The week that was in Florida politics: Being sucked into the election vortex

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Like a black hole sucking the light from the heavens, the general election now less than four weeks away appears to be preventing anything from escaping its grasp as the pace quickens and the money flows.

While U.S. vice presidential candidates held their table-top battle, voter registration ended this week in Florida, though final numbers won’t be known for a bit.

While the focus on the coming election has blotted out much of the regular government news, there was some of that this week: officials overseeing the state-backed property insurer let up some in their effort to create a $350 million loan program backers say will reduce the number of policies held by Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

Also, incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford named Seth McKeel to become the chamber’s chief budget builder, tapping the Lakeland Republican to head the powerful House Appropriations Committee when lawmakers return after the Nov. 6 election.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

CITIZENS’ BOARD SLOWS DOWN LOAN PROGRAM.

Prompted by concerns from wary lawmakers and the state’s consumer advocate, Citizens Property Insurance Corp will hire an outside firm to take a second look at a $350 million loan program its governing board approved just last month.

The goal of the program was take more than 300,000 policies out of Citizens by offering private companies low interest loans to sweeten the deal.

Quickly assembled by a new Citizens president from the private sector, the plan has raised concerns among key lawmakers wary over the idea itself and the speed by which it has come together.

On Tuesday, Citizens’ depopulation committee recommended that the insurer hire Goldman Sachs, or another major investment firm, to review the surplus notes program, which would provide up to $50 million in 20-year, low-interest loans to individual companies willing to take Citizens policies for at least 10 years.

Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway acknowledged the desire for additional information, but stood firm in his belief that the program would work as intended, reducing Citizens maximum loss by $2 billion and saving policyholders an estimated $1.7 billion in assessments during the 10 years in which the take out companies would be required to hold the policies.

“Instead of trying to depopulate Citizens by coverage elimination, reductions and restrictions, which have not played well in the marketplace … this program, on the other hand, clearly benefits the policyholder,” Gilway said.

But Robin Westcott, Florida’s insurance consumer advocate, applauded the board’s decision to take a closer look.

“Sometimes when we are in the middle of doing that, it helps to have a third party to come in and take a look,” she said.

BOOK CLOSES ON FLORIDA VOTER REGISTRATION

Florida election officials on Tuesday closed the door on new registrations for people wanting to vote in this year’s general election.

The final count of registered voters brings, for now, to a close months of wrangling over new voter registration laws that, for a time, curtailed third-party voter registration.

Though book-closing results won’t be available for several days, state Democratic Party officials have been on a roll, having registered 18,063 more voters than Republicans, a 16-percentage point spread, in September. It was more of the same for Democrats, who have beaten the GOP in signing up new voters in each of the last eight months.

Hispanics are a big part of the equation: Democrats now have a roughly 30 percentage point advantage in Hispanics in a state where Latino registration used to be more likely to be Republican. Hispanic Democrats not only outnumber Hispanic Republicans but there are also more Hispanic independents than Hispanic Republicans.

As of August, the state had about 4.6 million registered Democrats to 4.1 million registered Republicans. Another 2.4 million are registered with no party affiliation and about 328,000 are in minor parties.

MCKEEL TO BECOME BUDGET CHAIR:

Weatherford filled one of the most powerful positions in the state legislative leadership team this week by tapping McKeel to take over the House Appropriation Committee as the chamber begins drafting its roughly $70 billion budget proposal for next year.

McKeel, R-Lakeland, has been in the House since 2006 and served on the Appropriations Committee. He has been chairman of the State Affairs Committee in the most recent two years and was deputy majority leader in 2009-2010.

McKeel, 37, is vice president of Lakeland Properties and Management, his family’s real estate management company.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Citizens Property Insurance Corp. slows down to take another look at $350 million loan program.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “I’m not going to let people hide behind their office if they are involved in a case,” Circuit Judge Frank Sheffield on whether to allow lawyers to depose Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll in a case pending before his court involving the illegal release of an audio recording of an office conversation.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.