Michael Moline - 7/29 - 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.

Richard Corcoran: House and Senate ‘very, very, very’ close to budget deal

The House and Senate were on the brink Tuesday evening of agreeing to a framework for negotiating s budget deal, House Speaker Richard Corcoran told the House.

“We are very, very, very close to having allocations agreed to with the Senate,” Corcoran announced from the speaker’s podium, drawing cheers from the members.

“And I mean close in the hand grenades sense, not the horseshoe sense,” he said.

“To the extent that happens imminently, we’ll appoint conferees and make announcements, and it’s very likely we’ll start (conference) tonight.”

“We made some headway, so we’re hoping on being able to get out of here. Hopefully, we’ll have a deal within the next hour,” House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo said. “It’s 4 o’clock right now. Hopefully, at 6, 6:30, we’ll have our welcome and start caucusing.”

He was over-optimistic — Katie Betta, Senate President Joe Negron‘s spokeswoman, said several hours later that there would be no conference that night.

Trujillo’s committee that morning had voted along party lines to approve a “standard operating budget,” or contingency budget, adhering mostly to the budget the Legislature approved last year for the existing fiscal year.

The plan then was to let the Rules Committee decide whether to calendar that budget.

“I think they meet in the next half-hour, so I don’t think they’re going to calendar it at this point,” Trujillo said.

Details, including the future of Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious Lake Okeechobee plan, state worker pay raises, and the House ‘Schools of Hope’ bill, remain to be worked out, he said.

The Senate had ruled out passing a contingency budget over the weekend. By midafternoon Tuesday, the House had sent a new offer across the rotunda, which the Senate was reviewing, according to staffers in both chambers.

House assignment of benefits reforms move closer to final vote

The House cleared its version of assignment of benefits reform for a final vote Tuesday, defeating an amendment that would have frozen property insurance rates and required a premiums rollback next summer.

PCS/HB 1421 would tighten requirements for contractors to report claims to insurance companies and establish a graduated scale for determining whether contractors holding these agreements qualify to recover litigation expenses from carriers.

“What’s important is to make sure that we don’t reward bad lawyers who are trying to abuse the system on either side with the guaranteed fee mechanism, and to make sure everybody has skin in the game,” Grant said.

It also will require the Office of Insurance Regulation to collect data on trends in assignment of benefits, or AOBs, and related litigation.

“Most homeowners here in the state of Florida will see roughly a 50 percent increase in their property insurance rates if we don’t so something,” co-sponsor James Grant said.

An amendment by Democrat Evan Jenne would have held property insurance rates at existing levels through July 1, 2018, then rolled rates back by 6.5 percent. And property insurers could no longer impose “use and file” rate increases, but rather would have to go through formal, public hearings.

His proposal was “100 percent pro-consumer, with no shame attached to it,” Jenne said.

“Rep. Jenne, I think you know, is one of my favorite members in this chamber to work with,” Grant said. “But this would actually be, I believe, a counterproductive way to roll back rates.”

The amendment fell on a voice vote.

In September, the insurance office approved a 6.4 percent increase in premiums charged by Citizens Property Insurance Corp., largely blaming AOB abuse by dodgy contractors and attorneys.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier testified in committee that the bill would go “a long way in addressing this issue.” Seventy-three percent of the rate filings his office approved in 2016 were for increases, Altmaier said.

Between 2010 and 2015, the industry experienced a 42 percent increase in water claims, 28 percent increase in their severity, and a trebling of assignment of benefits agreements. AOB-related lawsuits increased from around 400 in 2006, to more than 1,000 in 2011, to more than 28,000 in 2016.

House ‘standard operating budget’ clears Appropriations Committee

The House Appropriations Committee voted along party lines Tuesday to approve an $82.1 billion “standard operating budget,” in a move Democrats complained brought Washington-style dysfunction to Tallahassee.

“I can tell you, we have spent every last, legitimate effort trying to compromise before we came to this point. It wasn’t for lack of effort. It wasn’t that we just grabbed our ball and went home,” Chairman Carlos Trujillo said.

But the Florida Constitution gives the Legislature 60 days to write a budget, and House leaders didn’t want to extend or call a special session, he said. Or bankrupt the state.

“And I can tell you, some of the negotiations, that’s exactly where we were heading,” he said. “I can tell you, the budget that we were negotiating would have ruined the state.”

The vote was 14-10.

The development came amid reports that House and Senate negotiators were close to a deal — although Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala warned: “not to believe the rumors.”

Following a lengthy meeting of his committee, Latvala declined to comment on the budget talks.

“I have no idea what’s going on,” Latvala told reporters. ”I’ve been sitting here. You guys have seen me sitting here for four hours. I don’t know anything about what’s going on with the budget.”

Back on the House side, Democratic leader Janet Cruz expressed frustration at the situation.

“This is House leadership trying to turn Tallahassee into Washington, D.C., where we kick our problems down the road because we don’t have the will to solve them,” she said.

“By passing this budget we are essentially admitting that we have wasted the taxpayers’ time and money on two months of grandiose speeches and posturing, with nothing to show for it,” she said.

“I feel like we are pawns of political posturing. We all just need to grow up. We need to sit at a table together and we need to do what the citizens of Florida and the fricking taxpayers have asked us to come here and do — and that is to take the money that we collect from them and pass a balanced budget.”

Committee Democrats denounced the move, pointing to a list of human services spending — including Alzheimer’s and autism treatment, homelessness, and human trafficking programs — the budget would scrap in the service of “political posturing.”

“This is not fair, and it’s not right,” Democrat Cynthia Stafford said.

Republican Jason Brodeur insisted that only projects lacking recurring funding sources would be affected, and that the budget would meet critical state needs.

“I’m sorry if your personal pet projects are being cut,” Brodeur said.

The bill continues spending at levels the Legislature approved for the current fiscal year, although with increases to meet growth in demand for Medicaid and the student population, while setting aside $3 billion in reserves.

State agencies would continue at existing spending levels.

Details available here.

The budget would include $1.5 billion to reimburse hospitals for charity care, contingent on the Trump administration making good on its promise to provide that much money. In the meantime, the bill would set aside $608 million for that purpose.

“The $1.5 billion is nothing but gravy on top,” Trujillo said.

Visit Florida would get $50 million, more than the House wanted to spend. Similarly, universities and Enterprise Florida would continue at existing spending levels, Trujillo said following the vote.

But there’d be no money for Senate priorities including Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious universities enhancements and Lake Okeechobee project.

Trujillo said the new budget amounted to Plan B — a contingency in case negotiations with the Senate fail.

“Unless a deal has been struck and they’re just waiting for the ink to dry, time is precious at this point. And every hour and every day that goes by really puts us at a huge deficit,” he told reporters following the hearing.

“It’s not a negotiating tactic,” Trujillo insisted. “We have to pass a budget.”

The House now faces the prospect of having two proposed budgets. The Rules Committee will decide later today whether to send the new one to the floor — contingent on whether House Speaker Richard Corcoran can strike a compromise with the Senate.

“If he has an agreement, I’m sure Rules won’t calendar and send this to the floor. If we don’t have an agreement … I’m sure they’ll take this off calendar and send it straight to the floor, and we’ll pivot directly onto this budget.”

Is there a chance the House could pass the new budget and go home, as it did in 2015?

“You would have to ask the speaker,” Trujillo said.

House leaders instigated the move despite Senate objections to a contingency budget. The chambers are nearly $4 billion apart on spending for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

With less than two weeks remaining in the Legislative Session, the time is running short to reach a compromise and bring it to a vote.

Still, Democrat David Richardson argued in debate that it was too soon to take this step.

“It’s just too early to admit defeat,” he said.

