Statewide Archives - Page 6 of 719 - SaintPetersBlog

Senate sets tight timeline on Frank Artiles investigation

Senate Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto has appointed the chamber’s top lawyer to investigate a complaint by next Tuesday seeking to remove Sen. Frank Artiles from office.

Senate President Joe Negron announced the move Wednesday in a memo to senators.

Benacquisto “found that the complaint states facts supporting a finding of probable cause,” meaning it’s more likely than not that Artiles violated a Senate rule governing its members’ conduct.

Negron appointed Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts to be a special master, a quasi-judicial officer who hears cases and makes recommendations.

Roberts, a lawyer since 1993, served as a legislative staff director before her appointment as chief attorney to the Senate last year. She also was interim Secretary of State in 2010-11, appointed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist when Kurt Browning suddenly quit.

Her “report and recommendation to the Committee on Rules (is due) by the close of business on Tuesday, April 25, 2017,” Negron said. 

“All parties involved in this incident are entitled to a fair, impartial and unbiased examination of the facts and a recommendation consistent with the current rules and historical precedent of this body,” he added.

“I encourage all Senators to be respectful of this important process and to refrain from participating in any activities that would jeopardize the impartiality of the ongoing investigation.”

Sen. Perry Thurston on Wednesday filed the complaint to remove Artiles.

The Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County made national news after he accosted Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee. Thurston and Gibson are black.

He also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President.

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.

With weeks left in Session, small-business group urges fracking ban

With just over two weeks left in Florida’s regular Legislative Session, a group of over 100 members of the business community released a statement Wednesday indicating support for a statewide fracking ban.

“If something goes wrong, I know that will have an impact on us,” said Mark Amis, the owner of Little Tommie’s Tiki located at Boca Ciega Bay in Gulfport. “I just don’t think that we should be spending the amount of money we’re going to spend to get those fuels. I don’t think there’s a good tradeoff there.”

“I’m a real estate broker and I want to protect real estate values in the state,” says Darlene Goodfellow with Valrico Realty Results. “I think if we had fracking it would definitely all of our property values negatively. I remember what happened during the BP oil spill, and people move to Florida because they love our natural resources and we need to protect them.”

The letter was produced by the environmental group Food & Water Watch, which has been advocating for a statewide ban on fracking.

“The risks of fracking in Florida outweigh any possible benefits that the industry could bring,” reads a portion of the letter. “We must not put our steadiest, revenue producing industries at terminal risk from exploratory and exploitive fracking. Fossil fuel extraction follows a boom-bust cycle that leaves communities burdened with health problems, damaged infrastructure, and a weaker economy for the long-term. Please listen to the 90 communities across the state that have passed local measures against fracking and pass the statewide ban. We must protect Florida’s environment; our businesses and industries depend upon it.”

After years of failure in getting any type of fracking legislation on the books, momentum appeared strong at the onset of the session this year for a ban on fracking, after Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young unveiled a proposal to ban the practice.

“Our natural environment and our aquifer are worth protecting at all costs,” Young said in a statement released on Wednesday by Food & Water Watch. “That is why I filed SB 442, a bill to ban fracking in Florida. By preventing fracking operations, we can protect Florida’s environment which sustains our population through a clean drinking water supply and provides enjoyment for Floridians and out of state visitors alike.”

However, Young’s bill may be on life support in the wake of comments made earlier this month by Mike Miller, the Orlando Republican carrying a companion bill  (HB 451) that would ban fracking in the House. Miller told the Naples Daily News, “You never say never, but now we’re saying it looks like that will be next year.”

The reason for the impasse is the desire by some House Republicans for a scientific study to determine the potential impacts of fracking. That echoes the 2016 legislation seeking to impose a two-year moratorium on fracking while a Florida-specific study was commissioned to assess the possible implications of the drilling technique used for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground.

“Maryland’s recent passage of a statewide ban showed us what can be done when businesses and communities come together against fracking,” said Brooke Errett, Florida Organizer with Food & Water Watch. “Florida has a tourism-dependent economy. If our legislators care about Florida’s economy and constituents, they will ensure that a ban is passed before fracking can damage our state.”

Senate panel OKs modified bill to protect black bears

A modified proposal to protect black bears in Florida won support Wednesday in the Senate committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation.

But SB 1304 was measurably reduced in scope from Orlando Republican Linda Stewart‘s original bill.

Stewart’s initial proposal would have banned bear hunting in Florida for 10 years. The amended bill calls for no such action.

