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 19, 2013

Struggling in the polls, Scott releases campaign-style video highlighting jobs record

Is it 2014 yet?

On the same day that a Public Policy Polling poll came out showing that Gov. Rick Scott is still underwater with voters and trails potential candidates like his predecessor Charlie Crist, the governor’s office offered up a new campaign-style video touting his accomplishments.

The video shows news clips of economic doom and gloom during the last years of Crist’s tenure, with news achors highlighting record high unemployment and troubling economic indicators.

Halfway through the 2-minute spot, Scott appears, talking about how the state has turned around under his leadership.

“It’s the first time in five years that our unemployment rate has been below the national average,” Scott says on the video at a campaign-style event that took place Monday in Orlando. “Our unemployment rate is now down to 7.8 percent for January of this year."

The Department of Economic Opportunity highlighted the spot during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

Monica Russell, DEO's communications director, called it "our idea of how to jazz up the Cabinet meeting."

Reporters asked if Scott would be using the video as a campaign ad.

"Oh, no," she said. 

See the video here.

Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

@ToluseO

 

February 28, 2013

A look at Harry Sargeant: 'The most powerful person no one knows'

Crist and Harry Sargeant

Former Gov. Charlie Crist calls him a "great patriot." Congressional investigators call him "a war profiteer" who walked away with an extra $200 million while providing fuel to American troops in Iraq.

At Florida State University, he is something of a hero — contributing more than a million dollars to athletic programs, the business school and his old fraternity.

Who is Harry Sargeant III?

Photo: Harry Sargeant, center, introduces Gov. Charlie Crist and Jordan's King Abdullah II at the presidential palace in Amman, Jordan, in 2007.

 A plaque at the Pi Kappa Alpha House on campus calls him "the most powerful man no one knows.'' The moniker comes from a 2008 Miami Herald story that noted his friendship with Crist and his wide-ranging business interests.

Sargeant, 55, is a billionaire former Marine fighter pilot, the owner of an oil and asphalt shipping company with global businesses including aviation companies and an oil refinery.

And in the tangled world of Florida politics, Sargeant is a Republican financial powerhouse.

He has long supported Crist while also helping former party chairman Jim Greer, despite the animosity between Greer and Crist since Greer was charged with stealing money from the GOP in 2010. Crist, now a Democrat considering an attempt to return to the Governor's Mansion, says Sargeant remains a close friend.

Campaign finance records show Sargeant has donated more than $1.5 million to Florida politicians and the state Republican Party since 2000, the year Crist ran for education commissioner.

In recent years, Sargeant has made headlines over fuel he supplied to U.S. forces in Iraq. The brother-in-law of the king of Jordan sued Sargeant in Palm Beach and won a $28.8 million verdict for being cut out of a $1.4 billion defense contract that allowed Sargeant to transport fuel through Jordan. (Sargeant is appealing.) A congressional oversight committee called for an investigation of payments to Sargeant's company, and last year auditors for the Department of Defense accused the company of overcharging the Pentagon by hundreds of millions. A federal investigation is ongoing.

Chris Kise, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Sargeant, says the overcharging accusations came from Democrats who were angry at Sargeant's fundraising for Republicans. More from Lucy Morgan here. 

 

Florida House release new app, Weatherford brushes off 2014 rumors

The Florida House of Representatives released a new mobile app that House Speaker Will Weatherford said will “set a national standard.”

The app, reported by the Herald/Times yesterday, will allow users to track the legislative process on their mobile devices, with features like live streaming from the Capitol in Tallahassee and tracking of bills.

“This is the way that people are communicating with their government,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican.

The app is expected to be released next week, as the 60-day legislative session begins.

Read more about it here and see the House press release here.

After the press conference, Weatherford took questions from reporters on a range of issues, including Medicaid, Citizens Insurance, the budget sequester and Internet cafes.

He brushed off questions about a potential run for governor against Rick Scott, while continuing to differ from Scott on the key issues of Medicaid expansion and across-the-board $2,500 pay raises for teachers. 

“I think people who are saying those things must not know me well,” he said about those who are whispering about a 2014 primary challenge. “I’m busy enough trying to be the Speaker of the House… I’m not thinking of any of that stuff right now.”

Weatherford did not specifically rule out the possibility, but said that he doesn’t “have any plans to do anything like that.”

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February 18, 2013

Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance

The gloves came off Monday and it was Rep. Mike Fasano vs. Citizens Property Insurance, Round 1 for the 2013 legislative session.

Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who was conspicuously snubbed from a post on the Banking and Insurance Committee, used his chairmanship of an obscure joint committee to berate what he believes is an anti-consumer culture at Citizens.

As chair of the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee, Fasano held court over a number of state agencies who had failed to comply with state laws passed by the Legislature.

