May 30, 2013

Largest private insurer in Florida fined $1.3 million for long list of violations, abuses

The state’s largest private property insurance company has been violating state law, mistreating customers and shifting profits to affiliates for years, according to an order released Thursday by the Office of Insurance Regulation.

Universal Property and Casualty Insurance Company has been fined $1.3 million for a laundry list of violations ranging from mismanaging its money to wrongfully denying insurance claims to failing to maintain appropriate records. Many of the violations are repeat offenses for the company, since regulators flagged the much of the misconduct in 2005.

The fine, if it holds, would be one of the largest ever levied against a property insurer.

Fort Lauderdale-based Universal has more than 542,000 policyholders, and is 15 times as large as it was in 2004. During that rapid growth span, regulators say, it built up a habit of breaking insurance rules and using questionable financial practices. Universal officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

The company was blasted last year by the Insurance Consumer Advocate, Robin Westcott, for it’s practice of “post claim underwriting.” After homeowners filed insurance claims, the company scrutinizes the initial policyholder application, to see if any mistakes had been made. If the homeowner failed to report a credit issue on the initial application, Universal denies the claim and cancels the policy.

“This practice is reprehensible and should cease immediately,” said Westcott last month, urging the Office of Insurance Regulation to investigate.

OIR found that Universal was indeed cancelling policies after policyholders made claims, leaving homeowners who thought they had insurance with huge repair bills and no coverage.

"For far too long, this company unjustly denied claims and forced consumers into financially devastating situations," said Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, in a statement.

The company also made several other violations, cited in the 19-page OIR order (which is subject to challenge by Universal before it becomes final). They include:

--          Canceling policies without justification (a “repeat violation” from a 2005 order)

--          Requiring homeowners to produce multiple “notarized proof of loss” documents after making a claim.

--          Not keeping a copy of consumer complaints, as required by regulators and Florida statutes

--          Several money-management issues, some of which are detailed below.

Continue reading "Largest private insurer in Florida fined $1.3 million for long list of violations, abuses" »

May 16, 2013

After Scott priority fails to get 80 votes, legislative staff flip-flop on supermajority clause

After Gov. Rick Scott’s highly prioritized manufacturing tax cut passed the Florida Legislature without receiving a two-thirds vote majority, legislative staff analysts have had a change of heart and now believe such a supermajority was not necessary. 

Last month, staff analysts in the Florida Senate said emphatically that a two-thirds vote was required, because the proposed sales tax exemption for manufacturing equipment would put a significant dent into local government revenue. 

“Therefore, this bill requires passage by 2/3 of the membership of each chamber,” the  legislative analysis dated April 2, 2013 states. The House analysts also raised the two-thirds vote as a possibility, and a top official in Scott's office told the Herald/Times in February he believed a supermajority vote was required.

On May 2, an amended version of the bill cleared the House in a hurriedly cast 68-48 vote, with all Democrats and a few Republicans voting against it. Despite falling short of the 80-vote supermajority previously cited, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, quickly declared the bill passed, and brushed aside concerns about its constitutionality. Democrats immediately promised to sue.

“We think it is extremely constitutional,” Weatherford said after the contentious vote, stating that he had discussed the issue with legislative legal staff. He followed up with a statement asking “Who would sue to stop a tax cut”?

Now, the non-partisan legislative analysts in the Florida House have backtracked from their initial claim that the bill might need a two-thirds majority and have fallen in line with the House Speaker’s position on its constitutionality.

An updated staff analysis from the Florida House, dated May 15, strips all references to Article VII, section 18 of the Florida Constitution (the portion protecting local governments from unfunded mandates). All previous staff reports had at least cited the constitutional clause, highlighting the requirement for a two-thirds majority vote when local government revenue is at stake. The Senate had been more definitive about the 2/3 vote requirement than the House, and a new analysis was not done by the Senate.

A spokesperson for Weatherford said final bill analyses traditionally do not include information about constitutionality.

Whereas initial staff analyses mentioned Department of Economic Opportunity estimates of up to $115 million in lost revenue for the state, the updated review does not cite any cost figure. DEO has estimated that the tax cut could cost cities and counties up to $26 million per year.

The final bill analyses does not cite those numbers, or any others, only stating that “it is not anticipated the provisions would significantly affect the authority of the counties and municipalities to raise revenue in the aggregate.”

The words “significantly” and “aggregate” are key, because the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for any bill that has a significant impact on local governments revenue-collecting abilities. A sales tax cut for manufacturers will likely reduce the amount of revenue coming in to local government coffers.

Under the bill, the revenue loss for local governments—estimated at $13 to $26 million per year—far exceeds the $1.9 million threshold needed to qualify as a “significant” impact. But the Legislature's legal team has seized on the term “in the aggregate” to justify the bill’s constitutionality.

"Based on our staff's estimate, it does not have a significant impact," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesperson for Weatherford.

Case law on the issue is not definitive, so a lawsuit could set a legal precedent for the future.

Of note, the bill has changed since the first staff analyses, but the final version would still have a annual impact on local government revenue. Under the original bill, the sales tax cut would have kicked in this year and lasted forever. The updated bill creates a three-year tax cut period starting in 2014. It could save manufacturers more than $140 million per year, when state and local tax savings are combined.