The proposal came a day after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that Florida black bear populations are on the rise and don’t warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Stewart’s legislation also called for a ban on proscribed burnings in the month of February, but a subsequent Hutson amendment limits that ban only to state lands, so that private property was not affected by the legislation.

Lane Stevens, a lobbyist with the Florida Airboat Association, said he his group still didn’t support Stewart’s bill, saying that the hunting prohibition on cub bears was a violation of the Florida Constitution.

“If this bill were ever to make it out of the Legislature,” Stevens said, “I personally would be the first one lining up to file suit over the constitutionality of that issue.”

The bill would also outlaw burns on public lands in the month of February.

Bill Palmer with Tall Timbers Research Station based in Tallahassee said that such a ban would be a “major step back for biodiversity, for game management and for water resource management in the state.”

The bill passed 4-1 in the Committee, with Fleming Island Rob Bradley the lone dissenter.

Orlando Democrat Amy Mercado is sponsoring a companion bill (HB 491) in the House.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission director Nick Wiley said earlier during Wednesday’s quarterly meeting that they didn’t believe there should be a hunt for black bears this year.

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.

House assignment of benefits bill clears final committee, headed to floor

The House assignment of benefits fix cleared its last committee vote Wednesday, with co-sponsor James Grant conceding language addressing attorney fees and consumer choice in hiring contractors needs more work.

“The Florida House is not going to tolerate inaction on it,” Grant said following the Commerce Committee’s 21-7 vote.

“I think you’ll see pretty quick movement to the floor of the House, and I think you’ll see us move something over to the Senate to hopefully get their attention to move on something as significant as the assignment of benefits problem,” he said.

He said he would continue to work on PCS/HB 1421’s attorney fee provision, which establishes a graduated scale for determining whether contractors holding AOBs qualify to recover litigation expenses.

Basically, insurers would have to pay according to the degree they low-ball settlement offers.

“There’s still some work to be done there, I think, to get full consensus,” Grant said.

Additionally, “I think some of the vendors have legitimate concerns about the anti-steering language. There were a couple of things you heard today about making sure the homeowner’s choice is respected, but doing it in a way that we continue to bring down rates, and not disenfranchise the homeowner,” he continued.

“At the end of the day, if we just continue to focus on the homeowner, we’ll make the right decisions.”

AOB reform is this year’s top priority for Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, who said it 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, he said.

AOB-related lawsuits increased from around 400 in 2006, to more than 1,000 in 2011, to more than 28,000 in 2016.

“This is a consumer issue. This is not an effort to protect insurance companies. This is an effort to mitigate rate increases that our consumers are faced with,” Altmaier said.

Florence Snyder: Let’s hope someone loves Frank Artiles enough to get him some help

On a busy day of hearings in a busy week of the legislative session, a south Florida woman wanted a picture of herself and a friend and the rain pouring outside the Knott Building. She scanned the immediate vicinity for a friendly face, and held her iPhone out to Jacksonville’s Audrey Gibson.

Plainly the tourist had no idea that Gibson was a member of an elite, exclusive, and powerful club.

The tourist was utterly unaware that the elegant lady she approached is one of a tiny handful of Floridians upon whom the sun rises and sets in #TheProcess. Most definitely, the tourist had no clue that hundreds of people are paid hundreds of millions of dollars to catch a moment of the time of this woman and her 39 colleagues in the Florida Senate.

Gibson smiled, took the iPhone, and spent a stunning amount of time considering camera angles and composing multiple shots.

This is the gracious public servant that Frank Artiles refers to as a “fucking bitch.” To her face. At the members-only venue where people pay through the nose for a quiet place to eat, drink and do business, and pay extra for private lockers for their personalized cigars.

Artiles has a history of verbal violence toward women, African-Americans, and Muslims. His drunken diatribe Monday at the Governor’s Club is not the first time he has embarrassed himself in a bar. We now know that “pussy” is his go-to insult for a white male lawyer who outranks him in #TheProcess pecking order.

It has been suggested on the Sayfie Twitter Ticker, where some Floridians still get some information, that Artiles. a former Marine, may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Let’s put that one to rest. PTSD doesn’t cause bigotry, but alcohol makes bigots more likely to reveal their pre-existing prejudices.

Artiles didn’t much look like a Marine as he stood on the Senate floor to read an insincere, meaningless apology written for him by some hastily-assembled Committee to Save Artiles Career. The senator from a Diverse Miami Neighborhood shifted on his feet, looking like a rattled schoolboy as he rattled the pages of his prepared text.

When people can’t exercise the control and judgment we expect of a third grader, there is often a medical explanation. Let’s hope someone loves Artiles enough to help him find out.

