Business

Legislature wasn’t buying what business interests were selling

Lawmakers in the Florida House debate bills, Thursday, May 4, 2017, in Tallahassee.
Lawmakers in the Florida House debate bills, Thursday, May 4, 2017, in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

It was a bad year for business in the Florida Legislature.

At the top of the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s agenda was a plea to change the state’s workers compensation system. The National Federation of Independent Businesses of Florida once again made cutting business rent taxes a top priority. And Associated Industries of Florida put opposition to cutting job incentive programs and tourism marketing on their first page of the legislative priorities guide at the start of the year.

The answer to all three from the Legislature was clear.

No.

The results were similar for changing the state’s auto insurance laws and addressing a spike in property insurance rates, especially in South Florida. Those were among other top issues on the agenda of the business groups as well, but none ultimately was resolved this year.

After 10 years of mostly playing offense in the Legislature, there has been a pendulum swing where business groups are getting a little more push-back the other way, said Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber.

For decades the Chamber, AIF and NFIB have been some of the biggest players in Tallahassee, donating millions to political campaigns and having major influence — some would say too much — on the agenda of the Legislature. But this year was different.

AIF lobbyist Brewster Bevis said he found himself frequently having to testify against bills that would hurt the business community, something that he said felt more frequent this year than in past years.

Wilson compared it to a football game, where the team’s been on defense a lot more in the last quarter and is itching to get back on offense.

“We look forward to getting the ball back,” Wilson said.

The difficulties in the session for business groups will almost certainly be reflected in the annual scorecards groups like the chamber put out each year to grade lawmakers. Last year 38 members of the Legislature earned 100 percent ratings from the chamber. Wilson said this year it is safe to assume there will only be a handful who hit that mark.

House members are convinced they lived up to their end of the bargain and were out trying to help businesses, but time and again the Senate derailed their efforts.

“The Florida House moved every single one of [the bills],” said state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa. “It’s certainly disappointing the Senate didn’t take action on [workers compensation].”

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said it came down to too much on the agenda, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron had other priorities. He said a lot of the legislative agenda these days in Tallahassee is based on what the presiding officers want most. If revising workers compensation to discourage lawsuits against companies was a must-pass for either of them — as was building a water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee for Negron or expanding charter schools for Corcoran, Lee said he’s sure it would have been done.

“Workers comp was seen as a must-pass, yet it didn’t get heard in the Senate until week 5,” Lee said of the two-month session.

Workers compensation issues will rank as one of the biggest disappointments for the business community. There was a consensus with Gov. Rick Scott, the Senate and the House all vowing to respond to a 14.4 percent hike in workers compensation insurance rates imposed on businesses this year, with possibly another 20 percent increase coming next year.

“Unfortunately we couldn’t get there,” said state Rep. Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. “I was just adamant we had to get this fixed this year.”

At least workers compensation was close to passing. On other issues related to property insurance and auto insurance rates, bills never had a chance because of how different the House and Senate viewed the issues.

The business community called on the Legislature to end a system called assignment of benefits where homeowners sign over legal rights to contractors or companies that then pursue damage claims. Many also called for ending the state’s current no-fault auto insurance system where all drivers can get health claims paid by insurers regardless who is at fault in an accident. In both cases the House passed bills that never were heard in the Senate, and Senate versions of those bills got overwhelmed by the rest of a busy agenda.

Corcoran said the governor deserves blame for the business issues not getting done. He said that Scott spent a lot of time fighting to save Enterprise Florida’s tax incentive program and Visit Florida, when he should have been putting his political muscle into workers compensation and assignment of benefits. He said those issues will impact jobs more than Enterprise Florida or Visit Florida.

Corcoran, himself, made the curtailing of Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida one of his top priorities despite Scott, the chamber and AIF fighting against him. Corcoran didn’t eliminate both agencies, but he succeeded in getting the Senate to agree to cut Enterprise Florida’s budget from about $25 million to $16 million. And he cut Visit Florida’s budget from $76 million to $25 million and imposed rigid new restrictions on spending at the agency.

Even when the business community won, it wasn’t quite what it was looking for. At the beginning of the Legislature’s session, Gov. Rick Scott called for cutting sales taxes that businesses pay for renting commercial space from 6 percent to 4.5 percent. The House was ready to join that and the Senate considered some proposal to cut the tax to 5 percent. But when it was all voted on Monday, the cut in the rent tax was just 0.2 percent, dropping the rate from 6 percent to 5.8 percent.

Five failures

Despite a major push by traditionally powerful business groups, the Legislature finished its annual session on May 8 without passing their top priorities.

▪  Workers compensation reforms: After the Florida Supreme Court threw out previous caps on attorney fees for injured workers who successfully sue companies for rejecting their claims, the workers compensation insurance industry announced 14 percent rate increases on business with more likely to come this year. But the House and Senate could not agree on how much to cap attorney fees resulting in no bill passing the Legislature this year.

▪  Assignment of benefits: With property insurance rates climbing, especially in South Florida, business groups called on the Legislature to enact reforms to reduce the ability of water loss companies and roofers to sue insurance companies on the behalf of homeowners. A bill passed the House, but a Senate version of the legislation was vastly different and never made it to a vote of the full Senate.

▪  Personal injury protection: Auto insurance rates are climbing, prompting calls from the Legislature to end the state’s no-fault insurance system and force all drivers to a different type of coverage that would only put drivers on the hook for someone else’s injuries if they were at fault in a car accident. One version passed the House, but never got far in the Senate.

▪  Business rent tax: Florida is the only state in the nation that charges businesses sales tax for renting commercial space, and business groups sought to at least drop the rate from the current 6 percent to 4.5 percent. Instead, the House and Senate only would agree to drop the tax rate from 6 percent to 5.8 percent.

▪ Incentives: House Speaker Richard Corcoran vowed to kill Enterprise Florida and tax incentives the agency helps arrange with companies to convince them to move to Florida. Business groups fought that effort and supported Gov. Rick Scott who wanted an additional $85 million in incentives to lure more companies to the state. Instead, the Legislature gave Scott $0 for incentives and slashed Enterprise Florida’s operating budget from about $25 million to $16 million.

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