April 16, 2013

Cat Fund bill survives two special interest cat fights, headed to House floor

A bill to shrink Florida’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund survived substantial debate and parallel cat fights between special interests Tuesday, clearing its final House committee. It now heads to the House floor. 

HB 1107 by Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, would reduce the state’s $17 billion reinsurance fund, while also exempting medical malpractice insurers from potential “assessments” levied by the fund. 

Both issues—shrinking the low-cost reinsurance fund and exempting medical malpractice—sparked opposing arguments among lawmakers and groups that have a financial interest in the outcome. 

Hager said he sponsored the bill because the Cat Fund may not be able to meet its obligations to pay claims for Citizens Property Insurance and other private insurance companies that buy its reinsurance. 

“This is the time for us to belly up to the bar,” he said. “We’ve made promises. Promises we know that we could not keep.”

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April 10, 2013

Shhh... Soaring insurance rates the unspoken theme in fast-moving Senate bill

Rate increases have been the unspoken undercurrent of a property insurance bill cruising through the Florida Senate.

As lawmakers have cast their votes on the quickly-moving and complex bill, few have discussed exactly how much rates would increase under the proposal. With little discussion of the bill’s rate impact, it has sailed through committee and could be debated on the floor on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Citizens President Barry Gilway gave the first glimpse of the actual rate impact and pointed out that it could be substantial. 

“There are 11 territories that would see a rate increase of over 60 percent,” he said

Here are some of the rate increases that will hit new Citizens customers next year if the bill passes in its current form. 

Part of Volusia County: 86.8 percent
Part of Lee County: 62 percent
Part of Broward County: 65.6 percent
Part of Hernando County: 73.3 percent
Part of Monroe County: 137.8 percent
Part of Palm Beach County: 60.1 percent

Other territories in Miami-Dade County and parts of Tampa Bay could also see annual insurance premiums increase by thousands of dollars. Sinkhole rates in places like Hernando County could nearly triple. 

Those numbers have been non-existent in the debate over SB 1770, which is reaching a floor vote after bipartisan support in three Senate committees. Some of the lawmakers voting for the bill represent districts where rate increases would hit hardest. Rates would go up mostly for new customers, but that includes people who get dropped by their insurance companies and forced into Citizens, and people who get dropped by Citizens and need to rejoin.

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March 27, 2013

Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics

Digital Domain debacle, take two.

The former CEO of Digital Domain is hitting back with an alternative script after an Inspector General report slammed the process that helped the now-defunct Port St. Lucie film studio get $20 million in taxpayer grants. 

John Textor said the claim by Gov. Rick Scott and Enterprise Florida that the Digital Domain deal was some kind of widely discredited proposal that had been blacklisted by Enterprise Florida, only to be slipped into the budget later by aggressive lawmakers and Gov. Charlie Crist—is complete fiction.

In fact, Textor said, Enterprise Florida actually recommended that Florida taxpayers chip in about $11.4 million to help Digital Domain bring jobs to the state.

An email Textor provided to the Herald/Times shows that an Enterprise Florida representative wrote Textor on March 18, 2009, saying that the organization would “present to [the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development] relative to a one-time award of $6.1 million” and other awards for a “total potential FL economic incentive package” of $11.4 million. The email, not included in the IG report, said Digital Domain would be required to create 300 jobs. 

EFI never went through with a recommendation to OTTED (which is required for  economic incentives grants to be awarded), but Textor has a very different explanation for why that did not happen.

According to Enterprise Florida’s account, the organization refused to support funding because Digital Domain’s finances were “extremely weak” and its business model was suspect.  Textor has a different story, and questions Enterprise Florida’s credibility by pointing out that the organization believed Digital Domain’s business plan was strong enough to receive an $11.4 million incentives package. 

Textor believes that he and others are being thrown under the bus as a way for Gov. Rick Scott to attack the Crist administration, which was in charge when Digital Domain received funding by getting special language tacked onto the state's budget.

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IG Report: Many said 'Yes' to ill-fated Digital Domain tax grant

Senate President Don Gaetz has grown fond of saying, about the legislative process, “It takes three ‘Yeses’ to get to ‘Yes’ and only one ‘No’ to get to ‘No’.”

When it comes to the ill-fated $20 million grant to a now-bankrupt Port St. Lucie film studio, several legislative power players said ‘Yes’ to a deal that later cost taxpayers dearly.

The long list of abettors, unveiled in a recently released Chief Inspector General report, includes former Gov. Charlie Crist, former economic development head Dale Brill, current Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, former House Speaker Larry Cretul, former U.S. Representative David Rivera, former Rep. Kevin Ambler and former Lieutenant Gov. Jennifer Carroll.  

In a process that Brill said involved taking great energy to “deliberately and intentionally sidestep the process,” Digital Domain was able to corral enough support from Tallahassee power players to get $20 million in taxpayer grants over the objections of the organization responsible for vetting such awards.

According to the report, Enterprise Florida advised against giving Digital Domain such a large grant in 2009, raising questions about its financial stability.

But there were several other power players who said ‘Yes,’ allowing the company to circumvent the vetting process and gain access to a large pot of taxpayer cash.

Last year, Digital Domain went bust in a high-profile bankruptcy.

Gov. Rick Scott ordered his Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate how the deal came together.

