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June 21, 2017

Test driving Florida's new voting option: Registering online

Two years in the making, Florida's new online voter registration system is on pace for an official launch on Oct. 1, as the Legislature directed in the 2015 session.

It's the most significant change in voter registration in years in Florida, and most county election supervisors got their first close-up look at the system Wednesday at their statewide conference in Davenport. Reviews were generally favorable, but growing concerns about cybersecurity were also heard.

"It works," Escambia Supervisor of Electitons David Stafford said. Paul Lux of Okaloosa said he was pleased with how the system will function. Stafford, Lux and supervisors Wesley Wilcox in Marion and Chris Chambless in Clay all participated in dry-run tests last month.

Registering to vote online is already in effect in more than 20 states, and it will be an option in Florida in English and Spanish. Voting experts and policymakers hope it will result in more eligible adults joining the ranks of eligible voters in the nation's third-largest state.

When the Legislature first proposed it two years ago, Gov. Rick Scott's administration expressed cybersecurity concerns, but he signed the bill into law.

Anyone registering online must complete a "captcha" step that's used to ensure that a human being is applying -- not a computer -- and to thwart spam. Applicants also must input a street address by choosing their address based on online street directories already used by elections offices.

In addition to the basic information -- full name, date of birth, home address -- online registrants also must provide information not currently required by a printed voter registration form, including a full driver's license number, the date the license was issued (it's on the front of your license), and the last four digits of the applicant's Social Security number (one or the other is required for a written voter application, not both).

Online applicants also will be required to choose a political party to register. Under current law, a person who fills out a form can skip choosing a political party, and if that happens, the voter will be registered with no party affiliation. The online form will include the NPA option for new voters, but the applicant will have to check a box.

Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher questioned the state's authority to include those provisions and said they could prove "cumbersome" for people wanting to register online.

Division of Elections Director Maria Matthews said the state is confident that the requirements are legally valid, and supervisors Lux and Chambless agreed. They cited a need for a higher "level of authentication" for voters registering online than for people registering in person.

The online registration web site will be registertovoteflorida.gov, and the site will not store or retain personal data, the state said.

Another lawsuit attempts to get juice out of the citrus scare by overturning Rick Scott's veto

Canker 1997@MaryEllenKlas

The legal saga of thousands of lost citrus trees took a new twist late Tuesday as homeowners in Broward and Lee counties asked the court to reverse Gov. Rick Scott's line-item veto of $37.3 million to compensate trees destroyed a decade ago.

The unusual lawsuit, filed in the Florida Supreme Court, claims that Scott's veto of two specific appropriations -- $20.9 million and $16.4 million -- was unconstitutional because it undermines the state's obligation to make good on an illegal "taking" of private property. 

After years of litigation, the Legislature for the first time set aside the money this year to compensate homeowners who lost "healthy, uninfected residential citrus trees" as part of the state's Citrus Canker Eradication Program between 2000 and 2006 and to pay their attorneys fees.

In 2008, Broward courts awarded 70,036 homeowners in that county $20.9 million as payment for their lost citrus trees. In 2014, another court awarded 167,677 homeowners in Lee County $16.4 million for their lost trees.

The state was ordered to make the payments on the grounds that destroying the trees without adequate compensation was an unconstitutional "taking."

But in his veto message, Scott rejected the payments  -- saying they were vetoed "because of ongoing litigation."

The homeowners argue that there is no ongoing litigation -- except the lawsuit to collect the payments.

They say his reason was not only wrong, it was unconstitutional and violates their rights to due process.

The veto "undermines the State’s constitutional obligation to pay full compensation for the taking of private property."

They cite the Florida Constitution which states: “No private property shall be taken except for a public purpose and with full compensation therefore paid to each owner or secured by deposit in the registry of the court and available to the owner.”

If the court accepts the case, it could test the premise offered the Fourth District Court of Appeals that said if the state didn't authorize the payments, Broward homeowners and their lawyers could pursue a writ of mandamus "to enforce the judgments."

