Local 10: “This Week in South Florida: Annette Taddeo and Chip LaMarca”

The Florida Legislative Session got to work this week, advancing several bills that have sparked loud debate.

A vote-by-mail bill will be discussed, as will others including bills to crack down on demonstrators, provide legal immunity to businesses and health care providers for problems with COVID-19 and a bill to overturn an election in Key West that limited cruise ships from docking there.

State Senator Annette Taddeo is a Democrat from Southwest Miami-Dade County and state Rep. Chip LaMarca is a Republican from East Broward County.

They joined This Week in South Florida hosts Glenna Milberg and Michael Putney and their discussion can be seen at the top of this page.

View the original article here.

Orlando Sentinel: “Florida Democrats propose $543M in rent relief for small businesses left out of eviction bans”

Left out of state and national eviction moratoriums, Florida businesses could find relief in a bill that would set up a $543 million rent stabilization fund and put a stop to commercial evictions.

Filed by Democrats Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando and Sen. Annette Taddeo of Miami, House Bill 1469 and Senate Bill 2002 seek to help small businesses that make less than $250,000 a year in profits that have gotten behind on rent.

“The reality is there are small businesses that have been evicted because they were not protected,” Smith said, adding that he hoped there would be bipartisan support for the initiative given that Florida often touts its business-friendliness. “Landlords are wanting to be very lenient and are working with their small-business tenants, but eventually they need to get paid.”

The fund is similar to other programs set up in Orange and Osceola counties to prevent residential evictions, requiring both the tenant and landlord to agree to participate. It would cover half of a business’ back rent; the business would agree to pay 25% of what it owes; and the landlord would agree to forgive the other 25%.

Only businesses that saw a 25% decline in revenue because of the coronavirus pandemic would be eligible.

The Department of Economic Opportunity, the same agency that administers unemployment checks, would review applications and disburse the funds. Payments would go straight to landlords.

Smith said he got the idea from one of his constituents, someone who owns a dry-cleaning business in Orlando who saw business dry up as workers swapped business casual for “Zoom shirts.” He said the $10 billion in aid the state is set to receive from Biden’s stimulus package would cover the cost.

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a moratorium on residential evictions in April, but he left out commercial renters. When asked why they were not included, Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for the governor, said “the order protects mortgage holders from the threat of foreclosure, which, in turn, protects their tenants.”

However, DeSantis let the state order expire at the end of September, stripping away that protection against foreclosures. The CDC issued a national moratorium that’s still in place, but it only applies to residential tenants.

Other states have ordered freezes on commercial evictions, as a coalition of lobbies for restaurants, hotels, franchisees and tourism businesses urged state governors to impose a 90-day rent abatement and eviction ban. But Florida’s business groups seemed divided on whether businesses should have been included in DeSantis’ order.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, said commercial evictions needed to be stopped. But Bill Herrle, executive director of the Florida arm of the National Federation of Independent Business, said that would just be “pushing the problem upstream.”

There were several programs opened up to businesses struggling to stay afloat during the virus outbreak, but Smith argued they weren’t enough. For example, the federal Paycheck Protection Program provided forgivable loans, but giant corporations quickly gobbled up a majority of the money. In Florida, DeSantis activated an emergency loan program usually reserved for hurricanes, but it was drained after less than a month and forced to turn away 37,000 small businesses.

Smith and Taddeo were not coy in explaining why they decided to allot $543 million to the proposed rent fund. It’s the same amount of money Florida leaders gave in tax refunds to corporations last year.

DeSantis and the GOP-controlled Legislature went ahead with the refunds even as the state’s tourism-dependent economy collapsed amid the coronavirus pandemic and the state faced a $2 billion deficit. They had committed to paying the refunds two years earlier, and the governor’s office argued that corporations “have anticipated these refunds and have likely made business decisions around them.”

“What we’re saying here,” Smith said, “is that small businesses deserve at least the same amount of direct relief from the state as large corporations were given.”

View the original article here.

The Washington Post: “Democrats ask if DeSantis donations helped wealthy island enclave get early vaccine doses: ‘This is wrong on so many levels’”

Last week, former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (R) was inspired to donate a quarter-million dollars to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war chest.

The hefty donation came about a month after Rauner’s ultrawealthy and exclusive community on the northern tip of Key Largo received enough coronavirus vaccine doses for 1,200 residents over the age of 65, according to a Miami Herald report on Wednesday evening.

That vaccine access — at a time when many other elderly Floridians struggled to find doses — combined with donations to DeSantis by Rauner and more than a dozen other residents in the Ocean Reef Club have raised new concerns among critics of the Republican governor’s handling of the pandemic.

“This is wrong on so many levels,” state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Floridians life saving vaccines should NOT depend on a rich zip code or how big your political contribution is!!!”

Neither Rauner nor DeSantis immediately returned messages from The Washington Post late on Wednesday. The Ocean Reef Club and the medical center there also didn’t respond to messages from The Post.

DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice told the Herald that the governor played no role in choosing the Ocean Reef Club as a vaccine site.

“This was not a state-supported senior community POD [point of distribution], nor was it requested by the governor,’’ Beatrice said in an email. “The state has utilized a variety of approaches including walk-up, drive-thru, and faith-based initiatives to ensure vaccine access to all eligible Floridians, particularly in underserved communities. These efforts have resulted in Florida vaccinating over 50% of our state’s senior population — the highest of any state in the nation.”

It’s not clear exactly how the vaccine ended up at the Ocean Reef Club.

Statewide, DeSantis has taken a personal hand in directing “pop-up” vaccination centers, the Herald reported. Last month, that led to ire from both Democrats and Republicans after he organized one in a mostly White, affluent part of Manatee County and then threatened to take vaccine away from counties where officials criticized his approach.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference in February. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

Critics have also accused DeSantis of using the vaccine distribution plan to appeal to donors; he has raised more than $2.7 million in February alone since he began the “pop-up” clinics, the Herald reported. DeSantis has disputed those allegations, saying his office is simply prioritizing getting vaccine to seniors.

In January, health officials in the Florida Keys were urging seniors to stay patient. Since then, challenges with technology and limited vaccination sites have kept some eligible residents from getting vaccine. As of Wednesday, more than 12,100 doses had been given in Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, according to the state’s data.

Ocean Reef Club is a high-security, gated community filled with luxury vacation homes. Homeowners pay annual membership fees to the Ocean Reef Club on top of the cost of their properties, which range from $900,000 condominiums to homes worth more than $10 million, according to the club’s website.

All 17 Key Largo residents who have contributed to the Friends of DeSantis committee over the past four years live in Ocean Reef Club properties, the Herald reported, though Rauner is the only one who has donated in 2021 after the coronavirus vaccine was distributed.

By Jan. 22, 75 percent of the Club’s 1,600 homeowners had been vaccinated, according to a community newsletter obtained by the Herald. The club acknowledged in that letter that it had received enough vaccine to provide two doses to each of the 1,200 members eligible to receive the shot.

“We are fortunate to have received enough vaccines to ensure both the first and second for those vaccinated,” the newsletter said, according to the Herald. “At this time, however, the majority of the State has not received an allocation of first doses of vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear.”

The revelations about Ocean Reef Club’s vaccine access led some critics to highlight disparities between wealthy, largely White communities that have received a disproportionate number of vaccine doses and less affluent communities with more people of color that have suffered more dire consequences during the pandemic.

“Want to see systemic racism in data?” Florida state Rep. Omari Hardy (D) said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Look at the vaccination rates by race for senior citizens in my county. 67% of white seniors. 34% of Black seniors. 31% of Hispanic seniors. It’s hard to survive a pandemic while being Black or Hispanic in Ron DeSantis’s Florida.”

Other Florida officials had already called for an investigation into DeSantis’s vaccine plan. Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services and the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, wrote a scathing letter to members of the U.S. House on Mondayurging them to investigate the Florida governor for alleged “political favoritism.”

She said the governor may have acted improperly by putting “pop-up” sites in wealthy Zip codes, and cited accusations that DeSantis withheld vaccine from the largely Hispanic community of Hialeah, Fla., where the mayor has often criticized the governor.

“These disturbing incidents are indicative of an inept distribution of vaccines at best, and corrupt political patronage at worst,” Fried wrote on Monday.

Following the Herald’s report, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) demanded a federal investigation into DeSantis’s vaccine rollout.

“Yet another wealthy community connected to Governor DeSantis’s political donors got to skip to the very front of the line for the COVID vaccine — in January,” he wrote in a tweet. “The Department of Justice must investigate. Period.”

View the original article here.

Florida Pheonix: “State senators want more rehabilitation for inmates and incentives to shorten prison sentences”

A bipartisan effort advancing this week in the state Senate would bolster prison rehabilitation programs to allow inmates to earn shorter sentences.

That concept, called gain time, is part of legislation sponsored by Republican Sen. Keith Perry, who believes that the programs make society safer by providing inmates with education, job training, and treatment before being released.

“The driver is public safety,” said Perry, who represents Alachua and Putnam counties and part of Marion County.  “The question is are they [inmates] better off or worse off when they get released? And the answer is, they’re worse off, almost inevitably they’re worse off.”

Perry said his plan addresses data showing that 90 percent of inmates are repeat offenders, with 130,000 inmates on track to be released over the next five years.

He said that incentivizing those inmates to practice good behavior, pursue education and engage in other forms of behavioral improvement, in exchange for sentence reductions, could make them far less likely to reoffend when they are set free.

Sen. George Gainer, a northwest Florida Republican, and Sen. Jim Boyd, a Republican representing parts of Hillsborough and Manatee counties, said they remain skeptical and worry that measures to shorten sentences would offend the law enforcement community that put the inmates behind bars.

But Democratic senators Bobby Powell of Palm Beach County and Annette Taddeo of Miami-Dade said Perry’s bill encompasses measures they have long promoted without success, to set up inmates for post-release success.

“I want to be make sure when people come out, they’re able to get a job,” Taddeo said, calling for more funding for job training programs. “We are spending so much money in our system keeping them incarcerated.”

Taddeo and Powell said they agree with prison advocates — including crime victims in favor of inmate rehabilitation — that the state will benefit from instituting gain time for Florida inmates who engage in rehabilitative programs.

One of those advocates is crime victim Amy McCourt, who told the senators this week that she wants the men who attacked her family to get rehabilitation before being released, so they are less likely to offend again.

“During this time, the focus should be on rehabilitating and incentivizing prisoners to be better, so that when they do return to society, they have learned something from their experience and are equipped with education, training, skills, programs, treatment, whatever else is necessary to better their lives while preparing for release,” McCourt said.

Perry acknowledged the concept of early release is a tough one for some lawmakers, including himself, but he said he increasingly sees incarceration as an opportunity for rehabilitation and not just punishment.

He was very clear that he believes it is unsafe to release inmates when they complete their sentences without having helped them change for the better while behind bars.

“We owe it to the people of the state of Florida to do everything we can to create a more safe environment for them, and with the way we’re going now, with the Department of Corrections, we’re not doing that,” Perry said. “We’re creating a system where half of those people are back in trouble in three years.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from Pinellas County, and Sen. Randolph Bracy, a Democrat from Orange County, sponsored similar legislation last year without success. They assert that creating early-release incentives and providing the necessary resources to engage in rehabilitation could change incarcerated people into productive citizens who pose no further threat to society.

Legislative analysts estimate that reducing recidivism by investing in rehabilitative programs would save Florida taxpayers $840 million.

You can see Perry’s legislation, SB 1032, here.

View the original article here.

Florida Politics: “Dog chaining bill advances in Senate”

Sponsor Annette Taddeo testified there were more than 1,200 injurious dog bites in 2018.

Legislation that would change how pet owners can chain dogs in Florida moved forward in the Senate Wednesday.

The Senate Agriculture Committee gave its approval to the bill (SB 650), which would stop the tethering of dogs or cats to stationary objects. The legislation would forbid leaving cats and dogs tied outside during severe weather. But it would also establish regulations for lawful tethering of animals.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, sponsored the bill and said it’s important the state address problems with violent dogs. She pointed to statistics that show there were 1,268 dog bites in Florida in 2018 that resulted in fractures or serious injuries, about one for every 17 dogs in the state.

“We need a graduated, non-criminal structure the encourages education and compliance and encourages safe practice with cats and dogs,” she said.

Taddeo stressed it’s important the state recognize how improper chaining of animals makes them more aggressive and dangerous.

In committee, she referenced the death of a Dylan Andres, a 17-year-old boy killed by a Rottweiler in Jacksonville in 2012. The boy died after wondering into the yard where the dog was chained.

While the bill received a favorable report in committee, there was discussion about whether rules would be too broad, particularly in agricultural areas and with hunting dogs. The committee approved an amendment offered by Sen. Keith Perry, a Perry Republican, that stripped language out of concern it did not align with existing statute and hunting animals. There was concern that as written with hunting dogs, the bill might require dogs not actively attended to be accompanied while tied to a car waiting.

Taddeo characterized the amendment as unfriendly but not a bill killer. The two senators committed to working together on a solution that doesn’t put undue burdens on hunters, but also that would not create an exemption ripe for abuse.

“We don’t want abuse the way we have with people who abuse service animal laws on airplanes,” Perry said.

Taddeo said she also doesn’t want to punish hunters, a group she feels “treat their dogs the best of anyone.”

Sen. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican, supported the bill but said he would like matters addressed including how the bill would affect farm dogs, who often are allowed to move around large properties untethered.

As it stands out of committee, the legislation still drew opposition from the National Rifle Association/United Sportsmen of Florida and the Florida Association of Kennel Clubs.

The bill heads now to the Senate Community Affairs Committee.

View the original article here.

The Florida Channel: “Perspectives – Senator Taddeo, Annette (D) – District 40 – Miami”

https://thefloridachannel.org/videos/senator-taddeo-annette-d-district-40-miami/

News Break: “Florida Dems regroup to oust DeSantis amid disarray”

Florida Democrats are a mess and have spent the past year stumbling from one crisis to another. That doesn’t mean they lack potential candidates who want to challenge Gov. Ron DeSantis next year.

A string of electoral losses, an internal schism over the leadership of the state party and a series of self-inflicted public relations debacles, such as applying for pandemic relief funds, have demoralized local operatives, staff and rainmakers. But ousting the Republican governor is one of the few unifying forces for Democrats — a mantra that has fueled an ever-expanding field of those angling to take on DeSantis in 2022.

“Democrats want nothing more than to beat DeSantis next year, and regardless of how many people run, primary voters will ultimately rally around who is perceived to be the strongest in the general,” said Ben Pollara, a Miami-based Democratic consultant who has advised Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. Pollara isn’t aligned with any potential gubernatorial candidate but has worked on successful statewide ballot initiatives for raising the minimum wage and medical marijuana and is warming up a project to sink Sen. Marco Rubio’s reelection.

DeSantis has taken repeated victory laps throughout a global pandemic, embraced the Republican Party’s right flank and enjoyed his status as one of Donald Trump’s favorite governors — and the governor of the former president’s adopted home state. Democrats hope those strengths that keep DeSantis humming with the GOP base prove to be weak points in his political armor even as Florida Democrats keep falling short at the ballot box and haven’t won a gubernatorial race since 1994.

The party, though divided over its direction and facing deep financial problems — not to mention a series of unforced errors like letting health insurance for party staffers lapse — is desperate for a win.

Some of the names actively considering a run for governor have long been in circulation, having openly talked about it in person or on social media. They include Fried, the party’s only statewide elected official, who is often chided by the party’s left flank, and state Rep. Anna Eskamani, a liberal Orlando Democrat who does some of that prodding.

But now other Democrats are being touted as potential challengers and several have said they are considering it: State Sen. Annette Taddeo; Republican-turned-Democrat, former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, and Rep. Val Demings — a manager of the House’s first impeachment of Trump. Some supporters of Rep. Al Lawson, a moderate congressman from mostly rural north Florida, have lauded him as someone to watch as well. (Lawson, however, told POLITICO on Tuesday while he was “flattered” a run for governor “is not on my radar right now.”)

Still, no matter who emerges as Democrats’ 2022 nominee, the candidate will run into a Florida GOP emboldened by 2020 victories, a well-oiled political infrastructure and a vocal former president parked in the state.

“To say they have a head start is a major understatement,” said former Rep. Gwen Graham, who mounted her own unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2018 and has emerged as a caustic critic of DeSantis since he won.

Early in his term, DeSantis’ approval ratings approached the 70s as he pushed a slate of bipartisan policy priorities that included boosting funding for the environment and increasing pay for state teachers. Those numbers dropped after the start of the coronavirus pandemic as DeSantis’ rejected a mask mandate, emphasized a quick reopening of the state’s economy and embraced Trump’s response which earned the disdain of many state Democrats.

Still, his approval ratings remain just above water. Numbers shared with POLITICO by Republican pollster Ryan Tyson this week showed DeSantis with a 52 percent job approval rating in late January, with a 3.5-point margin of error. The figures from Tyson, who has nailed most statewide races in the past few cycles, including Trump and DeSantis wins in the state, track closely with a Florida Chamber of Commerce poll that had DeSantis’ approval rating at 54 percent.

Crist, who is now a congressman, said he also wants back in the game and has been receiving calls from people urging him to consider making yet another run for his old job.

“I am seriously considering at this point running for governor in 2022,” Crist said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

Fried is one of just two Democrats to win a statewide election in the last 14 years, making her the out-of-the gate frontrunner in conversations about 2022. She has openly feuded with DeSantis from her post as the only Democrat on the Florida Cabinet. And she’s tried to assert herself as party leader, hosting several state House and Senate Democrats at her Tallahassee home shortly after the November election.

“Everyone was there, there were a lot of people,” said co-House Minority Leader Evan Jenne, a South Florida Democrat. “It was about strategy for 2022, and how we can kind of rebound. There was not, as I recall, any real talk about her [Fried] and governor. It was a broader focus on 2022 strategy.”

Fried has begun to put together the makings of a campaign operation. On Tuesday, she released a hefty 30-page plan of places she said the state could potentially partner with President Joe Biden’s fledgling administration. “We support you, we are here to partner with you,” Fried said of Biden during a press conference in the Florida Capitol, drawing an obvious contrast with DeSantis.

Eskamani, 30, is the first Iranian American elected to the Florida Legislature and is the most prominent name from the party’s progressive lane to openly talk about running for governor. Still, she is not going to rush her decision.

“I think it’s really important that I make a decision based on the future of the people of Florida and if there is a path to a victory for someone like me to win,” Eskamani said in a recent phone interview.

She has been a critic of her party’s own leadership, including Fried and former Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo. Eskamani has called on Democrats to stop taking campaign contributions from corporations, which has built her deep bench of support in the progressive activist community.

“Of the names that have been floated, I think the most exciting and energizing is Anna Eskamani,” said Thomas Kennedy, a longtime Democrat activist who was recently elected to the Democratic National Committee as part of a slate trying to push internal reforms of the state party. “Not only does she energize the base, but she flipped a swing district and we reelected, won in Trump precincts and is renowned for her work helping people through the unemployment crisis.”

Taddeo, another critic of the party’s leadership, said her decision about whether to run for governor shouldn’t be surprising. She’s ran as lieutenant governor candidate when Crist made a failed bid for governor in 2014. She said the fact that she is Colombia-born and from Miami should also be key factors after a 2020 election cycle that saw Democrats’ once massive advantage in Miami-Dade County and with Hispanic voters weaken.