The proposal was one of Scott’s top priorities for the 2013 session, as the governor said eliminating taxes on machinery will help “build up” manufacturing jobs in Florida.

Scott, who is expected to sign the bill soon, recently wrapped up a “victory tour” across the state to celebrate the bill’s passage.

“Manufacturers in Florida have been disadvantaged for too long because we were one of few states that taxed the purchase of manufacturing equipment,” Scott said in a statement. “With this legislation, Florida is now on a level playing field.”

He added “I look forward to signing this bill into law.”

@ToluseO

May 06, 2013

Movers & Shakers

 It's been a busy session for movers and shakers.

Capitol TV reporter becomes new DCF press secretary

Whitney Ray, a reporter for the Capitol News Service, has been named the new press secretary for the Department of Children and Families. Ray, a graduate of the University of Arkansas, has had 12 years experience in the TV news business. He's replaced by Matt Horn, previously with KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kansas.

And there's lots more shuffling in Capitol communications.

Alexis Lambert, who was the communications director for Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, is the new DCF Communications Director, replacing Joe Follick, a former reporter who left the DCF job in April to take the top communications job at the Florida Department of Education.

Follick, who had been with DCF since October 2009, replaced Cynthia Sucher, who has become communications director for the Florida Office of Early Learning. Laura Woodard, who previously held the job, is now president of a Tampa marketing and communications firm.

Continue reading "Movers & Shakers" »

May 02, 2013

Chances fade for bill to block foreign law in Florida courts

A controversial bill that aims to keep foreign law from being used over Florida law in family courts is “effectively dead,” Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, chairman of the Senate’s Rules Committee, said after that body's meeting Thursday.

Democrats blocked an effort by the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, to get the House bill through in the Senate by a 25-14 vote. Hays needed a two-thirds vote, or 27 votes, to substitute the House version (HB 351), which passed April 18 by a vote of 79-39.

Hays said the bill aims to make sure that American law trumps foreign law in marital law cases, but opponents have said the measure is rooted in anti-Shariah legislation and could also impact residents from Israel and other countries, and there haven't been any indications of problems with foreign law in Florida courts.

Marino: Weatherford thinks Dolphins bill has 'good chance' of clearing House

National Football League hall of famer and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino made a special appearance Thursday at the Florida House, where lawmakers have stalled on an effort to give the Dolphins taxpayer support for a stadium upgrade. 

Marino is the fourth high-profile figure from the NFL to show up in Tallahassee this week. On Monday, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team CEO Mike Dee spent hours in the Capitol talking to lawmakers about the Dolphins stadium effort.

Marino met with House Speaker Will Weatherford, other House members and Gov. Rick Scott to talk about his foundation, and the sports stadium bill.

"I'm definitely supporting the whole thing with the stadium," he told the Times/Herald before meeting with Scott. "I'm a Dolphin for life and a South Floridian for life. 

Weatherford told Marino he thought the sports stadium bill had a "good chance" of passing before Friday.

The Dolphins need Tallahassee approval in order to get taxpayer support for its proposed stadium upgrade and the legislative session is nearing an end without a deal.

The bill passed the Senate on Monday, but was in danger of failing in the House, which has faced procedural gridlock this week as Democrats protested a stalemate over healthcare reform. Session ends Friday.

Marino walked into Gov. Rick Scott's office around 3 p.m on Thursday after meeting with other lawmakers. In addition to being a former Dolphins quarterback, Marino has a foundation to support autism research and treatment. He has traveled to Tallahassee in the past to gin up support for his foundation and cause.

An honorary co-chair of of South Florida's Super Bowl bid committee, Marino also used the opportunity to speak to lawmakers about the sports stadium bill. 

"I think it would be great for the community," said Marino. "People have got to understand the economic impact it would have on our community. Not only the jobs, but revenue for businesses, and there's great examples of that throughout the year's Super Bowls have been here, and national championships. From that respect, I'm all for it. Hopefully it'll work out."

If the bill passes and a referendum vote is approved, the Dolphins could receive up to $289 million in taxpayer support from an increase in the Miami-Dade hotel tax, from 6 to 7 percent. It would also offer the team up to $90 million in state sales tax rebates.

If the bill doesn't pass, the referendum vote--scheduled for May 14 and already underway via early voting--would be called off.

The team is looking to spend more than $350 million for its stadium upgrade and has agreed to pay much of the tax money back after 30 years.

@ToluseO

May 01, 2013

After nail-biter of a day in the House, foster care bill passes

For Sen. Nancy Detert and the backers of a bill extending foster care from age 18 to 21, Wednesday’s House session was a nail biter.

Named the Nancy C. Detert Common Sense and Compassion Independent Living Act, House Bill 1036, which is co-sponsored by the entire Senate, was temporarily postponed Wednesday morning as Democrats, protesting inaction on health insurance reform, demanded that all bills be read in their entirety. The House is using a robotic auto reader to speed-read bills.

“I was really on pins and needles,” said Christina Spudeas, executive director of Florida’s Children First. “I didn’t know if it would really come back. I got really scared."

