January 30, 2013

Florida universities could get $300 million restored, Brogan says

Florida University System Chancellor Frank Brogan said he’s been assured by Gov. Rick Scott’s office and legislative leaders that the $300 million eliminated from the state system last year will be restored this year.

 "This year we have asked for the restoration of the $300 million that was cut last year," Brogan said during a 30-minute talk with reporters. "We've been committed to by the leadership of the House, the Senate, the Governor, they all want the same thing."

Later, Brogan repeated the claim.
"We asked for our $300 million back and we have that commitment.”
That claim comes a week after the Joe Negron, the Senate’s appropriations chair, said no such restoration has been decided yet, saying instead that it is “on the table.”

 Brogan, who as chancellor oversees the state’s 12 universities, said in addition to getting the $300 million restored, he is also seeking an additional $100 million to be distributed among the universities to improve access and keep up with enrollment growth.

“The return will dwarf that investment,” Brogan said. “We guarantee that.”

Brogan said that Florida has relied for too long on a three-legged stool for the economy: agriculture, tourism and growth. Now is the time to invest in higher education to diversity the economy, he said.

“Why can’t Florida spawn innovation and creation?” Brogan said. “Why can’t we drive job creation by harnessing the power of higher education?”

He provided no better explanation as to how one key legislative priority championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford, an investment of $30 million to $70 million for online education, could develop. He said some universities will put their brand on the education, and that the on-line courses now provided will have to be better organized statewide. Earlier this week, Weatherford had to clarify that his wish for virtual education does not mean a 13th university. 

UPDATE: Randy Goin, Brogan's chief of staff, said that Brogan doesn't know if Scott has committed to restoring the $300 million. But Goin did say that Brogan's office has been encouraged by good discussions with Scott about next year's budget. "We are feeling very good about what they may be recommending for higher eduction," Goin said in an e-mail. 


House Democratic leader blasts decade of GOP governance, pushes for Medicaid expansion

Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader, said voters in Florida are not impressed with Republican-led governance, and said even GOP leaders are beginning to feel the same way.

In a 30-minute talk that covered issues ranging from Florida’s elections debacle to implementing federal healthcare to investing in education, Thurston blamed his Republican counterparts for problems facing the state. He said reform efforts currently being pushed by Republican officials—election reform, ethics reform, education financing, healthcare implementation—all seek to deal with problems caused by the GOP-led Legislature.

Thurston said the ruling party had been “foot dragging” when it comes to implementing the federal healthcare reform. He pointed to a letter from former House Speaker Dean Cannon in 2010 that effectively kept state agencies from planning for reform. The state is now trying to figure out how to conform to the law and facing several deadlines. The decision about whether or not to expand Medicaid is a critical one for the state, and Thurston supports the expansion.

 “We’re going to save lives.  We’re not talking about turning down money fro a rail system; we’re talking about saving lives,” said Thurston. “Not to do this would be morally reprehensible.”

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January 29, 2013

Miami lawmaker wants more scrutiny for economic incentives

Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, is pushing for more accountability from the state's tax incentive program, which provides tax breaks for companies who agree to create jobs in Florida.

Under a bill field by Rodríguez, the state would have to provide detailed information about the type of jobs created by companies receiving taxpayer incentives. Florida would also have to launch an online database to allow taxpayers to track the progress of the companies receiving incentives. An online database was launched last year, but it has only limited information.

The tax credit program is facing renewed scrutiny this year, as lawmakers look more closely at the pros and cons of giving companies tax deals to lure them to Florida. Last year, one of the companies went bust after receiving $20 million in taxpayer funds from the state.

While Gov. Rick Scott and his top officials in charge of the incentives program say the tax incentives are helping to create thousands of jobs, several bills filed by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seek additional transparency. Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is pushing a bill that would require an independent review of all incentives, providing information about the return on the state's investment.

“Our state’s economic development programs are a major strategy for diversifying our economy and making it more competitive for the future” said Rodríguez, in a statement. “Evaluating taxpayer-funded incentives with maximum transparency is important for all Floridians but particularly for those Florida businesses whose competitors are receiving tax dollars to deliver on jobs or investment promises.  This bill seeks to restore credibility to economic development programs which have recently come under fire for failing to fulfill their missions.”