“We have to fight for the Hispanic vote,” said Taddeo, who came to the U.S. as a teenager, in an interview. “I think that what we saw is that Miami-Dade is a big problem for Democrats.”

View the original article here.

WUFT: “Florida Lawmakers Propose Body Camera Pilot Program For Lowell Correctional Officers”

State Rep. Yvonne Hinson, D-Gainesville, has sponsored a bill concerning a body camera pilot program in Lowell Correctional Institution in response to sexual assault complaints from inmates.

A recent report by the Department of Justice stated there is sufficient reasonable cause to believe Lowell Correctional Institution violates the constitutional rights of prisoners and fails to protect inmates from serious harm due to sexual abuse by staff. The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ began this investigation in 2018, which stemmed from a series of previous sexual assault complaints filed by prisoners between 2011 and 2015.

Within the 36-page report, the DOJ highlights minimal remedial measures that are necessary for Lowell to address such as ensuring national standards to prevent, detect and respond to prison rape. The DOJ’s investigation followed a 2015 story by the Miami Herald that outlined serious problems at the facility, which is located about 10 miles north of downtown Ocala and within the southern boundaries of Hinson’s district.

The pilot program with the Department of Corrections would require each correctional officer to wear body cameras while on duty at Lowell as well as require the department to establish new policies and procedures relating to the use, maintenance and storage of body cameras.

The department would also provide further training for the correctional officers, and require that all video and audio data recorded be maintained in accordance with public records law.

State Sens. Annette Taddeo and Victor M. Torres, Jr. are sponsoring its companion legislation. If taken into effect, usage of body cameras at Lowell Correctional Institution would begin July 1, 2021.

View the original articles here.

Miami Herald: “We were right to raise Florida’s minimum wage. Now it’s time to increase unemployment benefits”

Last year, Floridians overwhelmingly approved a much-needed constitutional amendment raising the minimum wage statewide. It will increase, eventually, $15 an hour. The increase was long overdue, and we saw broad support for it from folks across the political spectrum.

This coming legislative session, the Legislature is faced with its next great task to provide meaningful support for hardworking families. It’s past time to strengthen Florida’s unemployment system, which is one of the weakest in the nation. Last year, our unemployment-insurance system was shown to be incredibly flawed from top to bottom.

Leaders on all sides of the aisle have called Florida’s unemployment system “designed to fail,” “jalopy” and a “s— sandwich.” But despite the state’s high costs of living, under current law, Floridians without jobs only are able to receive up to $275 a week. Translate that into an hourly wage, and it’s only $6.88 an hour for full-time work — far below Florida’s current minimum wage of $8.56 an hour.

Moreover, those benefits only last for up to 12 weeks, painfully short compared to other states. I am proposing a minimum of 26 weeks and a maximum of 42 weeks, which fall under the average of other states.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve spoken with countless constituents who have been fighting to stay afloat having lost their jobs and loved ones to the coronavirus. In our state, and definitely in South Florida, $275 a week simply is not enough to feed a family, let alone keep a roof over that family’s heads. The pandemic and resulting economic disaster have put hundreds of thousands of families out of work, which is no fault of their own.

Hardworking Floridians power our economy. Keeping money in people’s pockets so they can buy groceries and pay their bills will boost spending in and help rebuild the state’s economy. It’s crucial that our leaders remember the critical role unemployment insurance played in the last recession and provide a major expansion of unemployment benefits to meet Floridians’ needs.

This is why I have introduced Senate Bill 644 this session, which will help to solve these problems and fix our broken unemployment system. Floridians want legislation that is responsive to their needs; it’s why they passed the $15 minimum wage last year, despite years of opposition from special interests in Tallahassee. It’s obvious that we need to rebuild the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system for processing claims, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that unemployment-insurance protections here are pathetic compared to the rest of the nation and especially when you consider the cost of living in our state.

