MAJOR BILLS THAT PASSED
No-fault auto insurance fraud has become a rampant and expensive problem in Florida, forcing personal injury protection premiums to rise 387% in the last five years. Ground zero was in Hillsborough County.
The bill, which Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign, cracks down on fraudulent “PIP clinics,” channels victims to reputable emergency rooms and restricts some lawyers' fees, although it does not cap any of those fees as originally desired by backers. The bill was opposed by trial lawyers, PIP clinics, chiropractors, acupuncturists and massage clinics with a close vote in the Senate.
Property tax cut amendments
Lawmakers placed three constitutional amendments on the November ballot that would cut property taxes if approved by voters. Amendments 2 and 9 address property tax breaks for disabled veterans, surviving spouses of military veterans and first responders who died as a result of service.
Amendment 4 has three elements. First, it prohibits increasing the assessed value of homestead property if the fair market value decreases. Second, non-homesteaded and commercial properties would have their assessment increases capped at 3% per year. And third, first-time homebuyers would get an exemption equal to 50% of a county's median home price. That exemption would phase out over five years.
Constitutional amendments require a 60% approval from voters.
About $830 million in tax cuts made their way through the Legislature. The changes include tax breaks for aircraft manufacturers, Internet companies, phosphate companies and livestock packing houses, among others. The cuts also include a further increase in the corporate income tax exemption to $50,000 — meaning half of the state's businesses will not pay any corporate income tax. Gov. Scott wants to eliminate the tax completely within five years. The package of cuts also includes a sales tax holiday Aug. 3-5 on back-to-school supplies and other retail items such as clothing.
Unemployment tax reduction
The rate businesses must pay into the unemployment benefits fund was set to rise from $72 to $171 per employee next year. The legislation cuts that to $121, saving companies about $276 million this year. The state owes the feds about $1.8 billion right now on a loan taken out by former Gov. Charlie Crist, although it is down from a peak of $2.4 billion.
Last year, the Legislature cut the maximum number of weeks for unemployment benefits from 26 to 23 and instituted new requirements for those seeking unemployment compensation, including drug tests. This year, lawmakers added to that by renaming the program the “Reemployment Assistance Program,” and requiring the Department of Economic Opportunity to give unemployment compensation applicants an initial skills test and offer free training to those who score low.
When a bill passes the Legislature, the real impact on businesses and people can come when state agencies write rules implementing the law. This has been a grief-causing step for many businesses and has frustrated lawmakers who passed the original bills.
When Scott came into office, the Florida Supreme Court rebuffed his efforts to freeze all new rule-making and unravel some of the more onerous rules. So the Legislature gave the governor authority to determine how agencies in the executive branch carry out rule-making unless the Legislature spells out otherwise in specific legislation.
Developments of Regional Impact approvals are required for large developments that can affect roads, schools, water, sewers and so on over a broad geopolitical range. The state requires a lengthy and expensive DRI process for these, making them difficult to get through and the projects more expensive for buyers. This bill relaxes the requirements for when a DRI is needed and limits some of the powers of state agencies in how they can affect the outcome of the DRI process.
Environmental regulations and permitting
Developers frequently complain about having to obtain multiple environmental permits for a project, and are sometimes required by local governments to get state and federal permits even when those permits are not required for the project. Two bills tackle these issues, first by prohibiting local governments from requiring permits from other governments if they are not legally required. Second, the Department Environmental Protection, in cooperation with the state's water management districts, must adopt uniform statewide environmental resource permit rules by Oct. 1. The rules must include criteria for requiring permits; permit types; procedures governing the review of applications and so on. The water districts must implement the rules without adding to them.
Regional workforce boards have come under intense criticism in Orlando and Miami-Dade for, at the very least, mismanaging taxpayer money meant for job training. For example, the Orlando board infamously spent $14,000 on capes for unemployed workers in the area as part of a “Cape-Ability” campaign to defeat Dr. Evil Unemployment. Sensing a lack of oversight and accountability, the Legislature gave the governor more authority over regional workforce boards and the power to fire their leaders.
Job attraction fund
In the budget negotiations, lawmakers gave Scott more latitude in using $61.2 million in job incentive money, arguing that the governor needed to be able to make commitments quicker to close deals and get new firms. Scott also will have permission to ask the Legislature to spend another $25 million to lure more companies with incentives.
Tax credits for scholarships
Corporations can get tax credits for contributing to scholarship funds for voucher programs. This bill increases the total cap on the program from $140 million to $229 million for next school year. A 25% increase will continue to occur as long as annual tax credit amounts reach at least 90% the tax credit cap. It also expands eligibility for students in elementary school. Scott signed the bill into law March 16.
Lawmakers authorized state agencies to conduct random drug testing on all employees every three months. Employees must be chosen via computer-generated random sampling and the testing cannot be more than 10% of employees. Agencies may also administer drug tests to all job applicants. An agency may discipline or terminate the employment of any employee who receives a first-time positive drug test.
MAJOR BILLS THAT FAILED
The trial lawyers lost on the PIP legislation that was passed, but won a big victory when the Legislature could not agree on changes in the state's “expert testimony” law. The current law is considered by businesses to be lenient in allowing expert testimony, derided by opponents as “junk science.” Florida is ranked 42nd in the nation in legal climate for businesses, something that works against attracting job-creators. Backers of the more nationally accepted standard are vowing to bring it back against next year.
Another attempt to reduce taxpayer exposure to Florida's state-run Citizens Property Insurance failed. Citizens is by far the largest insurer in the state -- it was originally intended to be just a back up. The fear continues to be that a catastrophic hurricane, or a few years of such hurricanes like the state had last decade, could require a taxpayer bailout.
The bill would have let surplus lines insurance companies — which are not insurance companies regulated by Florida but by the state in which they are headquartered — take policies from Citizens in an effort to reduce Citizens' liability. The bill failed when unfriendly amendments made it unworkable. Scott said after the defeat that he would push for another attempt next year. “It's a real problem,” he said.
In a tight vote, the Florida Senate defeated pension privatization 21-19, killing a plan to save $40 million annually by bidding out the operations of 29 state prisons in the southern half of Florida. The bill passed last year, but was squashed by a Leon County judge on a procedural technicality. This time, the Teamsters, representing 20,000 state prison guards, mustered enough strength to stop it.
However, Scott is investigating his options to privatize the operations without an act of the Senate. Backers of privatization have asserted from the beginning that the governor has authority to unilaterally bid out the operations. But it is a tough political call now that the Legislature has voted it down. Further, closing a partially used prison in the Panhandle was also defeated.
The high-profile gamble to allow $2 billion mega-casinos in South Florida and perhaps Tampa Bay lost when the bill was pulled by the sponsor after it became clear that it did not have the votes in the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee. Despite the promise of thousands of jobs, glitzy high-rises and lobbying money from Vegas casinos, the idea was opposed by powerful business interests such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, individual Miami businessmen and community activists. But with land already under contract and billions of dollars promised, it is a safe bet to come up again next year.
The average time it takes for a foreclosure to get through the legal process in Florida is 676 days. And that is when 85% are default foreclosures where the homeowners have not even responded to a complaint. A bill that would overhaul the process and make a way to clear out the backlog and restore the real estate market died. It was painted as homeowners losing legal protections, but some of the opponents were more concerned about lenders losing legal protections.