Michael Moline - 4/29 - SaintPetersBlog

Michael Moline

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

Steve Andrews getting involved in Kevin Rader’s crusade against lobbyist

Could someone in the Senate please ask Kevin Rader to knock it off?

That’s the gist of a letter Tallahassee attorney Steven Andrews wrote to Senate general counsel Dawn Roberts last week.

“Would you kindly ask Sen. Rader to stop disseminating my client’s picture around the Capitol on stationery that bears the Senate’s seal?” Andrews wrote.

“The last week has been bad enough without this nonsense,” Andrews continued in his letter, dated April 27.

This was after the Democrat from Boca Raton had plastered in Capitol elevators posters bearing a pixelated image strongly resembling insurance lobbyist Lisa Miller.

“Senator Kevin Rader would like to know… Where is ‘Concerned Citizen’ Mary Beth Wilson,” the letter-sized document announced.

Rader has been on Miller’s case ever since another insurance lobbyist wrote on his blog that Miller had impersonated that “concerned citizen” during a conference call with the Demotech Inc. ratings agency.

“I’m writing this letter to you as general counsel for the Senate, since Sen. Rader has been using the Senate’s seal in documents he posted around the Capitol in public places. If I don’t hear from you I will assume that Sen. Rader will stop this conduct.”

Rader asked Gov. Rick Scott in February to order an investigation into the conference call but says the only response has been crickets.

Both Miller and Demotech have adamantly denied doing anything of the sort.

Appropriations chiefs declare budget talks ‘closed’ — but with an asterisk

House and Senate budget negotiators traded final offers Thursday and pronounced their work done, bar some last-minute tidying up.

“The budget is closed,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Lavala said.

“We’ve got a couple of question marks, but this is not an opportunity to entertain any new issues. We’re going to resolve one or two issues, and then we’re going to come back together and get those solved,” he said.

“The cupboard is bare.”

Left to do is reconcile conforming bills on topics including PreK-12 and higher education and state worker pay raises.

“They are currently in the final stages of drafting. I think they’ll probably be printed later on this evening. Public hearing Friday, Monday, as soon as we possibly can. We want to give the public ample opportunity to review them. We’re not going to drop them 30 minutes before the meeting,” House budget chief Carlos Trujillo said.

The conferees reduced a proposed $300 million cut to hospital Medicaid reimbursement rates by $50 —which, accounting for the federal match — will leave the hospitals $600 million poorer.

But they still are figuring out how to apply the cut, Trujillo said.

The health and human services budget was the last big roadblock to a compromise $83 billion budget. The breakthrough didn’t come in time to meet the Legislature’s deadline for adjournment Friday, so the House and Senate agreed to extend the session into Friday.

Negotiators need to clear up “one or two big issues that may have been put in the wrong place on the spreadsheet,” Latvala said.

“It’s a lot of money. We just want to be right about what we do.”

Senate negotiators accepted House proviso language requiring an audit of the Tampa International Airport expansion. The chamber had rejected a Sen. Tom Lee amendment to audit the project on April 17.

Additional proviso language requires the Florida Supreme Court to issue a report each year to the governor, speaker of the House, and president of the Senate on the number of cases that remain on its docket for more than 180 days.

The item was a high priority for House leaders and passed both chambers — although the Senate tacked on an amendment expanding the use of juvenile civil citations that the House had yet to accept as of Thursday.

“That’s a House speaker initiative. But, actually, I don’t disagree with that,” Latvala said.

Update: The conferees reconvened Thursday evening to resolve their remaining technical differences, and to add nearly $2.5 million in last minute projects, including a rodeo facility in Arcadia, canal improvements in Florida City, and the Urban League.

“The budget is closed,” Latvala said. “It should be on the desk tomorrow morning. No more. No more. The budget is closed.”

Insurance bill sponsor insists it won’t become a train for AOB, PIP

When Lee Jacobson heard that that an insurance omnibus bill had been pulled from the Rules Committee onto the Senate floor Wednesday, he hightailed it to Tallahassee.

The Orlando insurance and personal-injury attorney, active in the Florida Justice Association, was watching his daughter play soccer at the time.

“I ran home, threw two suits in a bag and grabbed two one-way flights to get here,” Jacobson said Thursday morning.

His fear was that the bill — CS/CS/SB 454 — would become a train that might pull legislation to reform assignment of benefits agreements or personal injury protection auto insurance into law.

Bills on those two subjects have been languishing in the Senate.

Jacobson needn’t have worried. Jeff Brandes, SB 454’s sponsor, insisted Thursday that that’s not going to happen.

“My deal to pull that from committee was to take only things that were in the House bill or were in the Senate bill, plus one or two other issues that leadership of the Senate agreed would go on that bill,” Brandes said.

“AOB, PIP, workers’ comp are not any issues that are authorized to go on that bill, nor has the president asked me to put that on there,” he said.

The House version — which would prevent third parties from collecting attorney fees — is favored by Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, the industry, and business lobbies.

“They could put the AOB bill on workers’ comp,” Brandes allowed. He wouldn’t object “as long as it’s the House version. I would take the House version of both workers’ comp and AOB if it were up to me. I think they’re far superior to what we’ve approved.”

But on SB 454? No way.

“I would be happy to have that conversation, but that would violate the agreement I made to pull that bill from committee.”

He described his bill as “largely clean-up provisions that are needed to basically provide consumer protection and offer more efficient service in the insurance industry.”

Pulling a bill from committee like this is “a huge lift,” Brandes said.

“You think about how many bills got pulled from committee this year — maybe four of the thousand bills that got filed. You want to operate within your agreement, and that’s what I always endeavor to do.”

Might AOB or PIP find their way onto Sen. Rob Bradley’s workers’ compensation legislation? It awaits debate on the Senate’s special order calendar.

“To my knowledge, there’s nothing like that happening. But things could be happening I’m now aware of,” Bradley said.

He’d oppose any effort to amend an AOB bill onto his legislation.

“My workers’ comp bill is a workers’ comp bill,” he said.

“It’s going to be hard enough trying to get workers’ comp reform done this session. If you were to add AOB or any other insurance to the mix, it would weigh the thing so much it would sink.”

Bradley filed an amendment Wednesday that moves his bill closer to the House version by lowering the maximum hourly attorney fee available in claims appeals from $250 to $200. The House bill would provide $150.

The move does not reflect any deal with the House, Bradley said.

“But there is certainly a good faith effort on our part to meet in the middle.”

Update: Brandes swapped the House bill for the Senate language, but avoided any unwanted amendments. The bill still awaits a final Senate vote.

Amendment would move Senate workers’ comp fix closer to House language

The sponsor of the Senate workers’ compensation bill has edged toward the House position regarding the maximum attorney fees payable in claims litigation.

Sen. Rob Bradley filed an amendment to his bill Wednesday trimming the maximum hourly fee to $200 — down from $250 in his original bill, but more than the $150 contemplated in the House.

The amendment also would require the Department of Financial Services to engage an independent consultant to study the system for reimbursing medical providers through the workers’ compensation system.

“The study must evaluate the feasibility of adopting other reimbursement methods, including group health outpatient reimbursement rates,” the amendment says. “The study must include an evaluation of the payments, prices, utilization, and outcomes associated with each of the reimbursement methods.”

The amendment is drawn to the House language, HB 7085. The Senate version has been awaiting action on the Senate’s special order calendar, but has not yet been debated.

Insurance carriers and their business allies consider workers’ compensation reforms must-pass legislation this year, following a 14.5 percent increase in premiums that began to take effect in December.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance blames litigation cost for fully 10 percent of that increase.

Compensation judges would be allowed to departure from the statutory attorney fee schedule only when the payments would be less than 60 percent or more than 125 percent of the customary fee in the geographic area.

The Florida Justice Institute issued a written statement decrying any limit on attorney fees, and the lack of limits in the amendment for defense costs. Carriers would be required to report their spending to the Office of Judges of Compensation Claims, however.

Mark Touby, president of Florida’s Worker Advocates, issues a written statement denouncing the amendment.

“On top of being potentially unconstitutional, the strike-all amendment would have a devastating and chilling effect on Florida’s businesses and the workers they employ,” Touby said.

“The only people smiling about this amendment are the insurance special interests who will continue to profit at the expense of businesses,” he said. “It is our hope that Florida lawmakers will recognize the detrimental consequences this language would have on the workers’ comp system in Florida and vote no on this amendment.”