Last on the list was Citizens, which was supposed to begin offering a less comprehensive—and less expensive—policy option on Jan. 1, but has not yet done so.

“You said Citizens is concerned about the consumer. I laughed at that,” said Fasano, during a spirited back-and-forth with Citizens’ legislative director. “They’re more concerned about depopulating and raising premiums.”

Citizens countered that the company was working as hard as it could to implement the new policy, called an HO-8. The new policy is scheduled to begin rollout next week.

But Fasano is not happy with the way Citizens is implementing a law passed by the Legislature in 2012. The law calls for Citizens to offer the HO-8 policy, but the company is only planning to offer it to homeowners with homes that are at least 51 years old, and worth less than $200,000.

“We believe we are following the law,” said Citizens spokesperson, Christine Ashburn. She said the HO-8 policy offered by Citizens has certain "underwriting guidelines," just like all other policies. Those guidelines--the age and value requirements--were approved by the Office of Insurance Regulation, whom Fasano also blasted.

Continue reading "Fasano uses obscure committee post to blast Citizens Insurance" »

As insurance premiums rise, Citizens execs get big pay hikes

When the president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. learned that his chief financial officer had used corporate funds to finance a luxurious weekend at a $633-a-night resort in Bermuda, he initially described the expenses as “absolutely appropriate.”

But President Barry Gilway changed his tune after a Herald/Times story and a subsequent inspector general report documented evidence that executives regularly ran up huge expenses on the company credit card, traveling and dining at four-star locations across the globe.

“As guardians of public funds, we must hold ourselves to a more rigorous standard,” he said.

It was a full-throated mea culpa, following sharp rebukes from Gov. Rick Scott, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and top lawmakers. But behind the scenes, Gilway was quietly handing out huge salary raises for the well-traveled CFO, Sharon Binnun, and several other executives who run the state-backed company.


Read more here

 


February 12, 2013

For the first time, Gov. Rick Scott needs votes from Democrats

For the first time in his brief and turbulent political career, Gov. Rick Scott needs a little help from Florida’s Democrats to turn one of his wishes into law.

Scott’s top legislative priority this year — a $141 million tax cut for manufacturers — comes with an asterisk: It has to garner ‘Yes’ votes from two-thirds of the Legislature to pass.

That means Democrats — whose gains in November breached the Republican supermajorities in Tallahassee — suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar power position as they try to defeat Scott in 2014.

“I doubt that’ll be able to get a supermajority,” said Rep. Perry Thurston, a Plantation Democrat and minority leader in the Florida House. “It’s just another [business] incentive. We don’t know if it works.”

The bill seeks to eliminate sales taxes on all manufacturing equipment and machinery.

Scott has already put considerable political capital behind the tax cut, stating on numerous occasions that this was his top priority for 2013, along with a $1.2 billion boost in education funding.

“We need to build up manufacturing jobs in the great state of Florida,” he said in unveiling a $74.2 billion budget plan last month. Scott said the tax cut would create jobs and increase exports.

A failure on the measure would be politically embarrassing for Scott, who has staked his governorship on job creation and CEO-like efficacy.

Read more here

 

February 05, 2013

Alex Sink: Florida's new male-centric business brand is 'terrible'

FloridaClimateforBiz_LogoFormer CFO Alex Sink is weighing in on the state’s new proposal to rebrand itself for business, calling it “terrible” and joining a growing list of critics who are slamming the orange-tie imagery as sexist.

Here’s what Sink posted on Facebook this afternoon:

Did you see this? http://bit.ly/YB9rnx What a terrible way to brand our state. We are diverse. We are modern. And we won't stand for our state to be portrayed as having a stuffy, outdated climate for business. Share this photo if you agree and let your friends and family know that we are the state of innovators and entrepreneurs. Ditch the tie and join us. DitchTheTie_AlexSink

Sink, who fell 60,000 votes short of becoming the state’s first female governor in 2010, was defeated by Gov. Rick Scott.

Last week Scott hailed the orange tie image as “a brand that will solidify our reputation to the nation and the world.”

Enterprise Florida is standing by the brand, even as it deals with a barrage of controversy in recent days, starting with its decision to outsource a $200,000 Florida branding contract to a Tennessee-based company. When the new business brand was unveiled, several businesswomen slammed it as sexist, because it was anchored on the image of a necktie. On Tuesday, a watchdog group blasted EFI for engaging in “pay-to-play” cronyism and “corporate welfare” through its multimillion-dollar incentives program. Lawmakers are also looking to crack down on incentives, and EFI has been defending them as proven investments in economic development.

Sink is one of a handful of potential 2014 challengers to Scott, who is facing dangerously low poll numbers.

 @ToluseO