Andrew Gillum: Frank Artiles needs to go

Andrew Gillum is refusing to forgive Miami Republican Frank Artiles, who apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday for using the N-word toward two black lawmakers.

The Tallahassee mayor, an African-American who is running for governor next year, says Artiles needs to resign from the Florida Senate.

“We have struggled with days when these words were too common,” Gillum said. “They are the ugliest words in our language and they tear at the fabric of our society. They have no place in 2017, just as Senator Artiles has no place in the Florida Senate.”

Artiles appeared before the entire Senate Wednesday morning to apologize — less than 24 hours after the Miami Herald reported he had gone up to Sens. Audrey Gibson from Jacksonville and Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale  Monday night, adding that Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart came to his leadership role because “six n****rs” in the Republican caucus elected him.

Artiles also called Gibson a “b***h” and a “girl.”

“There’s no excuse, nor will I offer one,” Artiles said. “No one deserves to be spoken to that way, much less a person of your stature, dignity, and integrity.”

“With regard to the word which I used to no one in particular,” Artiles said he grew up in a “diverse community.”

In his race for governor, Gillum is attempting to become the first black official to be elected to a statewide position in Florida. He said Artiles’ apology did not register at all with him.

“His statement this morning fell well short of what Floridians expect: his resignation,” said Gillum. “He must step aside immediately.”

Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, who is also black, also says Artiles apology on the Senate floor was insufficient.

“Simply dismissing these charges Senator Artiles has admitted to as a passing lapse, or his temper getting the better of him, or a product of his childhood town, doesn’t cut it,” Braynon said. “At some point, it’s time to take a stand, to say that words are not enough. At some point, the Senate must be compelled to act.”

After four years of debate, bill regulating ride-sharing companies will go to Rick Scott’s desk

After years of intense debate, the Florida Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill to create statewide regulations for transportation network companies.

The measure (HB 221) cleared the upper chamber on a 36-1 vote. The bill now heads to Gov. Rick Scott for his consideration.

“Today we sent a strong message that Florida embraces transportation innovation. The future of transportation options includes a focus on shared mobility, and as we move closer to autonomous vehicles on our roadways, the future of ride-sharing is very bright,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, the St. Petersburg Republican who sponsored the Senate version of the bill (SB 340). “With this legislation, Florida will have a uniform set of standards for the services our businesses demand, our tourists have come to expect, and our residents deserve.”

The bill, among other things, requires ride-booking companies, like Uber and Lyft, to carry $100,000 of insurance for bodily injury of death and $25,000 for property damage while a driver is logged onto their app, but hasn’t secured a passenger. While with a passenger, drivers would be required to have $1 million in coverage.

The bill requires companies to have third parties conduct local and national criminal background checks on drivers. It also pre-empts local ordinances and rules on transportation network companies.

The proposal received the backing from Uber and Lyft.

“We’re grateful to Sen. Brandes, Rep. Chris Sprowls, and Rep. Jamie Grant for their commitment to carrying ridesharing legislation over the finish line, and for the consistent leadership shown by Gov. Scott, President Negron, and Speaker Corcoran,” said Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs. “The most exciting opportunities are yet to come, as millions of Florida residents and visitors, from Pensacola to Key West, will have permanent access to Uber.”

The vote came after years of debate and discussions on the issue. While proposals have cleared the House in the past, they have gotten hung up in the Senate in recent years. This year, the proposal sailed through all of its committee stops in the Senate, and passed with no debate Wednesday.

“We applaud the Florida Senate, and especially Sen. Brandes, for passing a statewide framework for ridesharing. This legislation will provide certainty for the many Floridians who use the convenient and affordable transportation services offered by Lyft, and we encourage the Governor to sign this bill into law,” said Chelsea Harrison, the senior communications manager for Lyft, in a statement. “We want to thank the Lyft community throughout Florida for standing up in support of ridesharing. We look forward to continuing to provide Florida’s residents and visitors with innovative transportation options that boost economic growth in communities across the Sunshine State.”

The House voted 115-0 on April 5 to approve the measure.

“The overwhelmingly bi-partisan passage of ridesharing legislation in both the House and Senate shows a strong desire for this innovative and free-market service. It not only provides convenient travel options for anyone in our state, it will allow many Floridians an extra source of income to help make ends meet,” said Rep. Sprowls, who sponsored the bill in the House, in statement Wednesday. “I appreciate the hard work that Senator Brandes put into passing this bill in the Senate and look forward to Floridians having this travel option should they choose it.”

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons