Balance Billing Among Legislative Priorities For Cabinet

Jan 21, 2016

Citrus, rape kits, credit card skimmers, synthetic drugs, life insurance, water, medical bills, racketeering and Iran.

That is the short version of the legislative priorities for Florida's three independently elected Cabinet members. While they can't sponsor or vote on bills or sign them into law, the Cabinet members hold important leadership roles in state government and each is working with lawmakers to pass legislation.

The Associated Press interviewed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and asked them to list their top three priorities for the 2016 legislative session. The following is a summary:

AGRICULTURE AND CONSUMER AFFAIRS COMMISSIONER ADAM PUTNAM

Putnam already is assured he'll get one of his priorities. The Legislature sent Gov. Rick Scott a bill that seeks to protect Florida waterways and drinking water supply and Scott plans to sign it today. The bill is designed to help protect springs and groundwater while cleaning Lake Okeechobee, the northern Everglades and other waterways. The idea is to limit pollutants entering waterways and to come up with long range plans to manage water resources.

"The biggest long-term issue in the state of Florida is getting water policy right," Putnam said. "It's vital to tourism — beaches, springs, the Everglades. It's essential to agriculture and it's essential to growth."

Putnam's also wants to require gas stations to install protections to prevent thieves from putting credit card skimmers into pumps. A bill would increase penalties for stealing credit card information while lowering the number of stolen credit cards a person can have before facing felony charges.

"No station has been really immune," he said.

He's also seeking funds to research citrus greening and for a program that helps clear abandoned citrus groves so the bacterial disease that kills citrus trees doesn't spread. The disease is blamed for a 50 percent reduction in the state's citrus crop over the last decade.

ATTORNEY GENERAL PAM BONDI

Bondi wants a law requiring law enforcement agencies submit DNA collected during a rape investigation to the state's crime lab within 21 days. Bondi made this a priority in September, saying that about 13,000 rape kits have gone untested in Florida. The DNA would be entered into statewide and national databases.

"We know already we've solved one rape kit case by testing one of the old kits and we're hoping to catch many more rapists by doing this," Bondi said.

Bondi also wants a law to help prevent the sales of synthetic drugs. A bill would redefine synthetic drugs so that the state wouldn't have to constantly update the chemical compounds used to make them. It also would enable the state to suspend the retail licenses of stores that sell synthetic drugs.

"These changes will hopefully end the cycle of government having to catch up with the newest drugs being manufactured," she said.

Bondi also wants to let the government seize property and assets of people charged with racketeering in order to provide restitution to victims.

"It gives us the ability to go after the Bernie Madoffs of the world," she said.

CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER JEFF ATWATER

Atwater wants to require life insurance companies to routinely check to see whether policy holders are still alive. He said companies check records so they can stop paying annuities when someone dies, but don't apply the same practice for life insurance claims. Instead, they sit on billions of dollars and profit off the investments. When companies cannot find a beneficiary, they also would have to turn over the money owed to the state as unclaimed property.

"What we're asking is not just a little clarification, but for people to do the right thing," Atwater said.

Atwater also wants to amend a Florida law that bans the state from investing in companies that do business with Iran. Current law allows the president or Congress to lift the sanctions. Atwater wants that language removed, saying Iran is still a threat but President Barack Obama might seek to nullify the state sanctions.

Atwater's third priority would force health insurance companies to pay claims for emergency care even if the patient seeks treatment with an out-of-network hospital or doctor. The idea is to make sure consumers don't get stuck with enormous medical bills in situations where they don't have the time or ability to choose where to seek treatment. A mediation process would be set up to ensure insurance companies and medical providers are treated fairly.

"Over time, public policy has put us in a place where the consumer is getting a raw deal," Atwater said.