April 24, 2013

Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote

Voting on a major insurance overhaul was postponed again Wednesday, indicating that fear of skyrocketing rates is weighing down the bill in the Florida Senate. 

Bill sponsor David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said last week that he has enough support for the bill, but wanted more time to make amendments and build more consensus. 

He pulled the bill from the agenda right before the first scheduled vote last week. The same thing happened Wednesday, when the bill was again “temporarily postponed.” After cruising through the committee process, the bill has been delayed on the floor of the Senate three times in the last two weeks. It has been amended nearly 40 times.

Simmons said he would amend the bill in order to address concerns of lawmakers who are worried about the pocketbook impact on their constituents. 

The 100-page bill seeks to shrink the level of risk carried by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. by raising its rates and forcing its policyholders into the private market. The rate hikes are mostly focused on new policyholders at the state-run Citizens and those who have high-risk “wind-only” coverage. 

Citizens’ president Barry Gilway said earlier this month that the bill could lead to rate hikes of 60 percent or more in 11 counties across the state. Many of those large increases would be for the wind-only homeowners.

Continue reading "Citizens Insurance overhaul delayed again, major amendment expected before vote" »

April 23, 2013

Scott touts ‘incredible economic turnaround’ to poach Illinois businesses

Gov. Rick Scott sent letters to Illinois business owners this week, telling them to book a “one-way” ticket to Florida and set up shop in the Sunshine State. 

In the letter, Scott touts Florida’s economic recovery, low taxes and shrinking state debt. He continues his “It’s working” theme by painting Florida as a state that has undergone an “incredible economic turnaround” under his watch. In contrast, Scott writes, Illinois is raising taxes and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. 

“While Florida’s economic formula is working, we know Illinois’ formula of more taxing and more spending ISN’T WORKING,” Scott writes. 

Scott, who references the state of Texas in his letter, is taking a page from Gov. Rick Perry’s playbook. Earlier this year, Perry aired a radio ad in California bashing the state for raising taxes and welcoming California businesses to Texas. Perry followed the ad up with a recruiting trip to the state. 

It’s not the first time Scott has tried to poach businesses from a high-tax state. Last year, Scott sent letters to New York businesses telling them to come to Florida. It’s not clear if Scott was successful in recruiting any New York businesses to Florida. New York is also playing offense in the job recruitment wars. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been airing ads in Florida and elsewhere for more than a year touting the state’s reduction in business and property taxes

Continue reading "Scott touts ‘incredible economic turnaround’ to poach Illinois businesses" »

April 19, 2013

Judge upholds ban on 2012 PIP law, rejecting Scott's appeal

A Leon County judge has again blocked part of the landmark auto insurance overhaul enacted last year by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.

Judge Terry Lewis upheld a temporary ban on the law, after a lawsuit by chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists. Lewis approved the ban last month, indicating that the overhaul of Florida’s Personal Injury Protection laws was unconstitutional.

Gov. Rick Scott appealed the decision, in effect putting the ban on hold and leaving the law intact. But the plaintiffs asked a judge to uphold the ban, saying that allowing the law to remain in place would put many out of business.

Lewis said he agreed to “vacate the stay,” not because of the harm that would be done to the plaintiffs, but because of potential harm to those injured in car accidents.

“The reason for issuing the injunction was to protect this constitutional right and prevent the potential harm to citizens injured in automobile accidents who, under the PIP statute, may not receive necessary care,” he wrote.

Scott's office said it would again challenge the decision, and attempt to keep the law in place.

The 2012 PIP overhaul targeted chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists, restricting their ability to provide covered treatment for people injured in auto accidents. The bill also limited covered medical care to $2,500 if the injured person does not have “an emergency medical condition.” The typical policy limits under Florida’s no-fault law are $10,000. The law was aimed at cracking down on fraud within the PIP system.

Lewis found those changes likely violate the part of the Constitution that provides for access to courts. The case remains pending.

The PIP overhaul was a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott in 2012, and is another example of a law the governor pushed, only to see a judge rule it unconstitutional months later. The Legislature floated the idea of doing away with PIP this year after Lewis’ ruling, but ultimately decided to allow the court battle to play out.

The chiropractors had a better outcome in state court than they did in federal court, where a judge denied the plea for an injunction in December.

Scott's office said the state has filed a lawsuit to challenge Lewis' decision. 