Anti-Castro bill would ban medical licenses for American doctors trained in Cuba

Two South Florida lawmakers are pushing for a law that would stop American doctors who studied in Cuba from receiving medical licenses in Florida.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., and Sen. Rene Garcia, both Hialeah Republicans, filed bills last week, seeking to clamp down on U.S. medical students who go to Cuba for training.

“U.S students who turn a blind eye to basic human and civil rights abuses in Cuba do not possess the moral clarity to serve patients in Florida” said Diaz in a statement. “The Fidel Castro medical scholarship program is purely a propaganda tool. Hopefully this legislation will stop American citizens from participating in Cuba’s medical apartheid system.”

The Cuban government offers a free medical training program that has drawn in thousands of students from around the world, including many from the United States.

If the bill pushed by Diaz and Garcia passes, any American student who goes to Cuba for training will not be able to get a medical license to practice in Florida.

The ban would not apply to those who trained in Cuba prior to coming to the U.S. According to Diaz’s press release it would only apply to “those who willingly go to Cuba to be used as propaganda tools by the Cuban government.”

Last year, Garcia pushed a bill that would prevent local governments from contracting with firms that had Cuban branches. Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill, but also said it could not be enforced, sparking backlash in the Cuban exile community in Miami. The measure led to a federal lawsuit and is tied up in court. 


January 24, 2013

Bondi, lawmakers take on state's surging foreclosure problem

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are renewing their focus on Florida’s foreclosure problem, after the state ended 2012 as America’s foreclosure capital.

Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford held a press conference Thursday to discuss a newly approved $60 million program for housing aid.

The program—which includes money for homebuyer assistance, legal aid and foreclosure prevention—is part of last year’s multibillion dollar national settlement that included cash payments to states.

Bondi reached a deal with Weatherford and Gaetz after an initial disagreement over who had authority over the $334 million in funds allocated to Florida. In the end, the groups compromised to allow the Legislature to direct the money during the 2013 legislative session, with $60 million carved out for release prior to the session.

Bondi’s office organized a press conference Thursday to discuss the details of the $60 million program. The deal includes:

  • --$35 million for Down Payment Assistance (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$10 million for Foreclosure Counseling (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$5 million for Reducing the Foreclosure Backlog  (State Courts System)
  • --$5 million for Legal Aid (Various providers)
  • --$5 million for Attorney General’s Legal Fees (Attorney General’s Office)

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January 23, 2013

Big bill—and maybe higher rates—coming soon on Citizens Property Insurance

A massive, multipronged bill to reform Florida’s property insurance market could be introduced soon in the Florida Legislature, as influential committee chairs are determined to shrink Citizens Insurance and stave off potential “hurricane taxes.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said the Florida Senate and House will work on a major bill to fix the state’s property insurance market, encompassing several controversial ideas while trying not to cause “rate-shock.”

“We’re not going to pull the needle out of the arm of South Florida in one year,” he said. “We’re talking about being able to in fact provide a viable alternative to doing nothing. And that’s critical to us.” 

The statement came after the Senate Insurance and Banking Committee heard testimony from a number of pro-business groups, state officials and other stakeholders. Most groups had a similar message: rates at Citizens are too low and are keeping the private market from expanding. 

The bill to be introduced by the committee would likely encompass a number of different measures, including raising rates faster, shrinking the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and creating stricter requirements for homeowners seeking coverage from Citizens.

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January 22, 2013

Insurance reform advocate comes to defense of Citizens' board

The director for the Florida Association of Insurance Reform has come out in defense of the beleagured board at Citizens Property Insurance, after a prominent lawmaker called for mass-resignations last week.

Jay Neal, the FAIR director who has not always agreed with the actions of Citizens, said boardmembers should be allowed to keep their positions, despite a number of controversies around lavish executive spending and corporate integrity.

Neal said the board has its flaws, but mostly has fallen into trouble when it followed the advice of Citizens staff.

In a letter to the editor, Neal pointed out that board members volunteer their time and are not paid.

