Citizens Property Insurance, Online Learning, Everglades Restoration Bills Head For Scott

May 3, 2013

Several more bills are headed to Gov. Scott. They include a “watered-down” overhaul of state-run Citizens Property Insurance and a controversial measure allowing Florida students to take online classes from out-of-state providers.

Florida public school students can take classes online through the Florida Virtual School, a state-accredited provider that, so far, has been one of the only games in town when it comes to digital learning for Florida students. But a bill the Senate passed on Thursday, 27-12, would take steps toward allowing additional online class providers, from anywhere in the world, a piece of the action.

Sponsor, Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersberg) said, it’s about letting students choose.

“When outstanding becomes so easily available, average is over. And that’s what this bill is about, it’s about giving our students outstanding, not just from within Florida but from around the world, letting the outstanding from around the world to come to the state of Florida and letting our students and our teachers decide what’s best for them,” he said.

But the measure has generated controversy as it’s made its way through the Legislature. In a debate that’s mirrored the debate over charter schools, many Democratic lawmakers have said, the digital learning bill is a way for out-of-state corporations to come in and make money off of Florida’s students.

Dwight Bullard (D-Cutler Bay) asked his fellow Senators to imagine, what if the idea had come from someone in their districts?

“If a constituent came in and said, ‘I have a wonderful idea. I want to expand, blow the walls off of traditional education. However, I want to take taxpayer dollars and send them out of state potentially or out of country potentially,’ he said, “None of us would sponsor that bill.”

But Sen. John Legg, a Hillsborough County Republican, said, the bill lets the state proceed cautiously, starting first with a study and then creating rigid guidelines for allowing additional online class providers.

“When it comes to virtual education, I don’t think all people’s motives are pure. I think we have some folks out there that may or may not have the best intentions,” he said. “What his bill does is it creates a framework for which we can go by and look at this process with standardized, end-of-course exams, rigorous examination on the front end, and allow working in partnership with our districts, with the Department of Education.”

The bill heads now to the governor’s desk.

Also on its way there is a measure designed to shrink the number of policy holders on the rolls of  the state-run Citizens Property Insurance company. Sen. David Simmons (R-Altamonte Springs), who’s sponsoring the bill, said it comes after two months of back-and-forth with the House.

“It’s a good bill—doesn’t go as far. I could call it ‘Citizens light,’ he said. “It doesn’t go as far as the Senate has, but I think it’s something that we could all join in and support.”

Simmons said, one problem it aims to fix is that Citizens wind policies are being written for half the actuarially sound rate.

“I can tell you that with my negotiations and discussions with our counterparts in the House, I think that they have come to a realization and an acknowledgement that there is something seriously wrong,” he said.

Sen. Gwen Margolis (D-Miami) expressed concern for her constituents who live on the coast, where hurricanes are likely to do the most damage.

Simmons replied, “You can still build on the land, you just can’t be insured by Citizens.”

Lawmakers have long been debating how to shrink Citizens over doubts the state could afford to pay out in the event of another particularly damaging hurricane season, like the state had in 2004-2005. In that case, the state has the authority to charge all insurance policyholders, not just Citizens policyholders.

Sen. Bill Montford (D-Apalachicola) said, the compromise bill is a victory for all Floridians and thanked Simmons.

“And I want to thank you for the 98 percent of my people that don’t have Citizens and the 2 percent that do,” he said. “‘Cause I think 100 percent of them are going to be better off because of your hard work.”

And the Legislature is also sending Gov. Scott a comprehensive Everglades restoration bill that got unanimous support from lawmakers, as well as backing from both industry and environmental groups.

CORRECTIONS (5/3 1:28 p.m.): A previous version of this story said Florida Virtual School was "the only game in town when it comes to digital learning for Florida students." It is actually one of the few providers, which include K12 Florida Virtual Academies. Also, a previous version of this story said Citizens Property Insurance charges up to twice the actuarially sound rate for wind policies. It actually charges half the actuarially sound rate in some cases. And finally, the virtual learning bill just passed the House on Friday and now heads to the governor's desk. Originally, this story said it was heading to the governor on Thursday.