According to Miguel’s report, here’s a timeline of how the ill-fated deal came into existence:

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March 06, 2013

Atwater: Medicaid expansion probably won’t pass now, but may be ‘inevitable’ later

Speaking to the Florida Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater expressed many of the same concerns of other Cabinet members about Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal to accept federal funding and expand Medicaid: It would grow a government entitlement and be a new billion-dollar expense for the state.

But Atwater seemed to agree with other experts and commentators who believe that Florida and other states will eventually agree to some form of Medicaid expansion, and the billions of federal dollars it will bring. 

Atwater said that the state was in a “really tough spot” because expanding Medicaid will bring additional costs, but not accepting the federal money could have tough consequences as well. Florida’s safety net hospitals will see much of their federal funding evaporate under the Affordable Care Act, and the expansion of Medicaid was supposed to pick up the slack.  The state’s Low Income Pool (LIP) could also face new financial “stresses,” making it difficult for Florida's health care system, said Atwater.

“They may delay this—a ‘No’ is not a ‘No’ forever,” he said. “They can join anytime… I believe they’re going to pass [on the expansion]—that’s my take," he said. "And then I think, as the stresses begin to fall like, again, LIP being diminished, this is going to cause great stress to that choice. And, I don’t know, the inevitable, it may be, no matter what people think, happens.”

Atwater said that he believes the best option is for Florida and the federal government to come up with a more acceptable alternative. A spokesperson for the CFO's office said that Atwater remains opposed to Medicaid expansion.

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October 23, 2012

Scott leaves door open to new Citizens Insurance probe after 'integrity' firings

Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday he was open to having an investigation into the recent firings of Citizens Insurance’s entire Office of Corporate Integrity, though he stopped short of calling for the immediate probe that some good governance groups have asked for.

Scott said he would wait for the completion of the current Inspector General investigation into Citizens—which focuses on corporate spending issues—before deciding whether or not to call for an investigation into the firings.

The Herald/Times reported last week that Citizens had disbanded its Office of Corporate Integrity—the four-person unit responsible for investigating growing complaints of fraud and abuse within the company.

Scott wrote a letter saying that he was “concerned” about the firings.

On Monday, Citizens CEO Barry Gilway defended the firings as a way to realign the company’s operations to focus more on forensic fraud. He said he regretted the way the firings were handled, and was open to having Scott’s inspector general look more closely at what happened.

Scott said he’d hold off on making that decision, and follow a “logical process” of letting the current investigation run its course before deciding on any additional probes.

“He’s not taking it off the table,” said Melissa Sellers, a spokesperson for Scott.

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April 23, 2012

Florida Senate-race drama exposes GOP jitters

Jeff Atwater’s just-ended flirtation with a U.S. Senate bid speaks volumes about the nervousness of Florida Republicans these days.

The GOP’s best hope, Congressman Connie Mack, hasn’t been running the type of campaign many Republicans want to unseat a beatable Democratic incumbent, Bill Nelson. Some wanted Atwater, Florida’s Chief Financial Officer, to run. Others approached House Speaker Dean Cannon, who declined as did a wealthy no-name.

But the drama is about more than just Mack or the Senate race.

It’s about a Republican Party grappling with ebbing fortunes compared to the red-wave of an election year in 2010. It’s about a movement nagged by a sense of perpetual disappointment that stretches to the top of the ticket.

And it’s about the potentially colliding political agendas of Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Column here

February 20, 2012

House votes for new high school sports rules

High school students from larger, private schools could participate in public school scholastic and athletic programs under a bill that sailed through a House panel today.

Currently, participation is limited to private school students who attend a non-Florida High School Athletic Association School that does not offer sports programs and has 125 students or fewer. The proposed changes would allow private schools with up to 250 students to participate in public programs.

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November 18, 2011

Lopez Lukis responds to Herald report on investigation

Vicki Lopez Lukis, who is under investigation by the state for using her contracts with juvenile justice administrators for personal gain, offered the following response to today's story in the Miami Herald:

Dear Editor:

I am disappointed that the Miami Herald chose to publish an article today entitled Money for Delinquent Girls Misspent based on a "draft" report that was issued prematurely with full knowledge that neither GAP nor I had any opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in the draft, and, more importantly, knew that the draft contained serious errors and omissions.  Let me state clearly that neither I nor any member of the GAP's staff or board ever misspent state funds or falsified any document, period.  These allegations were sent to the Department of Financial Services (DFS) Office of Fiscal Integrity (OFI), which did not find that any evidence of criminal wrongdoing. 

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November 15, 2011

SBA chief asks bosses to hold off discussing his reappointment

Ash Williams' bosses were poised to discuss his annual reappointment as executive director of the State Board of Administration during this morning's Cabinet meeting. But Williams asked them to push it back to the next SBA quarterly meeting in December, and SBA trustees Gov. Rick Scott, CFO Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed.

That way, Williams said, they could examine reports of recent meetings of the SBA audit committee and investment advisory council, which are reviewing the agency's investment policies and procedures for public records requests at the request of Atwater. Members of the council agreed in a joint Monday meeting that Williams did not act inappropriately in the agency's $125 million investment in a hedge fund.

"I think the trustees should have the benefit of getting the final minutes and motions and a report directly from those advisory bodies before acting upon this reappointment," Williams said after his Cabinet update.

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