“Service on the Citizens Board is no cake walk,” he said. “An equivalent position in the private sector would provide a six figure compensation package. The Citizens Board members work for free.”

See Neal’s letter below

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January 15, 2013

Citizens Insurance rate cap could go up to 13 percent

The chair of the Florida House’s Insurance and Banking Subcommittee floated the option of raising the cap on rate hikes on Citizens Property Insurance customers to 13 percent Tuesday.

Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, said homeowners would be willing to pay an additional 3-percentage points if it would reduce the possibility of potential “hurricane taxes” after a catastrophe.

The cap, currently at 10 percent, has been in place since 2009, and followed a freeze on all rate increases under then-Gov. Charlie Crist.

Citizens President, Barry Gilway, speaking before the Insurance and Banking Committee on Tuesday said getting higher insurance rates is the most direct way to shore up Florida’s private market.

“We talk about the need to get outside competitors coming in, back in, to Florida,” he said. “And we’re going to be talking about many different approaches to depopulating Citizens. But creating a competitive marketplace in Florida, basically comesdown to creating competition.”

Gilway said Citizens has been undercutting the private market with below-market rates, but that the 10-percent “glidepath” on rate hikes should not be completely stripped because that would devastate parts of the state.

He said it is up to the Legislature to decide how large of an increase in rates should be appropriate. Gov. Rick Scott has agreed that Citizens is undercutting the market with too-low rates but has not weighed in with any specific proposals for how much rates should increase.

Nelson said he would be looking at raising the cap from 10-percent to 13-percent.

“I think (an additional) three percent makes a lot of sense,” he said, pointing to a statewide study showing support for the proposal.

For a homeowner with a $2,000 annual premium, it could mean an additional $60 or so in new annual costs. The proposal could face backlash from lawmakers in parts of South Florida and Tampa Bay, where insurance rates are highest.

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January 14, 2013

Consumer group grades lawmakers for votes on insurance issues

A consumer advocacy group has released a report grading lawmakers for how they voted on property insurance issues last year.

The annual report card from Policyholders of Florida gives lawmakers ratings based on their votes on several controversial bills that could have pushed insurance rates higher for homeowners.

In the 40-member Senate—seven lawmakers received and ‘A,’ and 11 received an ‘F.’

In the 12-member House, 35 lawmakers received an ‘A’ and 63 received an ‘F.’

“Consumers don’t find out who their friends are during campaigns, they find out during legislative session,” said Sean Shaw, founder of Policyholders of Florida. “We track important insurance votes throughout the year so Floridians can see whether or not their lawmakers went to Tallahassee to fight for them or not – clearly many lawmakers are failing. We need lawmakers to focus on stabilizing the market for consumers and encouraging the responsible expansion of the private market in Florida.”

Outspoken critics of the insurance industry, like Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, received ‘A’ grades, while those pushing for industry-backed proposals and higher rates at Citizens Property Insurance Corp. got ‘F’ grades.

Many of the lawmakers receiving high grades are from South Florida and Tampa Bay, coastal areas where  insurance rates are the highest in the state.

Lawmakers from inland parts of the state and Republicans were more likely to have lower grades.

See the report card here.

January 10, 2013

Bondi outlines plans for $60 million in housing aid

Attorney General Pam Bondi and the Florida Legislature have announced the first plans for spending the state’s portion of a multi-billion dollar mortgage settlement with major banks.

At a Legislative Budget Commission meeting next week, Bondi will present plans to spend $60 million of the $334 million settlement on a wide range of housing aid programs.

If approved by the LBC, the cash will go to the following programs:

  • --$35 million for Down Payment Assistance (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$10 million for Foreclosure Counseling (Florida Housing Finance Corporation)
  • --$5 million for Reducing the Foreclosure Backlog  (State Courts System)
  • --$5 million for Legal Aid (Various providers)
  • --$5 million for Attorney General’s Legal Fees (Attorney General’s Office)

Florida has come under criticism for being the last state in the country to decide how to spend the state portion of last year's settlement. For several months last year, the money sat in escrow while Bondi and leaders in the Legislature debated who had the authority to spend it.

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