Talks stalled, House schedules committee review of continuation budget

The House Appropriations Committee will meet Tuesday morning to consider a “standard operating budget,” pending progress in negotiations with the Senate over spending priorities for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran announced the move in a note to House members Monday evening. He acted after Senate President Joe Negron rejected a House proposal to enact a “continuation budget” maintaining spending more or less at existing levels.

“The purpose of this meeting is to consider a standard operating budget. We remain hopeful that we will be able to reach an acceptable compromise and begin budget conference this week; it is our responsibility to pass a budget that continues the functions of state government,” Corcoran wrote.

“This standard operating budget will set aside nearly $2 billion in reserves and will protect the critical needs of the state while also providing for natural growth on issues such as Medicaid caseload and K-12 enrollment,” Corcoran continued.

The plan would maintain state agencies at existing spending levels; provide for maintenance and repair of infrastructure; and “includes health and human services funding for issues such as decreasing the (adult persons with disabilities) wait list,” Corcoran said.

“Again, to emphasize, we remain optimistic that we will reach budget consensus with the Senate. However, by considering this standard operating budget as a contingency, we would prevent an unnecessary government shutdown, protect the state’s future, and still enable us to fund new priorities in the future,” he wrote.

Earlier, Negron denounced the idea.

“I understand the concept of a ‘continuation budget’ to be a Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget and then simply carries forward the current budget for years at a time, with additional spending,” he wrote to senators.

“I have no interest in adopting this ineffectual practice. Our constituents deserve and expect more.”

Meanwhile, House Democratic leader Janet Cruz criticized “useless posturing” by House and Senate Republican leaders, suggesting they’re more interested in higher office than in meeting the state’s needs.

“Republican leadership in the House and Senate is failing the people of Florida,” Cruz said in a written statement issued by the Democratic caucus office.

“While House Democrats have been focused on and have filed legislation dealing with the real priorities of Floridians, Republican leadership in both chambers have spent their time this session on useless posturing and messaging towards higher office instead of addressing the pressing issues facing our state.”

Cruz called the situation “an outrage.”

The House has passed an $81.2 proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1. The Senate budget would spend $85 billion. Existing spending amounts to $82.3 billion.

Ethics commission bucks legislative leaders’ assertion of authority

The Florida Commission on Ethics voted unanimously Friday to resist efforts by House and Senate leaders to exert control over its hiring, firing, travel, and other business, citing fears for its independence.

The panel agreed to back Chairman Matthew Carlucci in rejecting a “delegation of authority” issued on March 21 by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Carlucci was sure the leaders’ intentions were “noble,” and that “these are good people,” he said.

Still, “as long as the Legislature stays involved with any kind of delegation or perception of a delegation that they can deliver to us, there will always, in my opinion, be a conflict of interest inherently. And particularly on our investigators and their support teams,” Carlucci said.

“Because when we have to occasionally investigate members of the House or the Senate, and there’s a perception that they have some control, that is a conflict of interest.”

Some commissioners appeared more eager for a fight than others, and the final language reflects that caution.

The resolution recognizes “that it is the honorable intention of the Legislature to maintain accountability for all agencies of government,” and says the commission shares that commitment.

But it also notes that the Florida Constitution established the commission as an independent entity, and that the leaders’ move threatens perceptions of that independence.

It concludes:

“The Commission on Ethics respectfully suggests that, although it is unable to accept the delegations of authority, the commission remains committed to operating strictly within the bounds of the law as set forth by the Legislature, and the financial parameters appropriated by the Legislature, and will continue to honor the Legislature’s authority as clearly articulated in Florida Statutes and in the Florida Constitution.”

Carlucci said he would have favored stronger language, but that the document “conveys the message that we are unable to accept it (the delegation). That’s the key that get me over the line.”

“I don’t think we need to have a dog fight over language that would be considered as inflammatory,” Commissioner David Berger said. “Just by having this long hearing, the message is getting out there about how we fell about our independence.”

The commission has tussled with the Legislature before. In 1987, it sued to assert its independence. The Legislature settled after a circuit judge refused to throw out the commission’s case, according to former commission chairman Mark Herron.