Detert said she was “nervous” because under House rules, “if they didn’t read the bill today and pass it out, it wouldn’t pass. And it’s such a long bill, they weren’t getting to it.”

The Venice Republican said she met with House Speaker Will Weatherford and his chief of staff Kathy Mears to discuss the bill Wednesday morning and was told that Weatherford would “see that it gets done even if they have to stay here till midnight. He said we don’t let politics get in the way of children. And he kept his word.

After the auto-reader went through the 54-page bill (which took at least 40 minutes)  the measure passed 116-1 (Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, voted against it).

“We didn’t want to have to lose it because of process,” said Detert, who stood in the back of the House to watch the bill pass. “That would have been a tragedy.”

Continue reading "After nail-biter of a day in the House, foster care bill passes" »

April 25, 2013

House could spike Dolphins bill: ‘We’ve waited three weeks,’ Speaker says

The clock is ticking and the plot is thickening in the Miami Dolphins’ quest for stadium-renovation-tax-dollars, as the Florida Legislature is struggling to come together on a deal in the waning days of Session. 

The Florida Senate postponed debate on the tax-break package Thursday, and House Speaker Weatherford voiced concern over the delays in the other chamber. 

“We’ve been waiting for three weeks,” said Weatherford, who holds the fate of the Dolphins in his hands. “We’ve been hearing that it’s going to come over (from the Senate) for several weeks and we haven’t seen anything yet.”

Senate President Don Gaetz said bill sponsor Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) was not ready to bring the bill up for debate on Thursday as scheduled.

For the Dolphins’ bill to pass, the Senate would have to approve it and send it to the House. The House would have to approve it, possibly by sending it to a committee first. All of this would have to occur within the next few days, as the legislative session ends next Friday.

Continue reading "House could spike Dolphins bill: ‘We’ve waited three weeks,’ Speaker says" »

Fla. House passes 'wage theft' bill on partyline vote

A bill that would outlaw new “wage theft” ordinances—similar to the one in Miami-Dade County—passed the Florida House on a partyline vote Thursday.

The bill, HB 1125, would force victims of wage theft to take their case to civil court, after giving their employer a “demand letter,” allowing them 15 days to pay the disputed amount. Local programs set up to deal with the wage disputes in a non-court setting would be banned, if the bill goes into effect. Though it passed the House on a 71-45 vote, it has stalled in the Senate.

Opponents have blasted HB 1125 as a “Tallahassee power grab” that protects big corporations and business owners who withhold wages from their workers.

"I have had a number of family members and members of my community who have worked on the job and not been paid,” said Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat who represents Little Havana. ““I don’t see any justification for both cutting down people’s rights and also making it more difficult for local governments to help their own people.”

Proponents called it a way to create a statewide solution to the problem of wage theft.

The bill, HB 1125, is the latest in a multiyear attempt by the business lobby to outlaw local laws that govern the act of “wage theft,” or employers refusing to pay employees. The push has failed in previous years, and a judge upheld Miami-Dade’s program last year.

Continue reading "Fla. House passes 'wage theft' bill on partyline vote" »

Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights

The U.S. Department of Labor has rapped the state of Florida for making it difficult for some unemployed people to get jobless benefits, particularly for the disabled and those who speak Spanish or Creole.

Florida's decision in 2011 to make people who apply for benefits do so online and take an "assessment" before getting a check are a violation of civil rights, DOL found.

The Department of Economic Opportunity has agreed to enter negotiations with DOL to make appropriate changes, according to a press release from the National Employment Law Center, Florida Legal Services, the Miami Workers Center and other groups.

DEO defended its program, and said the Department of Labor knew about the changes before they took place.

"DEO questions many of the initial findings by DOL," DEO spokesperson Monica Russell said in a statement. "DOL was aware of the legislative changes to the reemployment system before its passage in 2011 and provided no objection."

At 16 percent, Florida recently ranked lowest in the nation for the “recipiency rate” of jobless benefits (i.e., the number of eligible people receiving aid.)

Many blamed changes made by Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature for the low rate of jobless benefits recipiency. A 2011 law forced all applicants for benefits to do so online, putting an end to applications by phone or paper. The law also required applicants to take a 45-question “assessment” to gauge their skills. Several groups filed a legal challenge saying the changes were discriminatory against those with disabilities and low English proficiency.

“The online requirements created severe obstacles for thousands of Florida jobseekers, especially those with limited English proficiency or disabilities that prevent them from using a computer,” the pro-worker groups said in a statement.

Continue reading "Federal gov't blasts Florida's unemployment compensation system for denying civil rights" »

April 23, 2013

Jay Odom gets 6-month sentence for illegal campaign contributions

PENSACOLA (AP) -- Panhandle developer Jay Odom was sentenced to six months in federal prison after pleading guilty to a charge of making illegal contributions in the 2008 presidential primary.

A federal judge sentenced Odom, who owns Destin Jet, on Tuesday morning. He faced up to five years in prison. Federal investigators alleged that he illegally funneled $23,000 to the campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Odom circumvented federal finance laws by repaying 10 associates who each gave a maximum $2,300 donation to Huckabee.