign finance bill, first piece of ethics compromise" »

Unanimous Senate kills insurance industry tax break

The Florida Senate was not a good neighbor to State Farm Wednesday.

In a unanimous bipartisan vote, the Senate ended a tax credit long enjoyed by the insurance industry and use the money to roll back some car and truck tag fee increases from 2009. Motorists will get a fee reduction of $12 a year from the repeal, which will generate about $220 million a

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said the bill (SB 1832) will end a 26-year jobs credit to insurers for the jobs they create in the Sunshine State. The more jobs insurers create in Florida, the bigger the tax break. More than 150,000 people work in the insurance industry in Florida, but lobbyists were unable to cite specific jobs that were a direct result of the tax credit.

The Senate decided that the giveaway must end, and some senators gleefully piled on the industry, which has hinted that some jobs may leave if the exemption is taken off the books. "It's nice to finally call a bluff," said Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. "The state is not going to collapse ... because we're removing these tax exemptions."

The vote was 39-0 with Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, absent. One Democrat tried to block the move.
Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, where Florida Blue and other insurers have emormous clout, offered an amendment to study the issue for a year. Gibson's amendment was easily defeated on a voice vote.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has promised a straight up-or-down vote in the 120-member House, even though no House member has filed a bill similar to Negron's. A favorable House vote will force Gov. Rick Scott to side with motorists or a pillar of the Florida business community on his signature issue of jobs.

-- Steve Bousquet

Fate of pet projects depend on Scott

The room was packed last Thursday with lobbyists and agency representatives when House Speaker Will Weatherford spoke with lawmakers before negotiations began on next year’s $74 billion budget.

“As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what’s abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. “That’s a good thing. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”

Everyone laughed, including the lawmakers who jammed the stage. But everyone got Weatherford’s point: After six years of anemic budgets, next year’s spending plan is healthy enough to pursue money for projects back home.

Game on.

For the Miami-Dade delegation, that’s a good thing. It’s better organized than most other counties, with a funded position that oversees what local lawmakers are doing. Other counties, like Hillsborough and Pinellas, slashed that position years ago.

Among the delegation’s top priorities: $7.5 million for the senior centers known as comedores; $1.1 million for Farm Share, a Florida City nonprofit that collects food from farms and wholesalers to feed the hungry; and $1 million for La Liga Contra El Cancer, or the League Against Cancer.

Continue reading "Fate of pet projects depend on Scott" »

House and Senate unwilling to concede on Medicaid expansion

The full House will discuss its proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion on Thursday and likely vote on Friday. That plan would rely only on state funding to provide basic coverages to low-income Floridians, forgoing an estimated $51 billion in federal funding.

The Senate is pushing a different proposal, one that is eligible for federal funding and would insure up to 1 million people. Right now, neither side appears willing to concede to the other.

“It wouldn’t be the first time the Legislature had a different position in the House and the Senate on a serious public policy matter,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, on Tuesday. “There’s nothing wrong with having a very serious public debate about an issue of this significance.”

Weatherford refused to say if the Legislature will return for a special session on Medicaid expansion, only that there won’t be huge alarms if the issue isn’t settled before session ends next week.

“That doesn’t mean that the world comes to the end,” he said. “It just means that we’re going to have to continue to talk in the off-season and see if we can’t find some middle ground later.”

Click here to read more about the Senate's two Medicaid expansion alternatives, which are both ready for a floor vote. The one that is similar to the House plan likely won't be heard.

Scott leverages bond approval to force universities to lower student fees

From the Associated Press: Gov. Rick Scott is putting pressure on Florida's public universities to hold down fees charged to students, making it a condition for two universities seeking state approval for construction projects on their campuses.

Scott indicated Tuesday he refused to go along with granting bonding approval for the projects at Florida State University and Florida International University until the schools agreed to keep costs down for students.

In one instance, the Republican governor said he extracted a promise from Florida International to freeze a transportation access fee for six years as a prelude to winning bonding approval for a new parking garage on FIU's campus in West Miami-Dade County. The fee is paid by every student, including those walking or cycling to class, he said.

"It's the right thing to do," Scott said of the fee freeze during a meeting of the Florida Cabinet at the Capitol.

Asked if he was imposing a new prerequisite for campus bonding projects, Scott replied, "We're doing it on this one." More here.