“The power to hire and fire, the power to pay, is the power to control,” Herron told the commission.

Legislative leaders began issuing the delegations in 1998. The March document asserts authority to approve hiring, firing, increases pay or bonuses to commission staff; out-of-state travel; expenses or more than $1,000; leases or changes in office space; spending money left over from a previous year; or any personal leave of more than one week.

“I do not believe the speaker and president have standing to issue these delegations in the first place, because of the commission’s independence, as spelled out in the Constitution,” Carlucci said.

“This has been going on since 1998, and it shouldn’t have been,” Commissioner Kimberly Rezanka said.

The directives don’t appear onerous, but could prevent staff travel necessary to investigate cases, she said.

“To me this is a notice issue, that we should not be subjected to delegation of authority whatsoever as an independent commission,” she said. “I don’t believe these should be issued to us at all.”

“This is not the commission throwing their thumb in the Legislature’s face. We’re not doing that. What we’re doing is only expressing what the Constitution requires, independence,” Commissioner Stanley Weston said.

“By no means is it meant as disrespect. By all means, it is respect for the people of Florida and respect for the Constitution.”

Appropriations chiefs sound hopeful as clock ticks on state budget negotiations

With two weeks and change remaining in the 2017 Legislative Session, House and Senate budget leaders are professing optimism that they can resolve their differences and adjourn on time May 5.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo — and Jack Latvala, his Senate counterpart — both said Thursday they hope to begin formal budget conference negotiations soon.

“We have to. If not, we’re running out of time,” Trujillo told reporters.

The process is driven by “just the natural timetable for sine die May 5,” he said.

“It (the budget) needs to rest on the table for 72 hours prior to that. We want to give ample time for debate, for members to analyze it, to study it. We have to give proper time to conference. We’re really, really getting towards that line in the sand that we need to start moving.”

“I think we’re making good progress,” Latvala said.

“I think we need to start in conference by the first of the week in order to get done on time,” he said. “But I have every confidence that we will do that at this point — which is different from my opinion the first part of this week. We’ve made a lot of progress.”

The chambers are $3.8 billion apart on spending.

Among their differences is what to do about a Trump administration promise of $1.5 billion for a low income pool, or LIP program, compensating hospitals for treating charity patients. The Senate budget includes $600 million for the program. The House bill does not.

Trujillo has been talking about spreading that money around elsewhere, possibly in tax cuts. House leaders cite projections for stagnant growth in tax revenues next year and declining returns going forward.

“Do we really think, going into years of economic recession, we should be growing the budget, or do you think we should be saving money?” Trujillo asked.

Not only that — state leaders haven’t seen the “terms and conditions” the administration plans to impose on the LIP money, he said.

That information should arrive next week, he added.

Presuming it arrives in time, “that’s unencumbered general revenue and should be spent in any part of the budget,” Trujillo said.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed that the LIP infusion could free $200 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, and to boost funding for Visit Florida to $100 million. The House wants to spend one-quarter of that amount on the tourism agency.

“It’s pretty late in the session,” Trujillo said. “We hadn’t heard about that until last week. If you look at the governor’s proposed budget, it had about $76 million for Visit Florida and no money for the dike. I think it will be very difficult, given the late stage.”

Fixing water overflows from the lake — and related discharges of toxic algae — are a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron. SB 10 would earmark $1.5 billion to address the problem through measures including construction of reservoirs south of the lake — an element Scott endorsed.

“Scott’s support always helps,” Latvala said.

But he was unwilling to predict how the governor’s proposal would play.

“I can’t tell you what the other 39 guys in the Senate will agree to. I think everything as it pertains to SB 10, and the intentions and our reasons for doing it and our goals, I’m very, very happy with the way it’s all working out.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, asked during his regular Thursday afternoon news conference about using the LIP money, shared Trujillio’s skepticism.

“I hate to always say this, but show us the money,” Corcoran said.

“I do know that, just like the governor, the president does not have authorization to spend — that is wholly within the jurisdiction of the legislature, and I don’t think they’ve done that,” he said.

Trujillo saw areas where the House could move toward the Senate’s position. “There are a lot of areas in the budget, absolutely,” he said.

Required local effort isn’t one of them. The Senate wants to leave mandatory local property tax levels where they are, to capture rising property values for the schools; the House sees that as a tax increase.

“We won’t raise taxes,” Trujillo said. Otherwise, “we’re committed to considering their priorities. And we hope that they’re committed to considering ours.”

“I’m really not going to get into the conversations that we’re having,” Latvala said. “I find it better just to have those conversations and announce a result. But I’m very happy with the way those conversations are going.”

Appropriations Committee vote sends solar tax break bill to the Senate floor

Senate implementing legislation for last year’s solar energy referendum passed its final committee test Thursday, when the Appropriations Committee voted its unanimous approval.

The bill by St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes  would implement $54.5 million in annual solar breaks on local taxes, approved by Florida voters via Amendment 4 in August.

SB 90, supported by environmental groups and solar panel installers, lacks the same safety standards and disclosure requirements found in the House version, HB 1351.

Brandes said the House is moving toward the Senate’s position.

“We’re going to continue to work with them. The landing site in in sight on this bill,” Brandes said.

“I would imagine there will be some changes to this bill as we get to the floor,” he added.

Seventy-three percent of Florida voters backed the constitutional amendment, which shields the increased value of a home due to renewable energy improvements such as solar panels in property value assessments.

The Senate version would would apply to solar devices on all real property, including commercial establishment, irrespective of date of installation.

Senate workers’ comp sponsor open to compromise as bill heads to floor

The Senate’s workers’ compensation package passed its final committee test Wednesday, as its sponsor expressed willingness to compromise with the House over conflicting language on attorney fees and medical payments.

“I do think that we can land in a place where, when they score the final product, it will show more rate reduction than they’re scoring the Senate product at this time,” Sen. Jeff Bradley told members of the Rules Committee.

“I understand there are a lot of moving parts to arrive at that place, and I look forward to continuing the discussion with all the stakeholders — with the understanding that everybody’s going to have to give a little to get to where we need to be,” he said.

The committee voted, 10-0, to send his bill to the Senate floor, acting shortly after the House approved its workers’ compensation bill, HB 7085.

The Senate bill, CS/SB 1582, is more generous that the House version with attorney fees — 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.

The Senate also is more generous with medical providers than the House, which would shift treatment payments from the existing charge-based system to a schedule tied to Medicare rates.

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.

Bradley acknowledged the Senate bill would produce a smaller decrease in premium levels than the House version — by a “small to moderate” amount, versus at least 5 percent in the House.

“I would just like to weigh in for more rate reductions,” Sen. Tom Lee said, although he acknowledged that would mean taking something away from some party or parties to the system.

Everything, Bradley suggested, is negotiable.

“The Senate’s not interested in taking it all out of the hide of the hospitals. We also understand that we need to have a serious discussion about the attorney fee provision, to find some middle ground with the House on that, as well,” he said.

“As far as the loss cost versus full rate, that’s an ongoing dialog. I will tell you that the insurance community is not unified on that issue.”

Defense attorney fees are also at issue, Bradley said.

“I will tell you, talking to business owners, they don’t really care whether the attorney is representing the insurance company or representing the claimant — they just don’t want to pay attorneys, because that drives costs in the system,” Bradley said.

Committee members indicated they understood negotiations would continue.

“Clearly, we all want this conversation to continue, and I think that’s what the majority of us will be voting for today — for us to continue the conversation, hoping we can land the bill on the floor,” Sen. Jeff Brandes said.

House votes to repeal Florida’s PIP mandate for auto insurance

The House voted Wednesday to replace Florida personal-injury protection insurance mandate for motorists with a requirement that they buy bodily injury protection, upending an insurance system in place since 1971.

“Today, we have the ability to start thinking about personal responsibility in a different way, and shifting that paradigm in the state of Florida in how we do auto insurance,” sponsor Erin Grall said.

