As the curtain closed on the legislative session, Florida lawmakers approved new rules on condominium association bylaws, paved the way for a private flood insurance market and approved tighter controls on property insurers.
Consumers got new safeguards in legislation from state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, whose Senate bill would ban post-claim underwriting, prevent insurers from canceling policies or using other tactics to avoid paying legitimate claims. The Legislature also moved to weed out some unethical players in the real estate sector, allotting $500,000 in the state budget to fight unlicensed real estate activity.
Among the big winners were community association managers, who fought for years with the Florida Bar over whether some their administrative duties amounted to the unlicensed practice of law. In a victory for managers, the Senate voted 36-3 for a bill that would expand the role administrators play in condominiums, cooperatives and homeowner associations across the state. Licensed by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, community association managers perform management functions including disbursing funds, preparing budgets and other financial documents, and conducting meetings.
But the bill by state Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, would gi ve the managers broader powers, including the ability to negotiate financial terms of contracts, draft pre-arbitration demands, and calculate and prepare assessment and estoppel certificates. The managers say this wider scope of responsibilities would save thousands of dollars in attorney fees, but the Florida Bar has taken its case to the Florida Supreme Court and is awaiting a decision. The Bar petitioned the court in 2012 to define many of the managers’ duties as the unauthorized practice of law, a third-degree felony.
“There is no rule or test to determine whether an activity is considered to be the practice of law,” according to a state House staff analysis. “However, if an activity is within a profession’s sphere of activity, it is more likely that the court will allow a nonlawyer to perform the activity, even if the activity involves drafting a legal instrument.”
While association managers celebrated, real estate lobbyists saw a bid to cut taxes on commercial leases fail for the second time. In an election year when legislators offered sweeping tax cuts, real estate industry advocates couldn’t sell lawmakers on a proposal that would shave $235 million from state coffers.
Even with powerful support, Senate Bill 176 couldn’t drum up enough support in the Senate. An earlier version sought to remove Florida’s distinction as the only state that collects tax on commercial rent, levying a 6 percent fee that generates $1.2 billion in annual revenue. This year’s bill would have cut the tax from 6 percent to 5 percent.
“Of course we’re disappointed it didn’t pass. This is an issue we feel strongly about,” said Trey Goldman, legal counsel for Florida Realtors. “It does have a big fiscal impact, but the way to approach it is to take a small bite. That way you can have a small impact that won’t affect the state’s budget in the same way it would if you tried to do it all in one year.”
Going into the session, industry supporters were backed by Gov. Rick Scott, who pledged $100 million in the state budget to phase out commercial lease taxes as part of sweeping cuts totaling $500 million for fiscal year 2014 and 2015. But the Legislature wanted broad-based tax cuts and settled on an agreement that once again disappointed Realtors. Instead of allocating funds to phase out the tax, negotiators settled on $395 million to lower vehicle registration and title fees and $105 million for three tax holidays on energy-efficient appliances, hurricane provisions and back-to-school supplies.
There was one bright spot for the industry and a hint that legislators expect the issue to resurface. House Speaker Will Weatherford promised a comprehensive study before the start of the next session to determine the effect of reduced commercial lease taxes on state revenue. “In an election year with the governor also up for re-election, the Legislature was trying to do a lot of things for a lot of people. Next year will be different. Every year has new concerns, but next year won’t quite be like this year,” Goldman said. “I think we will revisit this issue. It’s not just important for Realtors. We believe it’s important for commercial businesses of all sizes, and we’re going to keep trying.”
In a busy legislative session, lawmakers also took steps to reduce the escalating flood insurance premiums. A bill to create an alternative to the national flood insurance program created through the Biggert-Waters Act won strong support in both the House and the Senate. SB 542 by state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, encourages insurers to write polices in Florida to create an open market that supporters say will curb rising national premiums.
“I will not stand on the sidelines while homeowners in our community are being forced out of their home by more bait-and-switch tactics in Washington,” Brandes said. “Floridians deserve an alternative to the drastic rate increases of Biggert-Waters. This legislation builds a framework for a Florida-based solution that gives flexibility to homeowners. This will put Florida at the forefront of addressing this issue nationwide.”
State residents already account for nearly 2 million, or about 40 percent, of all National Flood Insurance Program policies. However, they get back only $1 in claims for every $4 paid in premiums. Lawmakers agreed on the need to control escalating costs by creating a statewide private flood insurance market. The Senate voted 30-3 and the House 98-11 to approve the legislation.