Against criticism by governor, Joe Negron makes the case for budget deal

Faced with the prospect of a gubernatorial budget veto, Senate President Joe Negron said Wednesday that he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I hope the governor doesn’t veto the budget, because I think it’s a strong budget. He certainly has every right to look at particular items,” Negron told reporters following the day’s Senate session.

Scott noted earlier in the day that he has the authority to veto the $83 billion budget in whole or in part, although he did not commit to either course. He’s specifically mentioned his unhappiness with funding levels for Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida, and repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.

Scott also criticized the Florida Legislature budget talks as secretive, saying he does not know what is or is not in the budget.

“The governor always has that option,” Negron said of a veto. “I don’t see anything unique about this budget that would make it more or less likely to be vetoed.”

Regarding secretiveness, he insisted the process has been “very open and transparent.”

For example, the House and Senate agreed not to insert projects into the budget during conference committee meetings.

“That’s a dramatic change from how the budget process was done before.”

He and House Speaker Richard Corcoran started making decisions only when their budget chairman and subcommittee chairman could not, Negron said.

“The vast majority was of it was resolved before things got to the presiding officers.”

He noted that the Senate has been supportive of Scott’s priorities, including Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida and other economic development programs.

“The Senate has fought hard for the governor’s priorities the entire session,” he said.

“At some point in this process, if one part of the Legislature does not want to fund something, it’s always easier not to do something than to actively fund something.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon said his caucus might be happy to see budget elements vetoed.

“It depends. We’ve got to see it first. I’m not going to opine on something that, as you can see, is not on my desk,” Braynon said.

“I’m trying to think of something terrible. Schools of Hope. Maybe Best and Brightest,” he said — referring to two education programs disfavored by many Democrats.

One element of the workers’ compensation fix headed to the governor

It’s not the big banana, but a small piece of workers’ compensation reform is on its way to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The bill is CS/CS/HB 1107, shielding personally identifying information about workers’ comp claimants under Florida’s public records laws.

It passed the House on a 120-0 vote Wednesday, having cleared the Senate, 37-0, on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the big workers’ compensation package remained on the Senate calendar, awaiting debate. The House has passed its version of that legislation.

The information at issue was shielded until 2003, when the Legislature allowed a public records exemption to lapse.

Advocates of the exemption argued it allows trial attorneys to identify possible claimants, encouraging costly claims appeals.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance has blamed litigation costs for 10 percent of the 14.5 percent workers’ compensation insurance premium increases that began to take effect in December.

“By exempting public records relating to injured or deceased workers, this relief is one way to clear the burdensome pressures in the system to get injured workers healthy at affordable rates to employers,” Tom Feeney, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Florida, said in a written statement following the House vote.

Final $83 billion budget bill awaits only fine tuning, conferees report

The House and Senate were tantalizingly close Wednesday to completing negotiations on an $83 billion state budget. It appeared only a question of firming up some details and completing the paperwork.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work that goes into preparing the document and getting it distributed and printed and whatever. But the major points are decided,” Senate budget chief Jack Latvala said following a noon meeting with his House counterpart, Carlos Trujillo.

What’s left?

“Mostly the HHS budget, and then some various implementing and proviso kind of situations. But we’re a long way down the road,” Latvala said.

Earlier in the day, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced their intention to distribute a budget bill to members on Friday, go home over the weekend, and extending for a short session Monday on the budget only.

The Legislature will miss its Friday deadline for completing a budget.

Working late on Tuesday night, the presiding offers settled the major remaining disputes.

“We appreciate the amount of time and effort the Senate’s put in and the amount of compromise that we’ve made in order to pass a responsible budget,” Trujillo said during the meeting Wednesday.

“It should be apparent to all of you that we’re now into gear. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress today, which hopefully will continue,” Latvala said.

The House and Senate have agreed in principle to restore $50 million of a possible $600 million in cuts to reimbursements to hospitals for treating Medicaid — or $120 million, counting federal matching funds.

“We haven’t got the paper and exchanged the offers, but the commitment is there to settle that,” Latvala said.

There’s no money for the Florida Forever land acquisition program next year — it was sacrificed, Latvala said, to the House demand for a larger rainy day fund, now at $1.2 billion.

“As the father of Florida Forever, as the person who passed that bill, I’m obviously disappointed to have a year when I’m Appropriations chairman and not be able to fund it,” he said.

“But it you look at the totality of our budget, and look at what we’re doing for Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, springs, Lake Apopka, the St. Johns River, beaches … I believe you’re going to probably find there’s more money in this budget for the environment than we’ve had in a long time.

“If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it. Next year, I’ll try to fix that.”

Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, sent to the governor Tuesday, also represents a major environmental investment, he said.

“It’s going to be spent for land buying. It’s just down there. It’s not timberland in North Florida.”

The House accepted Senate language allowing the state to use $1.5 billion made available by the federal government to reimburse hospitals for charity care unless both chambers agree.

The House agreed to pay nursing home residents $105 per month to spend on sundries — House leaders had wanted to reduce that to $70.

“The Senate considers that a big win. I don’t know why that should be a big issue,” Latvala said.

There’s $50 million for beach restoration, up from $30 million now. The House has not agreed to an emergency renourishment fund.

Senate sends amended version of opioid crackdown bill back to House

The Senate approved legislation Wednesday increasing penalties for trafficking in synthetic opioids including fentanyl and carfentanil,

The vote was 37-0 to send the measure back to the House.

HB 477  targets fentanyl and related substances that, when administered by themselves or in combination with other drugs, can prove deadly, for tougher sentencing. For example, it would add fentanyl and derivatives to the list of Schedule I drugs and provides that trafficking in them resulting in death constitutes murder.

An amendment the Senate adopted Tuesday on a voice vote removes mandatory-minimum sentences from the bill, possibly setting up a clash with the House

The amendment, by Randolph Bracy, would give judges discretion to depart from minimum sentences “if the court finds in giving due regard to the nature of the defendant’s crime, the defendant’s criminal history and character, and the defendant’s chance of successful rehabilitation, there are compelling reasons on the record that imposition of the mandatory minimum is not necessary for the protection of the public.

Senate sponsor Greg Steube warned during a sometimes impassioned debate Tuesday that the amendment would endanger his bill.

“Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than morphine. That’s what we’re talking about here,” Steube said.

“The other piece of this is, we’re in Tuesday of the last week in session, and if an amendment goes on, I don’t know if the House is going to be willing to take it up,” he said.

Bracy argued that defendants typically never knew they’d dealt in substances containing the targeted drugs.

Joe Negron acknowledges the Legislative Session will enter extra innings

Senate President Joe Negron conceded the obvious Tuesday night: The House and Senate won’t wrap up budget negotiations in time to adjourn as scheduled on Friday.

“You know the timetable as well as I do, with the 72-hour requirement. So we will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday, and so we’ll continue to work diligently,” Negron told reporters after the Senate recessed for the evening.

“We made a lot of progress today in a number of budget areas. I’m optimistic we can continue that. But I think, given the current schedule, it’s improbable we’ll be able to finish by Friday.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran expressed hope earlier in the day that the session would finish on time, but other denizens of the Capitol gave up on that idea as the day progressed.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott is taking to the road to criticize the Legislature for snubbing his bids for economic development money, repairs to the dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee, greater support for public education, tax cuts, and other priorities.

Negron defended the emerging budget on all of those points.

“We certainly can’t accept every priority every session,” Negron said.

He opened the prospect of capturing $200 million that the Seminole Tribe has paid the state under its gambling compact. The state hasn’t spent the money because of legal complications, and pending passage of a gambling bill — which as of Tuesday had failed.

Still, Negron suggested the money could help with the budget.

“It we can work together with the House to make that happen, I think that would be a way to mitigate some of the situations you’re discussing,” he said when asked about the governor’s stance.

Negron said outstanding disputes involve “a very small portfolio of the entire budget and all of the policy issues. Before any of those are ratified, we’ll certainly have public meetings with the Appropriations chairs.”

Lawmakers must wait three days before they can vote on any compromise.

He confirmed that a sticking point was health care spending.

“It almost always happens that the health care budget comes in last, because it’s the most difficult,” he said.

“I’m hoping maybe this evening we can talk about ways to come to a principled resolution that would involve accommodating the Senate’s concern about money following the patient, and the House’s concern about making sure our safety nets are not hurt and our children’s hospitals are protected,” Negron said.

“There may be a way to do a blended model where both sides could win.”

