Weekly Roundup: Rick Scott's Policy, If Not His Popularity, Reinforced
Around the State
In a number of not-so-surprising revelations this week, Citizen’s Property Insurance Corp. is too big, Panhandle business owners are frustrated over the pace of BP payments and Gov. Rick Scott remains unpopular, despite recent efforts to get his message out in a flurry of radio interviews around the state.
But even as Floridians continued to be unimpressed with Scott, they, and the governor, learned this week that policies the state has undertaken to reduce spending and pump up reserves are having a positive effect on the state’s creditworthiness. Standard & Poor’s this week upgraded its credit outlook for Florida, citing Republican belt-tightening and the frugal budget Scott signed into law.
While Scott and his GOP cohorts may not have much desire to borrow money – they’re preaching staying within our means, after all – it was still positive acknowledgment from an independent source that reducing spending has an upside.
But with 10 percent of Florida residents still out of work and a governor focused almost entirely on that, Scott has had a hard time getting people to like him.
Meanwhile, financial disclosures filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics show that despite tough economic times, many lawmakers remain millionaires, though some have been caught in the real estate downturn that leaves them, on paper at least, underwater just like many of their constituents.
On the national level, Florida events continue to influence the agenda. The Congress this week took a vote to water down federal clean-water standards that have stymied and enraged Florida businesses and environmental officials. And following through on Florida efforts following a much-watched trial, at least 20 states have filed versions of Caylee’s Law in response to the recent acquittal of an Orlando mother, Casey Anthony, in the death of her 2-year-old daughter.
Also this week, lawmakers traveled the state to get input on upcoming efforts to redraw political boundaries, holding a series of public hearings in preparation for the once-a-decade redistricting effort made more contentious by the addition of two congressional seats and a pair of untested constitutional amendments aimed at reducing the political shenanigans inherent in the process.
Panhandle business owners, meanwhile, continue to cry foul as they battle BP over payments they say are due them from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that on Friday marked the first anniversary of the well being capped, after spewing 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
CITIZENS’ RANKS SWELLING; IS SELL-OFF AN OPTION?
With the state-backed property insurer expected to eclipse 1.4 million policyholders within the next few weeks, Citizens Property Insurance Corp. chairman Jim Malone gave a parting shot this week, saying the insurer should consider selling off a large chunk of its business to private interests to reduce its exposure while continuing to cover the state's riskiest property.
Critics questioned whether there’d be any companies willing to take most of the policies Citizens wants to shed – because they’re still risky.
Up to 900,000 Citizens' policies are likely uninsurable in the private market because they cover older homes, mobile homes, and residences along the coast. But Malone estimated that the remaining policies could be marketed to some private entity because they involve billions of dollars in assets and a widely dispersed premium base, envisioning a return to Citizens' roots as the true insurer of last resort.
"That has a value someplace in this open market," Malone said. "The state of Florida needs money and this could be turned into an asset that had a value that people were willing to purchase in the private sector."
Created as the insurer only for those who couldn't get policies from private companies, Citizens has gone beyond that role to become the largest property insurer in the state. Malone laid that development squarely at the feet of lawmakers who, despite warnings from insurance experts, lacked the political courage to make the tough call. After the 2004 and 2005 hurricanes, when Floridians were complaining about major increases in premiums, lawmakers decided to artificially reduce rates, against the advice of actuaries.
"If the right decision had been made politically, let's say five years ago … we wouldn't have this exposure," Malone said. "We could have (had) a huge event and everybody in this state could feel comfortable that resources were available to take care of the loss."
Malone made the comments at the second-to-last board of governors meeting before all board members are removed from office July 31. After Aug. 1 a new governing board will be seated.
While Citizens sees its popularity soar, Florida’s elected officials do not share such fortune. A Sunshine State News poll released Thursday shows former Gov. Charlie Crist as the only big-name politician in Florida with a favorable rating over 40 percent. The former governor has a 42 percent favorable rating, despite having quit the Republican Party near the end of his term – angering many GOP faithful.
Crist’s approval rating is higher than that of Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who has a 38 percent favorable rating; Democrat U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has only a 32 percent approval rating; and Gov. Rick Scott, whose favorable rating is 27 percent -- according to the poll conducted July 5-7 by Voter Survey Service.
Dogged by low approval ratings in multiple polls, Scott has hit the road to take his jobs message to the people in local talk-radio interviews.
MANY FLORIDA LAWMAKERS DOING ALL RIGHT:
The Florida Legislature is home to more than 50 millionaires, according to a News Service review of financial disclosures filed by legislators for 2010. The 160-member Legislature tends to attract wealthy individuals due, in part, to its heavy time commitment and low salary. Legislators receive $29,697 a year, with presiding officers making $41,181 a year.
The Legislature meets once a year for two months for its regular session, but lawmakers are often called in for committee weeks or special sessions -- and they also have to spend a lot of time campaigning and fundraising.
"It's a difficult position if you are working a 9-to-5 job to say 'Hey, I'm going to give up my clients for four months,' and then come back to that world for six months," said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, one of the wealthiest legislators, who is worth $11.8 million. "Most people can't do that."
Freshman Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, has the distinction of having the lowest net worth in the Legislature. Caldwell, 29, is a real estate appraiser who purchased his home at the height of the housing boom. He watched as the value of his $144,000 investment shrank to about $25,000 as hard-hit Lehigh Acres became the epicenter of the national housing bust.
"I tell people I'm nothing special, I've experienced the same types of challenges that many other people have gone through," said Caldwell, whose net worth as of Dec. 31 was negative $125,000.
Florida’s part-time legislators next year must redraw their district boundaries, and those of Congress, and lawmakers are beginning to come face to face with restrictions imposed by recently approved constitutional amendments aimed at reducing gerrymandering.
During hearings held this week at The Villages, residents worried publicly that Amendments 5 and 6 will make it difficult for the sprawling development that straddles county boundaries to be represented by a single representative.
The Villages has ballooned since the early 2000s, growing from an octogenarian outpost of 22,000 to a teeming community of 84,000 that will continue to grow by 25,000 by 2020.
Concerns by Villages’ residents have been echoed by others, but lawmakers said their ability to match the requests could be made problematic under the FairDistricts amendments overwhelmingly approved by voters last November.
Also this week, Rep. Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, said Florida needs to accelerate tuition increases at a few of the state’s 11 public universities.
Proctor, who chairs the House Education Committee and is chancellor of Flagler College, said in an interview with the News Service of Florida that shrinking state revenues have made universities rely more heavily on tuition dollars. But with a 15 percent annual cap on how much tuition can go up, universities are finding it hard to get close to the national average.
Without bigger tuition increases, Florida risks losing ground in higher education, with faculty abandoning state universities for higher-paid positions elsewhere in the country, Proctor said.
ENVIRONMENT: WATER WAR CONTINUES:
The U.S. House on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would restrict the Environmental Protection Agency's power to require tougher water-quality standards. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., was a key sponsor of the measure, which passed 239-184. Mica and other supporters said the EPA has overstepped its authority in Clean Water Act disputes with states.
The Obama administration has signaled the bill likely will be vetoed if it gets to the White House.
Water-quality standards have been a major issue in Florida during the past couple of years, as business groups and many state and local leaders have fought EPA efforts to impose strict standards through what are known as "numeric nutrient criteria.''
Opponents contend that the criteria would force costly upgrades of facilities such as sewage-treatment plants, which discharge water into rivers and streams. But supporters say the standards would help clean up the state's waterways, preventing harmful algal blooms and other health and environmental problems.
STORY OF THE WEEK:
Gov. Scott continues to be plagued by low approval ratings – lower even than the former governor who was disgraced in the eyes of his own party just a year ago – even as he got the news that the state’s efforts to reduce spending are music to the ears of outside analysts.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK:
"Oh, that's good. That is great.” Gov. Rick Scott reacting to Standard & Poor’s upgrading the state’s credit outlook at the end of a 24-hour cycle during which the other major Tallahassee story was about how unpopular he has become.