Throughout Florida history, only the state Legislature has had the power to overturn a governor's veto of an appropriation in the state spending bill.

Lawmakers set aside the money to compensate homeowners this year after the Fourth District Court of Appeals held that "while the government has the ability to establish procedures for payment of its constitutional obligation, it does not have the luxury of avoiding it."

In an attempt to follow through the on the suggested remedy, attorneys filed a claim with the Broward circuit court, seeking a mandamus judgment. The case is still pending.

The petition filed Tuesday asks the state's highest court to issue a writ of mandamus to "expunge" the vetoes from the record and "direct the Chief Financial Officer" to pay the homeowners as set forth in the settlement agreement the state signed.

Under the failed citrus eradication program, state agriculture inspectors deployed crews with chain saws to chop down 577,253 orange, grapefruit and key lime trees throughout the state — even if the trees showed no signs of infection.

Outraged property owners representing counties with 94 percent of the lost trees joined five class action lawsuits to seek compensation. In four of the cases, the court ordered the state to pay more than $100 million in judgments, attorneys fees and interest.

The fifth case, involving Miami-Dade residents who lost 40 percent of the healthy trees removed in Florida, is still pending. The bench trial in that case ended June 2016 but the judge has not ruled.

Broward homeowners sought compensation for the destruction of 133,720 healthy trees and Lee County homeowners sought payment for 33,957 healthy trees.

Lawmakers added the money to the budget for only two of the four counties in which judgments have been rendered. They did not include money for homeowners in Orange and Palm Beach counties.  

The courts uniformly disagreed with lawyers for the Department of Agriculture, and Commissioner Adam Putnam, who argued against paying homeowners for the lost trees. They contended that trees exposed to canker were a public nuisance and their removal is not a taking that should be compensated by the state.

Petitioners include homeowners, Toby and Robert Bogorff, Timothy Farley, Beth and Roald Garcia, Deanna and John Klockow, Lois and Charles Stroh, and Nancy and Joseph Dolliver and the law firms of Grossman Roth, Robert C. Gilbert, P.A., Lytal Reiter Smith Ivey & Fronrath, and Weiss Serota Helfman Cole & Bierman, P.L. who represented the owners of residential properties in Broward and Lee Counties, Florida.

"The importance of deciding this issue before the commencement of the new budget year cannot be overstated,'' the petition argues.

"Absent an immediate decision by this Court, the State will argue that no appropriated funds exist with which to pay and satisfy the constitutional takings judgments held by Petitioners, and Petitioners will be left holding constitutional takings judgments that cannot be satisfied.

"The process will continue to recur unless this Court puts an end to it once and for all."

Photo: A work crew mulches a citrus plant in Hialeah in 1997, the early stages of South Florida’s canker war. Roberto Koltun El Nuevo Herald

June 20, 2017

Republican rivals in Miami House race are still trying to out-Cuban each other

FullSizeRender (28)@PatriciaMazzei

President Donald Trump's Miami visit to announce new U.S.-Cuba policy last week became a campaign moment in a special Florida House race between two Republican primary rivals who have tried to out-Cuban each other.

Foreign policy is not the purview of state lawmakers. Nevertheless, on Friday, after Trump's East Little Havana event, candidate Jose Mallea's campaign put out a robocall to House District 116 Republican voters touting Mallea's support for Trump's policy shift.

"Mallea is a real Republican, Cuban-American, who wants to fight for a free Cuba," the call said. "In contrast, his opponent, Daniel Perez, was a beneficiary of the Obama-Castro policy, going to Cuba on a luxury vacation to take his engagement photos."

Robocall

Cuba has been an ongoing theme in the race since the Miami Herald reported last month on Perez's wedding-engagement photo shoot earlier this year in Havana, which were posted online on two websites. The photos were subsequently taken down.  FullSizeRender (29)

Meantime, Perez's campaign was sending voters a letter, in English and Spanish, from Perez's parents, vouching for their son's Cuban roots. The family left Cuba in 1969, Guelcys and Eugenio Perez wrote in their "personal message," which also said Perez's uncle Antonio Perez "died fighting against the Castro regime."