"The solicitor general filed a challenge to the circuit court's decision to lift the stay," said a spokesperson for the governor.

Scott indicated in a statement last month that he would fight to keep the PIP changes in place.

“Our reforms are working to lower insurance costs for Florida families and we will continue to fight special interest groups to keep them in place,” he said.

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.

Continue reading "Shhh... Soaring insurance rates the unspoken theme in fast-moving Senate bill " »

April 04, 2013

Miami Senator calls on Scott to stop flow of 'armor piercing' bullets

 Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, said armor-piercing bullets have become ubiquitous in his district and is asking Gov. Rick Scott to do something about it.

In a letter to Scott’s office Thursday, Bullard called on Scott to begin an investigation into the flow of deadly bullets into South Florida, calling them "military-grade" and saying his constituents are living in "open war zones."

“As night falls in many of these communities, families gather before twilight not to feast, but to fear,” he wrote. “They lock themselves in to lock out those who prey the streets with high powered weapons that pierce a home’s walls as effortlessly as they pierce a child’s body.”

Bullard also lamented the fact that several gun control bills are languishing in the Florida Legislature, which has been reluctant to entertain the gun debate.

Here’s Bullard’s letter to Scott:

Continue reading "Miami Senator calls on Scott to stop flow of 'armor piercing' bullets" »

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.

Continue reading "Digital Domain CEO hits back at damning IG report, blames Scott-Crist politics" »

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:

Continue reading "IG Report: Many said 'Yes' to ill-fated Digital Domain tax grant" »

March 20, 2013

Movers and Shakers

Three inducted into Florida Women's Hall of Fame

A nurse who committed her life to providing medical care to Tampa’s black citizens, a Florida pioneer, and a women’s rights leader will be inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame by Attorney General Pam Bondi at 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Capital Courtyard. 

Nurse  Clara C. Frye, who died in 1936, transformed her Tampa home into a temporary hospital in1908 and then established the Clara Frye Negro Hospital there in 1923. A pavilion at Tampa General Hospital is named after her. Aleene Pridgen Kidd MacKenzie, a 92-year-old Ocala resident, established the FSU Foundation and in 1964, Gov. Farris Bryant  appointed her to chair the first Commission on the Status of Women; she was also the first president of a national women’s safety group. Pioneer Lillie Pierce Voss, the first non-Native American child born between Jupiter and Miami, grew up with the Seminole Indians in the wilds of what would become Palm Beach County. She and a brother later wrote a manuscript called "Pioneer Life in Southeast Florida."

 

Continue reading "Movers and Shakers" »

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

 

March 08, 2013

After firings of internal investigators sparked controversy, Citizens Insurance hires new forensic unit

Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which came under heavy scrutiny last year for firing four internal investigators who had discovered evidence of executive misconduct, has announced that new forensic accountants have been hired to root out fraud.

Citizens has hired three forensic professionals, forming a team that Joe Martins, the company’s Chief of Internal Audit, says will “provide an unprecedented level of internal oversight.” 

The abrupt disbanding of the Office of Corporate Integrity last year raised eyebrows, especially after the Herald/Times unveiled documents showing that the investigators had drafted an explosive report shortly before being ousted.

The report included evidence of large severance packages for disgraced employees, mishandled internal investigations, altered documents and a number of embarrassing workplace mishaps.

Citizens claimed that the firings were part of a restructuring effort, and the company announced Friday that the hiring of new forensic professionals is part of that effort.

Gov. Rick Scott said the OCI firings “concerned” him and asked his Inspector General to investigate last year. The report on that investigation, which follows another investigation into excessive travel spending at the state-run insurer, is expected to be released soon. In addition to the two inspector general reports, Citizens has come under fire for giving out large raises to executives, failing to negotiate large contracts and inadvertently giving away $2.5 million to another insurance company (the money has since been recouped).

Yesterday, Scott said he was “very disappointed” in what is going on at Citizens and he has asked the executives to return the large raises they received last year. Citizens said the raises were necessary to help the company compete with the private insurance industry, where compensation is higher.

The company's board is expected to address the salary issue at its next board meeting, but it's unclear if the executives will follow Scott's orders and return the money they've already received.

Citizens’ press release is below.

Continue reading "After firings of internal investigators sparked controversy, Citizens Insurance hires new forensic unit" »