News from Tallahassee for 9/1/14

Citizen initiatives face an uphill battle to success posted on 8/25/14

by Lloyd Dunkelberger | Herlad-Tribune

TALLAHASSEE - Florida has the toughest barriers in the country for getting a citizen initiative on the state ballot.

Even so, though fewer citizen-initiated measures are going before voters, those referendums are passing and citizens are changing government.

After being hit with initiatives they did not like — including a ban on cages for pregnant pigs, a class-size limit and a higher minimum wage — the Republican-led Legislature pushed its own ballot initiative in 2006, requiring a 60 percent vote to change the state constitution.

Lawmakers also raised other standards, including requiring petitions have enough voter signatures collected and verified by Feb. 1 prior to the election and they curtailed the time that petition signatures remained valid.

The initiatives limits have had an impact. Since the changes took effect the number of citizen initiatives on the ballot has not exceeded three. That compares with prior years, such as 2004, when there were a half-dozen initiatives on the ballot.

It has also shifted the ability to amend the constitution back to the Florida Legislature. That was exemplified in 2012 when there were 11 legislative initiatives on the ballot and no citizen initiatives. Eight of the legislative proposals failed.

Nonetheless citizen initiatives are still having a big impact in Tallahassee. Lawmakers just finished a special session prompted by a citizen initiative — approved by 3.2 million voters in 2010 — that required the Legislature to draw non-partisan congressional districts.

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Under fire by Gov. Rick Scott, Citizens chief executive defends overseas travel posted on 8/20/14

by Steve Bousquet | Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — The chief executive of Florida's state-backed property insurer defended overseas travel Tuesday as Gov. Rick Scott lectured him about the need to be more careful about spending.

Scott demanded an appearance by Barry Gilway, president of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., at a Cabinet meeting in the wake of media reports that the insurer's board chairman spent $425 a night at a Bermuda hotel for a reinsurance conference.

Gilway said he personally approved the two-night stay by Citizens board chairman Chris Gardner, who repaid $104 to taxpayers because the nightly rate exceeded the state's maximum allowable rate of $373. The overcharge, first reported by the Palm Beach Post, was discovered by Citizens and immediately corrected, Gilway said.

"Welcome to government," Scott told Gilway. "Everybody, they're going to watch you, and people are still concerned about their property insurance costs. So when there's an example like this, it makes it look like you're not watching the dollars."

That Gilway got called on the carpet for an overcharge of $104 shows that Citizens still has not fully recovered from revelations of two years ago — before Gilway arrived — of lavish spending, favoritism and sexual improprieties, including a drunk Citizens employee stripping off her bra and dancing on a table at Coyote Ugly, a bar in Ybor City in Tampa, behavior that got her a warning.

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Miami judge declares Florida workers comp law unconstitutional posted on 8/14/14

by carol marbin miller | miami herald

A Miami-Dade judge struck a blow Wednesday against Florida’s workers’ comp law, which was already under attack on several fronts.

A Miami judge declared Florida’s long-controversial workers’ compensation law unconstitutional saying successive state legislatures had so diminished medical care and wage-loss benefits for injured workers the statute now violates employees’ “fundamental” rights.

In a case involving a Miami-Dade County government office worker, Circuit Judge Jorge Cueto said the nearly 80-year-old law forces injured workers into a legal system so flawed it does not provide adequate medical care or dollars to replace lost wages. Under Florida law, workers have no choice but to seek benefits under the workers’ comp system. Except under rare circumstances, they cannot sue their employers.

“The benefits in the act have been so decimated,” Cueto wrote, “that it no longer provides a reasonable alternative” to filing suit in civil court.

Cueto’s ruling comes at a pivotal time for mostly blue-collar and agricultural workers in Florida: Lawmakers and business leaders say high workers’ compensation insurance premiums have threatened to derail the state’s economic growth, while worker advocates say the state has allowed widespread insurance fraud to fester while counteracting the high premiums by punishing workers.

The controversy, which has simmered for years, is becoming increasingly prominent as worker rights lawyers ask judges, including those on the state’s highest court, to strike down the law once and for all.

Wednesday’s ruling involves an account clerk who tripped in a walkway Jan. 27, 2012, when a co-worker left boxes on the floor. Elsa Padgett, already at retirement age, fell on her hip, but sustained the most serious damage to her shoulder, records say. Following shoulder replacement surgery, Padgett remained in significant pain and was eventually forced to retire.

“The free ride for injuring workers on the job is over,” said one of Padgett’s attorneys, Mark Zientz of Miami. “The workers’ comp law has been eviscerated and now we have a judge who essentially admitted that.”

If it is appealed, Cueto’s order will join at least two other cases that challenge the constitutionality of at least a part of Florida’s workers’ compensation statute.

The state Supreme Court already is considering an appeal from a St. Petersburg firefighter, Bradley Westphal, who suffered severe and disabling back injuries in 2009 and was left with no income after his temporary wage-loss benefits expired. He could not seek work upon the advice of doctors picked by his insurance carrier, and the carrier would not provide any benefits to support his family until doctors declared he was no longer capable of improving medically.

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Flood insurer suspends writing new policies in Tampa Bay area posted on 8/14/14

by jeff harrington | Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay area residents seeking cheaper flood insurance options have lost one of their lifelines. At least temporarily.

The Flood Insurance Agency, a Gainesville-based company offering flood policies backed by Lloyds of London, told insurance agents Wednesday that it had stopped writing new policies effective immediately in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Manatee and Sarasota counties because it had reached capacity.

It will continue to write flood policies in other areas and will review its decision within 60 days. An agency representative could not comment late Wednesday on how many policies it currently writes in the area.

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Thousands of Citizens customers could be switched posted on 8/12/14

by Donna Gehrke-White | Sun Sentinel

Thousand of customers of Citizens Property Insurance Corp. might be switched to other insurers without realizing they have a choice.

The state is allowing four private insurance companies to select nearly 100,000 policies to take over from Citizens by fall. Property owners can opt out of the switch, but the process has created confusion among policyholders, according to insurance agents and consumer advocates.

"It's a disaster — no one understands," said Pembroke Pines insurance agent Jonathan D. Rausch, who has fielded calls from homeowners after insurance companies sent letters announcing that the state approved them to "take out" policies from Citizens.

Florida Insurance Consumer Advocate Steve Burgess is concerned that some homeowners may not even open a letter from one of the state-approved companies.

"The question is: Do they read it?" he asked. If they don't, they might be switched to another company without knowing it, Burgess said.

Citizens, a government-created corporation, is still the state's largest property insurer with 933,422 policies, said Nicole Vinson, director of the Tampa-based nonprofit Policyholders of Florida. But Citizens is trying to reduce its customer load to reduce its risk and increase its ability to weather a disaster.

Some 119,434 Citizens policies have already been assumed by private insurers in the first seven months of this year.

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