Sunday, July 15, 2018

Business priorities struggled with this year's Florida Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — 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 were 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 voting with 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 effort.

"The Florida House moved every single one of (the bills)," state Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa said. "It's certainly disappointing the Senate didn't take action on (workers' compensation)."

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said it came down to too much on the agenda and the House speaker and Senate president had other issues leading their agendas. 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 like building water storage south of Lake Okeechobee or expanding charter schools, 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 a water restoration companies to so for claims. Many also called for ending the state's current no-fault auto insurance system where all drivers can 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 the governor spent so much 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 all 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 they were looking for. At the beginning of the Legislature's session, Gov. Rick Scott called for cutting sales taxes that businesses pay or 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 a 0.2 percent cut, dropping the rate from 6 percent to 5.8 percent.

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