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Insurers Expect Lower Rates With AOB Reform Signed into Law

May 24th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida homeowners may see their insurance rates go down now that the Governor has signed reforms to a common practice called assignment of benefits (AOB) into law.

The legislation was one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the 2019 session.

Homeowners can sign away their rights to sue their insurance company by signing an AOB.

Michael Peltier with Citizens Insurance said it’s commonly required by contractors for emergency repairs.

“Often times when an assignment of benefit is signed over, it’s kind of a panicky situation. There’s water coming out of the pipes in your house,” said Peltier.

Insurers have said abuse of the system resulted in rising insurance rates.

AOB’s gave contractors the same rights to have their attorneys’ fees paid for by insurance companies.

“And often times it can lead to an excessive amount of litigation, which really drives up rates for consumers at the end of the day,” said David Altmaier Florida Insurence Commissioner in February.

Under the new law, attorneys’ fees could be paid by the insurance company, the contractor or both.

It will depend on which provides the most good faith estimate for the cost of repairs.

“It provides incentives for both insurers and contractors and restoration companies to come to the table with reasonable offers of settlement,“ said Peltier.

The law also gives home owners at least 14 days to opt out of an AOB agreement and requires contractors to give insurers 10 days notice before filing suit.

“What we’ve seen in the past is a lot of the times, we’re getting notices for lawsuits even before we’ve had a chance to see the claim and I think that this bill will help to alleviate a lot of those issues,” said Peltier.

Citizen’s Property Insurance said prior to the new law they expected 3% of customers to see rate decreases, but now expect the number to be much higher.

Groups representing contractors are opposed to the new law.

They’ve argued it will make it easier for insurance companies to make lowball offers.

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Group Mourns First Execution Under New Governor

May 24th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

About a dozen anti-death penalty advocates held a memorial service at the state capitol for serial killer Bobby Long and his ten victims Friday.

Long was executed Thursday and was the first inmate executed under Governor Ron DeSantis.

Pastor Brant Copeland with First Presbyterian Church said he was disappointed to see the new Governor sign the death warrant.

“I am disappointed that Governor DeSantis has signed a warrant so soon after taking office, but I am hopeful that if we can sit down with Governor DeSantis and show him the evidence and appeal to his own humanity he might change his mind about signing future warrants,” said Copeland.

28 inmates were executed under former Governor Rick Scott, the most of any Governor since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

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Lawmakers Left $500 Million on the Table By Not Enforcing Internet Sales Tax

May 23rd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

In the 2019 session, the Governor and Florida lawmakers passed on a chance to collect more than $500 million.

The funds are already owed to the state from sales taxes not paid from online purchases.

It is a number that will grow each year, but policymakers were concerned about the optics of collecting a tax people were ignoring.

Store fronts across Florida are closing, which retail experts blame on online sales taking their toll.

Floridians are already required to pay sales tax when making online purchases, but it’s voluntary and few pay.

“This is something that is vitally important to our members, basically for the survival of retail in Florida,” said James Miller with the Florida Retail Federation.

Miller said not collecting the tax is unfair to retailers and shoppers.

“These companies are using our roads. They’re using our infrastructure to ship their products inside of Florida, not paying for any of the infrastructure, any of the schools, anything that goes into making our state great,” said Miller. “They’re taking advantage of all those things that our instate retailers are paying for.”

The fear from Governor’s Office was that if it looked like a new tax, even though it isn’t, it would be perceived as one.

Sponsor Senator Joe Gruters said fellow lawmakers are worried about the potential mailers that could show up in mailboxes next election.

“In a lot of peoples eyes, I think, they thought it was a tax increase and I just couldn’t convince people that it wasn’t a tax increase. In fact it was a tax already owed,” said Gruters.

Initially, there were efforts to offset the increased revenue by giving bigger tax cuts, but the idea fizzled.

“Next year I’ll file the bill again. I’ll double my efforts to try and convince people that all this is a convenience for consumers because this is something thats already owed,” said Gruters. “People are breaking the law.”

The $500 million not collected could have gone to help hurricane victims, schools, or a host of other unmet needs.

41 other states have already acted to collect online taxes.

Some before and others after the US Supreme Court said collecting the tax was not an undue burden on retailers.

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Visit Florida Lays Off One Third of Employees

May 23rd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Nearly a third of the state’s primary tourism marketing agency’s staff, were given pink slips on Thursday.

The employees were collateral damage in a political battle over the future of the agency.

Employees at Visit Florida’s Tallahassee headquarters were told in an email not to comes to work on Thursday.

Instead, 44 employees were told to arrive for a meeting to discuss their futures and to bring any Visit Florida property with them.

