A consumer's guide to the Florida Legislature

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 4, 2013 

The Florida Legislature. FILE PHOTO / MIAMI HERALD PHOTO.

TALLAHASSEE -- As lawmakers convene Tuesday to iron out Florida's budget during the 60-day legislative session, their decisions will have a major impact on the budgets of families across the Sunshine State.

From property insurance to housing to taxes to energy costs, the issues lawmakers take on during session — and those they opt not to — will hit consumer pocketbooks.

With unemployment declining and the economy slowly improving, lawmakers are becoming more open to business-backed measures that could push up the cost of living in Florida.

That could mean higher insurance rates, faster foreclosures, taxes on Internet purchases and other cost drivers.

Florida's Republican-led Legislature is staunchly against raising taxes, so standard tax hikes are generally off the table. And a budget surplus has allowed lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to push for more government spending, including $2,500 raises for schoolteachers and restored social programs. On other measures — including college tuition — lawmakers are holding the line on costs, as Scott has pledged to protect family budgets.

But the average consumer could still see his or her expenses increase under many of the proposed bills, even as wages stagnate in Florida's slow recovery from a deep recession that many believe is still not over.

The higher costs come at a tough time: In addition to shrinking wages, the average household will see payroll taxes increase by more than $900 this year, because in January the tax jumped back up to 6.2 percent from 4.2 percent after it had been lowered to stimulate the economy.

"With increases in the payroll taxes and the general economic uncertainty, (cost-driving legislation) is going to hurt those at the lower income (levels) more," said Dr. Howard Frank, a professor at Florida International University's Metropolitan Center.

All pocketbook issues could face higher hurdles this year, as Scott eyes re-election and looks to rebrand himself around more populist themes.

"In everything we do in government, I ask, 'How will this impact a family making less than $50,000 a year?' " Scott said as he unveiled his $74.2 billion proposed budget in January. "That is around half of the families living in Florida today, and that was also my family growing up."

Here is a look at some of the top pocketbook issues that lawmakers will face when the 60-day legislative session kicks off on Tuesday.

Property insurance

Lawmakers have filed a bevy of bills to reform the state's property insurance market, which a growing chorus of business interests has decried as overly risky. Directly in lawmakers' cross hairs: Citizens Property Insurance, which environmentalists and business groups say is charging rates that are too low.

A massive bill working its way through the Senate Banking and Insurance committee would seek to push premiums higher, with the largest hikes falling on the 1.3 million policyholders covered by Citizens.

The bill is likely to face several amendments before it reaches a full vote, but its current form allows for several new charges for policyholders. Two separate proposals each tack on an additional 3 percent to Citizens' 10 percent cap, potentially costing the average policyholder in Pinellas County an extra $125 each year. Other measures would force Citizens to charge higher rates than competitors, which could cost homeowners hundreds more.

Advocates of insurance reform say higher rates now will save Florida down the road when a big hurricane hits. That could leave taxpayers with a big bill.

"This is the one issue that could seriously cause long-term, catastrophic damage to the state's economy," said Christian Cámara, Florida director of the free-market think tank R Street Institute. Cámara said the group offers "free market solutions" to the Citizens issue and is pushing for higher insurance rates in Florida.

Homeowners in South Florida and Tampa Bay have already seen prices jump in the past year. Rate increases of about 11 percent have cost the standard Citizens policyholder more than $250, and a massive reinspection program raised premiums of more than 250,000 Floridians by an average of about $800.

Raising insurance rates higher right before an election year could be politically difficult. Some lawmakers have made it a priority to stem the price hikes and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said lawmakers should be careful about pushing rates up too high, too quickly.

"With Citizens, we have to take an incremental approach," he said, adding that lawmakers should be "sensitive to the rates that citizens of our state can pay."

Energy costs

Since 2006, two utility companies have billed Floridians more than $1 billion in charges for new nuclear plants that might never be built. The Legislature passed the law allowing utilities like Progress Energy and Florida Power & Light to charge ratepayers for future construction.

After the high-profile shuttering of the Crystal River nuclear plant, many wonder if that construction will ever take place. Constituents and consumer advocates have begun to cry foul about the $1 billion in charges, and some lawmakers are seeking to repeal or amend the costly 2006 law.

A bill filed by Tampa Bay area senators seeks to crack down on the utility companies by requiring them to give money back to taxpayers if they decide not to complete construction of a project.

"This legislation brings accountability and common sense into our energy policy discussion," said bill sponsor Sen. John Legg, R-Port Richey.

The bill, and others aimed at reducing energy costs, could face an uphill battle in the Legislature. Utility companies hold considerable sway in Tallahassee, and are heavy contributors to political candidates and parties.

Housing

Florida became the nation's No. 1 state for foreclosures last year, and the rising mortgage delinquency rate has caught the attention of lawmakers. One measure being considered would speed up the foreclosure process — which normally takes more than two years in Florida. Bill sponsor Rep. Kathleen Passidomo said a more efficient foreclosure system will help bring Florida's housing market back to normalcy.

"Unfortunately, if you don't have an income or you can't afford to pay anything, the property can't just sit in limbo forever," she said.

Critics say the bill will force out homeowners before they have an opportunity to mount a legal defense. More foreclosures could cause a drag on home values.

On other housing-related measures, the state's budget surplus could allow the Legislature to direct more money to homeowner-assistance programs.

Scott is proposing $50 million in spending for such programs, after sweeping the trust fund dedicated to them for the past two years. Legislative leaders have pledged to use an additional $200 million from a national mortgage settlement for housing-assistance programs.

The usual push to slash homeowners' property taxes has been mostly absent from the discussion this year, as lawmakers have focused instead on cutting business taxes.

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