This year presented a particularly vexing mix of problems, he said — including gambling, Lake O, education funding, and hospitals.

“We may need a little extra time to complete it. But, as I said yesterday, it’s better to get it right than to get it done quickly.”

Presuming an extension is inevitable, lawmakers might go begging for shelter if they try to work over the weekend — Florida State University is holding its spring commencement, and hotel rooms and other accommodations are booked.

“Here’s what my first preference would be — that we complete our budget work; that the budget is actually printed and on the desk of House members and senators in its complete and final form; and then, if there’s a short extension that has to happen for the 72-hour rule and for senators and House members to review the budget, that would be fine.

“And then we could set a date for when we would come back to take a final vote that convenient for all parties.”

Must-pass workers’ compensation, AOB reform languishing in Legislature

With House and Senate leaders caught up with budget negotiations ahead of Friday’s deadline for adjournment, advocates for legislative fixes for assignment of benefits and workers’ compensation reform confronted this possibility:

Their must-pass legislation might not pass.

There’s a workers’ compensation bill on the Senate calendar, but it differs in significant respects from the version the House adopted, and it was unclear whether those differences could be reconciled in the time left.

Meanwhile, the House has adopted assignment of benefits, or AOB, reforms. But Senate version languishes in the Rules Committee.

“The problem we have right now is a bandwidth issue, with leaders being so involved in these (budget) numbers that they can’t really focus on these policies or strategies, or how we would do it — which bill, this and that,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, who sits on the Banking and Insurance Committee and is sponsor of the Senate AOB bill.

“That’s been the impediment we’ve been seeing. If we are going to extend, the way some people are speculating now, maybe that will give us a few extra days to get something done,” Farmer said.

“At this point, we would take anything as movement,” said Rep. James Grant, co-sponsor of the House AOB bill.

“The dialog has been very good. We have the ability to move stuff when we receive it on either side of the rotunda. We just need them to send us something to start the process,” he said.

Insurance companies and their business allies ardently desire both bills, chiefly as a means to control rising premiums. The Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent hike in workers’ comp rates last year, and interior water claims are driving up costs for property insurers.

The Senate workers’ compensation bill, CS/SB 1582, is more generous that the House version with attorney fees in claims challenges — it would let compensation claims judges depart from the state’s fee schedule by as much as $250 per hour if justified, as opposed to $150 in the House.

Another significant difference is that the Senate would shift to a loss cost premium-setting system, whereby insurers would independently propose rates to state regulators, instead of as a group, as most do now.

Sponsor Rob Bradley has said his bill would decrease premiums by a “small to moderate” amount, versus at least 5 percent in the House. But he’s deeply involved in negotiations over spending on environmental priorities.

The House approved its workers’ compensation bill, HB 7085, on April 19.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier’s top priority this year is legislation to make it harder for unscrupulous contractors and attorneys armed with AOB agreements to inflate claims and run up legal fees.

The House has approved an Altmaier-approved AOB bill, PCS/HB 1421, which would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether attorneys qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

Grant has said that the bill would forestall increases in property insurance rates approaching 50 percent.

In the Senate, the Rules Committee adjourned its final meeting last week without reaching a Farmer bill that would bar insurers from including attorney fees paid in benefits litigation when calculating premium levels.

Farmer had hoped to attach his AOB bill to that measure.

“We’ll have to see if Rules has another meeting, or if there’s some other way to get this bill moving,” Farmer said at the time.

Florida Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Carolyn Johnson could live with that, if it keeps AOB reform alive.

“Then hopefully, we might be able to get some meaningful reform,” she said — even though the Chamber opposes key elements of Farmer’s bill.

So could Grant.

“If they would pull something up and move something, we would be in a very good place,” he said.

“I don’t think we’re that far off,” Grant said of the House and Senate philosophical approaches.

“The conversations I have been a part of agree to the same two-tier criteria we’ve been talking about all along on our side — reduce premiums and not mess with a homeowner who has been paying his premiums and has a legitimate loss.”

Insurance lobbyist Tim Meenan would be comfortable with the House position on AOB reform. But he questioned the Senate’s appetite for parliamentary tricks with the budget still unsettled.

“Is the Senate up to that with only three days to go? The answer is probably no,” Meenan said. “But waive the rules with a two-thirds vote, and you’re off to the races.”

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