The layoffs were of no fault of the employees themselves.

Instead, it’s the result of a $26 million cut to Visit Florida’s funding.

It was a compromise between the House, which wanted to kill the agency altogether, and the Senate, which wanted to fully fund Visit Florida at $76 million.

“With all the back and fourth in the Legislative Session, people lives are being affected,” said marketing strategist Trimmel Gomes.

Governor Ron DeSantis helped fight for the compromise, but said he’s open to reforming the agency.

“I didn’t think letting it run aground now would have been the right thing for the state. It’s going to be something we’re going to have to look at,” said Governor Ron DeSantis in May.

Visit Florida CEO Dana Young said in a statement, “Our ultimate responsibility is to manage the tax dollars invested in our organization as effectively as possible while still working every day to promote and support Florida’s tourism industry and the revenue that it generates. While this reduced budget will require significant changes in our marketing approach, we are confident that we can continue to deliver a great value for Floridians with the funding provided.”

Visit Florida had been funded at about $75 million for the past five years.

Before that it received $50 million a year.

The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association told us during last year’s budget battle, tourism numbers had skyrocketed when funding funding for the agency increased.

“Soon to be 120 million visitors. That is directly correlated back to the amount of money we’re spending on advertising,” said Carol Dover with Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association in February of 2018.

However, Gomes said the cuts could result in more efficient spending by the agency, which has traditionally spent big dollars on television ad buys.

“Now they’ll be streamlining and looking at digital ads to market to the rest of the world,” said Gomes

The employees that are left will return to work Friday, but their jobs aren’t necessarily safe.

It’s likely another funding battle will play out in the 2020 legislative session.

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Gubernatorial Trade Missions Without Controversy are Historically Rare

May 22nd, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Governor Ron DeSantis will join Florida business leaders on an economic development trip to Israel on Saturday.

Historically, trade missions often result in as much criticism as actual successes.

Governor Reubin Askew went on a trade mission to Japan in 1978.

When he returned, he was widely criticized for his $300 a night hotel room.

“I’m just saying that what you wrote was an unfair story,” Askew said to reporters in 1978. “I don’t care if we’d gone in the bottom of a cargo ship, you would have said it was a junket.

Five years later, Bob Graham made the same trip to learn more about high speed rail.

“Speeds of a 152 miles an hour,” Graham said to reporters in 1983.

Florida still doesn’t have a train.

Graham also took a beating from industrial giant Sony over the then recently enacted tax on worldwide corporate profits.

It was called the unitary tax.

A year later the tax was repealed.

There have also been trips to the jungles of South America to highlight the war on drugs.

They did little to stop the flow, but earned then Governor Bob Martinez death threats.

Charlie Crist prayed at the wall in Jerusalem for an end to Hurricanes.

It worked for a decade.

Later Crist was lampooned for a $430,000 trip to Europe.

A Rick Scott trip to Spain went south when he embarrassed the Spanish King over a hunting trip.

So for Ron Desantis the coming trip may or may not be the first kink in his political armor.

The Governor is expected to visit at least ten companies seeking investments in Florida.

He will be accompanied by at least 60 Floridans seeking to do business in Israel.

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Florida’s Fallen Correctional Officers Honored by State

May 22nd, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Fallen correctional officers were honored Wednesday morning by the new Florida Department of Corrections Secretary.

One of the officers who lost their lives in 2018 died supervising inmates, while another died helping after hurricane Michael.

Correctional Officers put their lives on the line everyday, often dealing with the worst society has to offer.

“They have rightly earned our love and respect and for this we honor their memory,” said Chaplain Johnny Frambo.

A total of 52 Florida correctional officers have died in the line of duty.

Their sacrifices are remembered each year at the Fallen Officer Memorial.

The name of each officer was read aloud.

In 2018, two correctional officers lost their lives while serving.

“A man and woman of courage,” said FDC Secretary Mark Inch.

Tawanna Marin was struck by a vehicle while supervising a work crew.

Sergeant Derrick Dunn suffered a heart attack while volunteering in the panhandle following hurricane Michael.

“He knew they needed help. He probably was the first one to step up,” said Dunn’s cousin, Conchita Baldwin.

Sergeant Dunn’s family said he died doing what he loved.

“I don’t think that he would have wanted to go any other way other than being in the line of service,” said LaDawn Baldwin, also Dunn’s cousin. “Didn’t matter where it was at because he was that person all around.”

Officer Marin and Sergeant Dunn’s names are engraved on the Fallen Officer Memorial at the Wakulla Correctional Institution.

The FDC is in desperate need of more officers like Dunn and Marin.