“It’s difficult to think about doing something different after 40-plus years, but it shouldn’t keep us from doing what’s best for Floridians,” she said.

HB 1063, approved on an 89-29 vote, would require motorists to carry minimum bodily injury coverage worth $25,000 for injuries to another person, and $50,000 for injuries for two or  more people.

The Senate version, SB 1766 would create a medical payment, or MedPay, coverage mandate of $5,000. That system, according to a staff analysis, would provide “substantially similar coverage to current PIP medical benefit.

Grall suggested leaving that up to drivers.

”Individuals will have the ability to decide whether or not they need to purchase medical payments coverage in order to be covered in the event of an accident. That product exists in the marketplace,” she said.

“And with rates going down — especially for PIP drivers — they will have more opportunity to buy more coverage, if that’s what they decide is right for them.”

There would be a transition period for policies already in effect.

The change is intended to save money — a study conducted for the Office of Insurance Regulation suggested in September that repeal could save $81 per car, although motorists could wind up paying more for other types of coverage, including health insurance.

Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Republican orthopedic surgeon from Venice, objected to to the lack of MedPay. “The PIP system is broken and needs to be fixed,” he conceded. But he argued that doctors would end up treating 13 percent of their patients essentially for free.

Florida House OKs legislation targeting soaring worker’s compensation premiums

The Florida House approved a workers’ compensation fix Tuesday intended to answer the Florida Supreme Court’s objections to the system by adding flexibility on attorney fees in benefits challenges, and by boosting benefits for injured workers.

The measure, HB 7085, passed on a vote of 82-37, shortly before the Senate bill cleared the Rules Committee.

Danny Burgess, whose Insurance & Banking Subcommittee pulled together the various interests in hours of hearings on the bill, conceded, “This product is not perfect.”

Still, it would close a “statutory gap” in disability benefits and extend them from the existing 104 to 260 weeks; require carriers to grant or deny benefits quickly; and ensure appointment of a worker representative to a state panel that sets medical reimbursement rates, he said.

“We are here to address very specific case law that has uprooted our system, and will continue to take a hatchet and cut off the legs of workers’ compensation in the state of Florida if we do not address the problem that is before us today,” Burgess said.

“The reality is, workers don’t care too much about workers’ compensation if they don’t have a job.”

Business and insurance interests began clamoring for legislation after the Office of Insurance Regulation approved a 14.5 percent increase in workers’ compensation premiums, effective beginning in December.

The office was responding to increased payouts blamed on Supreme Court rulings striking elements of the law as unconstitutional — including a statutory attorney-fee schedule tied to benefits won, but which the court said interfered with workers’ right of access to the courts.

On the House floor, critics argued the bill does too little for injured workers.

As Democrat Sean Shaw put it, the bill delivers “everything for the insurance companies, everything for the employers. The injured worker deserves something, and they’re not getting anything out of this bill.”

Republican Bill Hager, by contrast, called it “a balanced, well thought-out, consumer-oriented bill” that would increase benefits, conform with the high court rulings, and decrease rates.

The bill would allow departures from the attorney fee schedule, allowing judges of compensation claims to award as much as $150 per hour if he or she considers that justified. The Senate version of the bill sets the maximum at $250.

But the House measure could leave workers on the hook for their own attorney fees, rather than have insurers pay, if they pursue baseless claims.

The House language differs in other important ways from its Senate counterpart

The Senate bill would require insurers to file their own rates, instead of jointly through the National Council on Compensation Insurance, or NCCI, as happens now.

Furthermore, carriers couldn’t include their defense costs when calculating rates under the Senate bill. The House would retain the NCCI joint ratings system, but allow deviations of no more than 5 percent up or down.

Separate legislation is pending in the House and Senate to shield information about claimants — to prevent trial attorneys from scouring the records to identify possible clients, Burgess said.

The House bill pegs payments to medical providers to Medicaid rates, rather than the existing per-charge system.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons