TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators will be asked to eliminate the state’s no-fault auto insurance option and increase spending to repair the state’s natural springs, the incoming Senate president said Thursday.
Senate President-designate Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, told business leaders that lawmakers meeting for the 2021 legislative session also will need to consider efforts to keep polluted Central Florida waters from flowing in Lake Okeechobee.
“Three or four years ago, we did a bill that brought in more southern storage to that system. And what I believe is probably a flaw in our thinking, there was more of a political thought,” Simpson said during a brief video appearance at the end of the Florida Chamber Foundation’s three-day virtual Future of Florida Forum. “We need to go and work on northern storage more aggressively, because northern storage will actually fix the problem. When we’re talking about fixing the root causes of our problems, a substantial amount of the Everglades problems come from the northern Everglades.”
Simpson and House Speaker-designate Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, spoke to business leaders as lawmakers prepare for the legislative session that begins in March and will likely be dominated by responding to the financial impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
In evaluating the damage caused by the pandemic, state economists have lowered the general revenue estimate by $3.42 billion for the current fiscal year and by nearly $2 billion for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
General revenue, which includes such money as sales taxes and corporate income taxes, plays a vital role in funding schools, health care and prisons.
Simpson and Sprowls separately addressed the need for lawmakers to reduce the state budget in respond to the revenue estimates.
Both leaders expressed a need to maintain Florida’s “triple-A” bond ratings from three major credit-rating agencies: Moody’s Investor Services, Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Ratings.
Without giving specific details, Sprowls suggested that lawmakers should consider “practical solutions” to coastal flooding and empower families “to make educational choices that are best for their children.”
“As the nation grapples with COVID-19, many states will have to find a way to fill the holes in their state budgets as a result of declining revenue. What will set Florida apart is that, instead of raising taxes or making your responsible cuts to vital services … we will take this unprecedented opportunity to be thoughtful in our approach to minimize the size and scope of government and to get Floridians back to even a better normal, a better life,” he said.
Simpson told forum attendees he’d also like lawmakers to consider the Florida Retirement System’s unfunded liability.
“The biggest eyesore that we have is the unfunded liability, the pension, approximately $25 billion today,” Simpson said. “I hope this year will be the year that we can address that shortfall within the budget.”
In addition to addressing water flowing into the Everglades from the north, Simpson said other ways to improve state water resources is to pump more money into programs to replace septic tanks with sewers and to exceed the $50 million required to be spent annually on natural springs.
“I would like to increase that sum if possible, so that we can continue to clean those up,” he said.
Simpson also spoke of reviving talks to replace the state’s no-fault auto insurance system, which requires motorists to carry $10,000 in personal-injury protection coverage to help pay medical bills after accidents, with a requirement for bodily-injury coverage.
The issue has stalled the past few years as the House and Senate fought over whether to restrict “bad faith” litigation as part of the proposal.
“I think we could have some major reforms there and have some guardrails as it relates to bad faith,” Simpson said.
The Senate leader also suggested lawmakers consider other insurance-related legislation, such as limiting water-damage claims and home repairs.
“One of the other ideas that has been thrown out is that on a roof, after 10 years, to allow a depreciable value on that roof system,” Simpson said. “Rather than an insurer coming in with a 19-year-old or 20-year-old roof and having to pay the entire amount — that roof lifespan has been completely used. So why not allow it after the first 10 years to be on a depreciable value. That should bring significant savings to homeowners and insurance policies.”
Earlier in the day, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis — who noted he “regularly” discusses the state’s coronavirus response with Florida Chamber President and CEO Mark Wilson — said one of the biggest fears among business owners trying to reopen amid the pandemic is the possibility of being sued by people who’ve contracted COVID-19.
“Businesses are telling me that these concerns might keep them from reopening. And we need to get people back to work,” said Patronis, who intends to pursue Chamber-supported coronavirus liability-protection legislation in the upcoming session. “We cannot allow our state recovery to be inhibited by the constant threat of lawsuits.”