Statewide, there are nearly 2,000 vacancies.

“I am awed by the number of individuals who step forward and dedicate their life literally in service to our state and our nation,” said Inch.

To help address the shortage, the Legislature passed a bill to lower the age to become an officer from 19 to 18.

It’s awaiting the Governor’s signature.

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Ag Commissioner Warns New NAFTA May Hurt Florida Farmers

May 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture fears the new North American Trade Agreement, officially known as the United-States-Mexico Canada Agreement (USMCA), proposed by the Trump administration may leave Florida farmers unprotected.

For the last two decades, producers in Mexico have undercut American prices.

Graves Williams has farmed tomatoes in Quincy, FL for more than 30 years.

He’s one of the few left in the state.

“When I started in Florida there were 224 tomato farmers and I think there’s less than 25 now,” said Williams.

The reason so few are left is due in part to Mexican producers flooding the market with cheaper produce.

“We have a hard time competing with Mexico when they pay, on average, their workers $8 a day when we’re paying $80 to $100 a day for the workers doing the exact same job,” said Williams.

To help US farmers compete, the Trump administration imposed a 17.5 percent tariff on Mexican tomatoes in February.

While the new tariffs may help even the playing field in the short term, Florida’s Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried said the tariffs could be pulled back and even refunded under the new USMCA proposal.

“This supposed ‘better deal’ is a bad deal for Florida farmers, and could put farms out of business. Smoke and mirrors from the White House won’t help our proud but struggling farmers,” said Fried in a statement.

That would once again make it harder for farmers like Williams to compete.

“They [Mexico] need to play by the rules. They just can’t flood this country with produce,” said Williams. “Our government needs to make sure they just don’t completely destroy American produce.”

A hit to the agriculture industry would be felt statewide.

Florida agriculture is a $132 billion industry, second only to tourism.

“Trump Administration wants to put America first, they should put Florida’s farmers first, and help them compete on a level playing field. Until that happens, this new deal isn’t anything new – just a worsening of 25 years of NAFTA’s failures,” said Fried.

Fried has asked the Trump administration to support the Domestic Produce Production Act.

It would make it easier for the Federal government to investigate illegal trade practices by Mexican producers.

Current law requires petitioners to demonstrate harm as measured from a nationwide and year-round perspective.

“Florida farmers aren’t looking for a handout, just the chance to compete on a level playing field,” said Fried.

The Domestic Produce Production Act is supported by Florida Senator Marco Rubio and backed by all of Florida’s 27 US representatives.

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TEC and Duke Energy Customers Won’t See Rates Increase

May 21st, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Tampa Electric Company and Duke Energy customers will not see an increase in their monthly bills, despite recent hurricanes.

The Public Service Commission approved a settlement for both companies Tuesday morning that will allow them to use money the businesses saved as a result of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act to cover storm related costs.

The settlement was supported by PSC chairman Art Graham.

“These agreements are in the public interest because they reduce storm cost recovery for customers and implement processes and procedures that will continue to benefit customers,” said Graham in statement.

“These procedures require better documentation, more communication with vendors before a storm hits and setting expectations with vendors about invoicing and work management upfront,” said Jeffry Wahlen, a lawyer with Tampa Electric Company.

Duke Electric received $484 million in savings and Tampa Electric Company received $91 million in savings from President Trump’s tax reform.

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Toll Road Plan Taking Fire From Environmental Groups

May 20th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Environmental groups have condemned Governor Ron DeSantis for signing a bill they believe would harm environmentally sensitive areas in the state.

The new law will start planning for three new roads through mostly rural parts of the state.

It would be largest road project in the state since the 1950’s.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce said it will ease congestion and bring more business to rural counties.

“Infrastructure is the lifeblood of an economy,” said Christopher Emmanuel with the Chamber. “We’ve got 4.5 million new Floridians that we can expect by 2030, three million new drives on our roadways, and this is an important infrastructure piece, to help conect those people to jobs and rural communities to urban cores.”

$45 million is earmarked for 2019-2020 to initiate planning for a new toll road from Collier to Polk County, connecting the turnpike to the Sun Coast Parkway and extending the Parkway to the Florida Georgia line.

Aliki Moncrief with the Florida Conservation Voters said the new roads could devastate ecosystems in the mostly rural lands.

“The state would be destroying wetlands and so you’re destroying habitat for all the animals that depend on wetlands, but you’re also destroying wetlands that help protect our drinking water supplies,” said Moncrief.

In addition to eventually building the roads, the plan would construct water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

It also requires environmental impact studies be conducted prior to breaking ground.

Jordan Lubkmann with Earth Justice is concerned the studies will be treated only as a formality.

“And it will really remain to be seen who is allowed to participate in the task forces,” said Lubkmann.

The road expansions were the top priority on Senate President Bill Galvano, but he’ll be long out of office by the time construction is set to begin.

However, the three legislators next in line for President all voted in support of the bill.

Galvano said he’s confident the project will be seen through to completion.

“If we’re breaking ground by 2023, once that’s on its way, it’s on its way,” said Galvano.

Spending on the project is set to increase incrementally, reaching $140 million a year starting in 2022.

It would remain at that funding level until its scheduled completion date in 2030.

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Judges Highlight Importance of Justice Access After Hurricanes

May 20th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

With just 12 days remaining before the start of the 2019 Hurricane Season, the Commission on Access to Civil Justice was briefed on a litany of problems created for the courts and those who use them during Hurricane Michael.

They included the inability to get a quick hearing for divorced parents with a prohibition of taking children further than 50 miles from the other parent, unusable courthouses, a lack of working technology, and more.

Justice Jorge Labarga, chair of the access commission said those charged with a crime got a hearing within the 24 hours as required by law.

“It’s important that people who get arrested during those days, the process continues to exist, because that’s how people know the rule of law is in place. It’s very easy for tempers to flare during those times and things happen, so we need to make sure that people know a judge will hear your case immediately,” said Labarga.

In two counties, Bay and Jackson, full courts services were down for as many as 19 days.

Volunteer staff and judges from nearby counties helped fill in as judges and their staffs recovered.

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New Texting Law Part of 20 Year Fight to Keep Daughter’s Memory Alive

May 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law legislation that makes texting while driving a primary offense Friday.

It will also make school and construction zones handsfree.

It was the latest victory in the fight for safer roads in Florida.

The push has in part been led by a father and daughter who lost one of their own in a crash more than 20 years ago.

The fatal car ride took the lives of five teens in 1996.

Among the victims was a young Dori Slosberg.

Dori’s father, Irving Slosberg was elected to the Florida House in 2000.

His sole mission has been ensuring her death was not in vain.

“It’s all about Dori living forever,” said Irving.

The effort started with strengthening the state’s seat belt laws.

Irving sponsored legislation requiring seat belts for minors that became law in 2004.

That same year, the non profit organization Dori Saves Lives was established.

Dedicated to making Florida’s roads safer, it was headed by Emily Slosberg, Dori’s twin sister, who was also in the car during the 1996 crash.

“It’s personal. I lost my twin sister in a car crash and I was almost killed, and I don’t want another family to go through what we went through,” said Rep. Emily Slosberg.

In 2009 Dori Saves Live’s helped pass the total ban on driving without a seatbelt.

The Slosbergs also championed the Dori Slosberg Driver Education Safety Act in 2011.

It added $5 to the cost of traffic tickets, with the money funding high school drivers’ education programs

The Slosbergs then turned their focus to texting while driving.

“You get one thing under control and you’ve got a new problem and this problem is really worse than the seat belt problem,” said Irving.

The first victory came in 2013, when Florida made texting while driving a secondary offense.

Six years later, police will now be able to pull drivers over for texting alone.

“This honors her memory and it just does not remain a tragedy, her death, because we’re going to be saving lives with this legislation,” said Rep. Emily Slosber, who co-sponsored the 2019 texting while driving legislation.

“The road safety issue has moved up the ladder. It’s important now,” said Irving.

The Slosbergs say their work isn’t finished.

Their next goal, make Florida a hands free state.

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Governor Signs Transportation Legislation into Law

May 17th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

Governor Ron DeSantis signed one of the most controversial piece of legislation from the 2019 session behind closed doors Friday morning.

The legislation sets in motion the potential to build three new toll roads with construction beginning as early as 2323. Christopher Emmanuel with the Florida Chamber of Commerce says the infrastructure expansion is critical to Florida’s growth.

“This bill does a number of great things, but probably the most important thing it does is it helps prepare Florida for the future,” said Emmanuel. “We’ve got 4.5 million new Floridians that we can expect by 2030, three million new drives on our roadways, and this is an important infrastructure piece, to help conect those people to jobs and rural communities to urban cores.”

In addition to building the roads it also would construct water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.

Environmentalists expressed concerns over impacts to wildlife and water quality and had asked the Governor to veto the bill.

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Study Suggests Amendment 4 Bill Would Disproportionately Impact Blacks

May 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice found more than 2,000 felons registered to vote in Florida within the first three months of 2019.

It was a 99 percent increase over the past two non general election years.

Legislation awaiting Governor Ron DeSantis’ signature would require felons pay back fines, fees, and restitution before they have their voting rights restored under Amendment 4.

DeSantis said he supports the requirement.

“You know as a prosecutor there were times when restitution was more important than incarceration,” said DeSantis.

Of the felons who have registered to vote since Amendment 4 took effect in January, 44 percent self identified as black.

Blacks make up only 13 percent of current registered voters in the state.

“People are going to be disproportionately impacted and those people are going to be people of color,” said Kara Gross with the American Civil Liberties Union.

The report also found the newly registered felons make $15,000 a year less on average than the general voting population.

Social Justice Groups have said it suggests the financial requirements would pose a substantial obstacle to restoration.

However, there are alternatives to payment under the Amendment 4 implementing bill.

A felon can petition a judge to waive fines or fees or have them converted to community service hours.

When we spoke with House Sponsor James Grant in March, he said he didn’t take into account who would be impacted when drafting the bill.

“My only job was to be as objective as possible to maintain the will of the voters and when the contract put before the voters was after they complete all terms of their sentence, that’s exactly what we’re going to do,” said Grant.

But Scott McCoy with the Southern Poverty Law Center said that was a grave misstep.

“If we knew we had a racial disparities problem we should definitely do policies and institute laws that try and rectify and eliminate those racial disparities,” said McCoy.

With approval from the Governor expected, both the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center said lawsuits are in the works.

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Seven Day Hurricane Preparedness Tax Holiday Signed into Law

May 16th, 2019 by Jake Stofan

More than $121 million in tax breaks were signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis Wednesday.

The first savings Floridians will see is the seven day hurricane preparedness sales tax holiday at the end of May.

For the past three years in a row Florida has been hit by a major Hurricane.

Ace Hardware Manager David McCellen witnessed first hand after hurricane Michael that many people failed to prepare ahead of time.

The result was a mad dash for supplies.

“We were working 10, 12, 14 hours a day,” said McCellen. “From the time we opened the door in the morning until late at night we had customers in the store. We had no power and we were going working off of generators our self trying to get these things out for the customers.”

This year, there’s no need for the post storm rush.

Under the 2019 tax package Floridians get a full week, from May 31st through June 6th, to get their households hurricane ready and save some money while doing it.

Some items covered by the Hurricane tax free holiday are coolers, gas cans, flashlights, batteries, and tarps.

Generators under $750 are also on the list.

McCellen said he’s noticed the holiday rising in popularity.

“You see people do that. And then they’ll go ahead and purchase something a be ready because people are learning the last two or three years here, you’ve got to be prepared because these storms have hit and they’ve hit hard,” said McCellen.

Carolun Johnson with the Florida Chamber of Commerce added tax free holidays don’t only benefit customers.

“These sales tax holidays are very popular and it encourages homeowners and families and business to get out and support their local retailers,” said Johnson.

This year there is also a five day back to school sales tax holiday.

It runs from August 2 to August 6.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce estimates between the two sales tax holidays Floridians will save about $46 million.

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Seminole’s Cut Off Funding to State

May 15th, 2019 by Mike Vasilinda

Starting Wednesday, the Seminole tribe said it will no longer pay the state a share of its casino revenues.

The Tribe contended the state broke their deal by allowing dog and horse tracks to offer banked card games.

Florida will lose an estimated $30 million a month it may never get back.

In November 2016, a federal Judge found the state was violating its compact with the Seminole Tribe by allowing horse and dog tracks to run games where the house pays winners and collects from losers.

“Like Blackjack,” explained Seminole Tribe Attorney Barry Richard.

A letter sent to the Governor suspended roughly $30 million a month in payments to the state immediately.

“The Tribe refrained from doing this for two years when it could have in order to be cooperative, but they are paying for something they are not getting, and like anybody else, if you are paying for someone to cut your grass and they’re not cutting half of the yard, you stop paying,” said Richard.

Lawmakers tried to fix the problem with a new deal, but time ran out in the 2019 session.

It’s clear they planned on the money spigot running dry.

“We’re not to count dollars that we”ve been told are not believed to be owed by the Tribe,” said Senate President Bill Galvano in March.

The Tribe said it will start paying the state again, once it shuts down the banked card games, but the tribe says the money it won’t pay is gone forever.

“The back suspension payments don’t have to be returned, but if the state fixes the problem, then the payments renew at that point,” said Richard.

It’s unclear why the state never shut down the games challenged by the Tribe after the 36-page opinion ruled the tribes contractual rights were being violated.

The state could shut them down any day under existing law.

The Tribe can continue with its current games until their deal with the state ends in 2030, but its incentive to settle would be a new compact that allowed Roulette and other games not covered in the current deal.

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