Continue reading "Republican rivals in Miami House race are still trying to out-Cuban each other" »

Miami Commissioner wants to resign Thursday -- and immediately be reappointed

FSC

@NewsbySmiley

If all goes according to plan, Francis Suarez will resign Thursday as a Miami city commissioner -- and then promptly be sworn back in.

Suarez, who is running for mayor with two years left on his final term as a city commissioner, hopes the maneuver will allow him to comply with Florida's resign-to-run law and keep his post during the final months of election season while saving the city some money.

"I'd be happy for it to happen on Thursday [during Miami's meeting of the city commission]. I put it on as a discussion item just in case the commission wanted more time to think about it," he said. "But I'm ready to do it. I think it's the best way to do it because it saves the city a significant amount of money doing it this way."

Under the state's resign-to-run law, Suarez must submit his resignation as a city commissioner by the city's ballot qualifying deadline in September in order to officially register as a candidate for mayor. Typically, candidates in his situation file their resignation just before the qualifying deadline and step down on the last possible day, often after the election since the law simply states that terms of state, county and local offices can't run concurrently for one person.

Their municipality or government agency then appoints a replacement or calls for a special election.

But as current Mayor Tomas Regalado did in 2009, Suarez hopes to preemptively and temporarily leave his post and return on the condition that he end his term as commissioner once the results from the November election are certified. Miami's other four commissioners, who would have to reappoint him, could allow the maneuver when they meet Thursday.

Suarez also said that by resigning briefly in June, he allows the city clerk and elections department to schedule a special election for his replacement to coincide with the regular election. There are currently four candidates running to replace Suarez, but officially their election isn't scheduled until 2019.

If he resigns in late September, the city would likely have to schedule a costly stand-alone election.

"If I were to resign at the last possible moment, it would create a special election which in addition to costing additional money wouldn't require a run-off" should no candidate receive more than 50 percent of the vote, he said.

This article has been updated to clarify the requirements of Florida's resign-to-run law.

The Miami Beach mystery PAC is under state investigation

Miami Beach Grieco

@NickNehamas, @joeflech and @DavidOvalle305

A public-corruption probe is underway into a controversial political group linked to Miami Beach commissioner and mayoral candidate Michael Grieco, the Miami Herald has learned.

At least one donor to the political action committee has been subpoenaed by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, according to a Miami Beach defense attorney representing the donor. The attorney asked that he and his client not be identified.

The list of donors to People for Better Leaders is stocked with Miami Beach vendors, lobbyists and developers with business before the city. The PAC raised $200,000 in 2016.

Read more.

For now, embattled Florida Democratic Party chairman keeps his job

Braynon-bittel-mcghee
@PatriciaMazzei

Two top African-American Democrats in the Florida Legislature aired their grievances Tuesday with Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel, reaching an apparent truce — for now — after Bittel called black lawmakers “childish.”

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and future House Democratic Leader Kionne McGhee of Miami stopped short of asking Bittel for his resignation during a two-hour-long private meeting at Bittel’s Miami Beach office Tuesday.

But the lawmakers, who remain upset, said they demanded that Bittel take a more inclusive approach to leading the party ahead of the 2018 election. 

“There are things that he is going to have to do, that the party is going to have to do, to make sure that respect is shown,” Braynon said, citing outreach to minority communities and diverse party committee appointments as examples. “There have to be legitimate action items.”

Does he think Bittel will follow through? “I don’t think he has a choice,” Braynon said. 

Braynon said it wasn’t up to him to call for Bittel’s resignation, given that he’d never backed him as chairman in the first place — and wouldn’t if the vote took place again today, he added.

“I would not vote for him again, just like I didn’t vote for him before,” Braynon said.

Braynon said Bittel once again apologized for saying the senator had been acting like “a 3-year-old” at the party’s annual fundraiser Saturday night.

In a statement released after the meeting Tuesday, Bittel tried to look forward.

“Our meeting was productive and we are moving forward together to secure victory in 2018,” he said. “Together we are focused on electing Democrats who will stand up for working families and bring change and economic progress to Florida.”

More here.

Marco Rubio hosts Ivanka Trump at the Capitol to talk family tax credits

DCxlKwGXoAENwAM

@alextdaugherty 

Sen. Marco Rubio hosted Ivanka Trump at the Capitol on Tuesday to talk about one of their shared priorities: a childhood tax credit. 

"There is a growing desire within the Republican conference, within the Senate and House, to address the fundamental factor that there are people in America who have decided they can't afford to have children because they can't take a month off of work and not be paid," Rubio said after the meeting. 

Trump has long championed a mandatory six-week paid leave for parents and a child tax credit for couples making less than $500,000 a year that would allow them to deduct child care expenses from their income taxes. Lower-income families who wouldn't benefit from a tax deduction could receive a rebate of up to $1,200 a year for child care expenses.

Her proposals, particularly the mandatory paid leave plan, are likely to face blowback from some conservative Republicans. Rubio stopped short of offering support for a mandatory paid leave plan on Tuesday. 

"We're in the early stages of trying to figure out the right approach," Rubio said.

Rubio and Trump didn't get into specifics about how they would expand the tax credit or offer paid leave during the meeting, Rubio said. 

"Today was in receive mode, listening to some of the different concepts and ideas that are already out there and figuring out how some of these can work together," Rubio said. "It was really more of an introductory, first step meeting but it was a good one." 

Also in the meeting were Republican Sens. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Joni Ernst of Iowa,  Mike Lee of Utah, Steve Daines of Montana and Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Rubio, Lee and Fischer have each sponsored legislation that would provide tax credits to businesses that provide paid leave to parents. 

"In order to do public policy right, it takes a little bit of time and a lot of input to make sure you have answers to every question," Rubio said. "We're all operating on 30 minute news cycles but tax policy of this sort and broader policies of this sort takes a little bit of time, but it's worth the work." 

Rubio also said that it would be his preference to include a child tax credit as part of a larger tax overhaul, but that he's prepared to move forward on a standalone bill if it can't be included. 

"That would be ideal, if there's going to be a broad tax reform, for the pro-family component to be a part of it," Rubio said. "But if it doesn't happen we're prepared to move independently of a broader reform." 

Rubio said that younger Senators in their 30s, 40s and 50s with young children are particularly sensitive to the challenges that come with raising children. 

"People used to tell me, 'How can you have four kids, it's really expensive?'" Rubio said. "And I would say all you've got to do is put more water in the soup, but now you're finding out that is not necessarily always the case." 

Photo via AP's Erica Werner on Twitter. 

Citizens Property Insurance seeks average hike of more than 10 percent in South Florida, blames Legislature

Citizens water damage@MaryEllenKlas

South Florida homeowners insured by Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will likely see annual premiums rise by more than 10 percent next year if the rate increase requested on Tuesday is approved.

“The horizon looks really cloudy out there,” said Barry Gilway, president and CEO of Citizens, the state-run insurer of last resort and the second largest holder of property insurance in Florida -- behind Universal Property & Casualty -- at a meeting of the insurer’s Board of Governors in the Orlando suburb of Maitland.

He was not referring to the start of what is expected to be an active hurricane season. Instead, he said, the soaring rates in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties are because of something regulators have been unable to track: excessive water damage claims buoyed by homeowners who assign their claims to a contractor doing the repairs, giving the contractor — and often the aggressive law firms they hire — the right to collect payments directly from the insurance company.

If approved by state regulators, the statewide residential rate increases will average 5.3 percent, but because each policy is based on the homeowner’s risk, no one pays exactly the average. The company wants an average rate increase of 10.5 percent for Miami-Dade, 10.4 percent for Broward, 9.3 percent for Palm Beach and 3.8 percent for Monroe.

It’s a problem affecting not only Citizens, but most other insurers, too, and it has been mounting for years. But, for the third year in a row, the Florida Legislature left Tallahassee last session without doing anything to address the problem.

Citizens Board member Gary Aubuchon, a former Republican state representative from Cape Coral, placed the blame squarely on lawmakers.

Citizens Property Insurance “is sailing into shark-infested waters in a ship that was created by the Legislature,” he said. “Each year they send us out, and we come back asking to fix our ship and they send us back out with duct tape.”

Unlike South Florida, most counties are projected to see multi-peril rates go down. In Tampa Bay will be less than the state average next year.

Pinellas County will see its Citizens rates for multi-peril homeowners lines drop by 5.7 percent. Hillsborough County residents will see a 0.8 percent increase, Pasco County a 2.7 percent drop, and Hernando County a 2.2 percent increase.

"Outside of South Florida, we don't see the degree of assignnment of benefits abuses that we see in south florida and that's been reflected in the rates,'' said Michael Peltier, Citizens spokesperson. He said that the drop in reinsurance costs and more competitive pricing related to windstorm coverage has contributed to the rate declines in the other markets.

"We are concerned some of the trends we are seeing in South Florida are spreading to the Tampa Bay area and Orlando," Peltier said. "But the rate proposed for 2018 reflects the hard numbers we've seen in the last two or three years."

State law allows policyholders who need repairs to their homes to assign their rights to seek reimbursement from the insurance companies to third-party contractors. Some contractors persuade homeowners whose pipes or appliances have ruptured to assign over the benefits (AOB) and, working with attorneys, file lawsuits against the insurer if the claims are denied or payments are reduced.

The cost of the litigation, on top of the repairs, has increased the cost of an average Citizens multi-peril homeowner policy from $367 in 2011 to a projected $2,083 in 2017, the company reported.

Gilway said that 50 percent of the water claims in South Florida are litigated, which can make a case five times more expensive to settle. (Without litigation, the average cost per claim is $6,000 to $7,000, but if a lawyer takes the case, the cost rise to $30,000 to $35,000 per claim, the rate request said.)

In South Florida, water claims make up 95 percent of all litigation claims and 56 percent of the company’s multi-peril homeowners exposure, Gilway said. For that reason, insurers have warned Florida lawmakers to tighten the rules in an attempt to curb the litigation, or the mounting losses will continue costing customers more.

State law limits Citizens to a maximum rate increase of 10 percent a year per policyholder, but doesn’t include the portion of the rate included in the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, so some rates will rise above the cap. The company predicts the cap will lead to a loss of about $124 million this year and $182 million in 2018 in its multi-peril homeowners lines, Gilway said. Profits from commercial lines of insurance will offset some of those losses in 2017, he said, but not in 2018.

Private insurance companies, which aren’t under the same restrictions, are seeking rate increases that are even higher than Citizens. Deerfield Beach-based People’s Trust, which insured 54,267 single-family homes in South Florida asked for 14.5-percent average rate hike for multi-peril homeowner coverage in March. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation rejected the company’s request and instead improved a higher one — an average of 16 percent — to cover its losses.

In addition to rate increase, the Citizens board authorized the company to ask the Office of Insurance Regulation to also approve changes to the way the company handles claims, in an effort to persuade homeowners to avoid litigation and curb the costs. If the changes are not approved, Citizens said its losses and exposure will rise.

Among the changes:

Give homeowners a limit of $10,000 in non-weather related water damage repairs unless they voluntarily agree to follow Citizens repair guidelines, in which case they can overcome the cap and get full coverage.

Require any third part who elects to receive a homeowner’s insurance benefits to be subject to the same duties after a loss as the homeowner — something that is not currently required in law.

Limit coverage to one non-weather loss every two years and two in five years.

Waive the deductible in water claims if the homeowner agrees to work with Citizens’ “managed repair” program — often using the insurers’ contractors — when repairing the damage in an effort to avoid litigation.

“In no way, shape or form will this issue ever be resolved without legislation,” Gilway added. “These are stop-gap measures.”

Steve Bitar, chief of underwriting and agency services, emphasized that the changes they are seeking are voluntary for homeowners.

“We don’t want to take coverage away, so all customers will have the option to elect the managed repair program,” he said. “It is key to that partnership and that balance in our proposal.”

This is the second time in three years that Citizens is seeking a rate increase for South Florida. This year, rates rose 8.9 percent to 10 percent for policyholders who renewed in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade.

“At the end of the day, the AOB situation not only continues, but it is truly getting worse,” Gilway told the board. “It’s not just a Citizens problem. It’s an industry-wide problem.”

The House in April approved a bill (HB 1421) that attempted to curb litigation over the AOB claims. It had the support of Citizens and other insurance industry backers but was criticized by lawyers, restoration and repair companies, and consumer groups as too favorable to the insurance industry. The Senate did not hear a similar bill and lawmakers adjourned without addressing the problem.

Don Glisson said he had his doubts that the same Legislature will do anything different. “We have to come up with assumption we are not going to get any relief next year, the year after, who knows?,’’ he said.

Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier told Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet last week that excessive AOB costs, which had been a problem mainly in South Florida, is now becoming a problem in other parts of the state. 

“We are going to continue to see homeowners' insurance companies raise their rates for our consumers in a best-case scenario, and in a worst-care scenario just simply stop offering their products in certain regions of the state,” he said.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater also urged the Legislature to address the issue when it returns in regular session Jan. 9. but he described the situation as a “balancing act.”

“We never want to harm any individual out there in getting the absolute quick and full coverage they deserve on a claim,” Atwater said. “But the majority of this right now is costing the honest Floridian tremendous pain.”

 Photo: J. Albert Diaz/Herald Staff, Miami Herald file photo

 

Miami-Dade's unexpected special elections carry a cost

As Florida's 67 election supervisors gather for their annual mid-year conference near Orlando, they learned Tuesday that a state fund to pay the costs for special elections is tapped out.

The state Legislature appropriated $478,000 for the fund last year to pay for special legislative races and there's $276 left in the account, supervisors were told by the state Division of Elections. Lawmakers have no way of knowing how many special elections might be needed.

With three more special elections coming up this summer, at least two counties -- Miami-Dade and Orange -- will likely have to ask their county commissions for extra money for temporary poll workers, printing sample ballots, opening precincts and early voting sites and other expenses. Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Christina White said the county uses a temporary employment agency to quickly hire the necessary workers to staff a special election.

Miami-Dade voters in Senate District 40 have competitive primaries in both parties to fill the seat created by Frank Artiles' resignation, and one of the Republican candidates for Artiles' seat is Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, whose House seat must be filled in a special election. The third special election in Orlando will be to replace Republican Rep. Eric Eisnaugle, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to be an appeals court judge.

Republican rivals disagree on key issues in Miami Senate forum

Diaz Palomares Forum

@martindvassolo

Two of three Republicans running for a competitive Miami-Dade state Senate district found plenty to disagree on at a forum Monday, despite their shared political party affiliation.

State Rep. Jose Felix Diaz and attorney Lorenzo Palomares told about 100 people gathered at Miami Dade College Kendall Campus where they stand on key issues. Primary candidates tend to have few differences — but not in this case.

On recently passed education legislation known as House Bill 7069: Diaz supports it, Palomares doesn't. On a legislative deal to implement medical-marijuana rules: Diaz supports it, Palomares doesn't. On the future of transit in Miami-Dade County: Diaz envisions autonomous vehicles, Palomares wants to expand the Dolphin Expressway past the western edge of the Urban Development Boundary.

Both candidates expressed support for gun rights — but Diaz said Florida needs to increase funding for mental-health issues. Palomares, a self-described gun collector, didn't see it that way.

“I support the Second Amendment; I will expand it if I can,” he said. “I don’t believe mental health is an issue.”

More here.

Photo: Charles Trainor Jr., Miami Herald