As a small-business owner, I pay this insurance so that when disaster strikes and employees lose their jobs as a result, they can feed themselves and their children, and get back on their feet. This is an insurance policy like any other, not a government handout.

I hope my fellow lawmakers recognize this great need, and we can enter the legislative session with a shared commitment to address the major problems the unemployment system laid bare.

Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat, represents Senate District 40, which includes Kendall.

View the original article here.

News-Journal: “Florida Senate panel backs controversial proposal for property insurance changes”

 Amid problems in Florida’s property-insurance market, a Senate committee Tuesday backed a controversial proposal that could lead to many policyholders picking up more of the tab for roof damage and limit attorney fees in insurance disputes.

The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee approved a bill (SB 76) filed after regulators last year signed off on dozens of double-digit rate increases for private insurers and as the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. has seen a flood of new customers.

Supporters of the bill, sponsored by committee Chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, say it is aimed at holding down insurance premiums and addressing fraud and costly litigation. 

“What we are facing right now in the state of Florida is a death spiral in the world of property insurance,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican who said he recently saw his insurance rates go up by more than 20 percent.

But opponents said the changes would hurt consumers and restrict their ability to fight insurers in court.

“Does something need to be done? Yes, it does,” Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said. “Does it all need to fall … on our citizens and policyholders? I don’t think so.”

A key part of the bill focuses on payments for roof damage, as insurers contend the industry faces a barrage of questionable or fraudulent claims and schemes in which homeowners are solicited to file for repairs.

Boyd’s bill would allow insurers to use what is described as a “roof surface reimbursement schedule.” 

Under the proposal, reimbursements could vary based on ages and types of roofs. For example, insurers would be required to provide full replacement coverage for roofs less than 10 years old. But they would be allowed to provide less coverage for other roofs — effectively leading to policyholders with older roofs facing the possibility of paying more out-of-pocket costs to repair damage.

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, repeatedly raised concerns Tuesday that consumers would not be adequately informed about such a change and might not be able to afford additional costs for roof repairs.

Taddeo said she was thinking about “the abuela back in my district. These are people who are not necessarily savvy when they sign these (insurance) contracts.”

But Boyd, an insurance broker, said it is the job of insurance agents to explain such changes to policyholders. He said the overall aim is to make insurance more affordable.

“Ultimately, the goal of this is to lower costs to consumers,” Boyd said.

The bill also includes proposed changes such as reducing the amount of time from three years to two years that policyholders would have to file claims after damage. Also, it would require policyholders to provide notice to insurers at least 60 days before filing lawsuits.

In addition, the measure would try to limit fees paid to attorneys who represent policyholders. As an example, Florida allows plaintiffs to collect attorney fees when they prevail in cases against insurance companies, with the amounts typically set by a calculation of the number of hours spent on a case and a reasonable hourly rate. 

But courts also can approve what are known as “contingency risk multipliers” that increase the fees. Under the bill, however, contingency risk multipliers could only be awarded “in a rare and exceptional circumstance with evidence that competent counsel could not be retained in a reasonable manner.”

Opponents said the bill could make it harder for policyholders to find attorneys to handle claims, limiting their ability to go to court. But insurers have long blamed plaintiffs’ lawyers for driving up costs in the system.

The bill drew support Tuesday from insurers and opposition from plaintiffs’ attorneys, likely setting the stage for a lobbying fight during the legislative session that will start March 2.

State Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier last month spoke to the Senate committee about financial problems in the private insurance market, including higher rates and a lack of availability of coverage. Altmaier, for example, cited 105 rate filings by property insurers during the first 10 months of 2020, with 55 resulting in approved rate increases of more than 10 percent. 

The problems have helped drive many policyholders to Citizens, which was created as an insurer of last resort but now has what Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway described as “highly competitive” rates with private companies. That goes against a longstanding effort by state leaders to shift policies out of Citizens and into the private market.

View the original article here.