Questionable Florida Laws Go Into Effect Sunday

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – A pair of constitutionally questionable measures and legislation designed to crack down on no-fault auto insurance fraud are among about 150 new Florida laws going into effect Sunday.

A law that bans state and local governments from hiring companies that do business in Cuba and Syria already has been challenged in court and a federal judge has at least temporarily put it on hold.

Another statute that permits inspirational messages, including prayers, in public schools has drawn threats of lawsuits. Legal action, however, may not be necessary to negate the law because it gives local school boards the option of implementing it.

“Nobody’s going to do it,” said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “We are telling them it will be costly and not worth the effort.”

Some of the other laws with July 1 effective dates would enlarge Gov. Rick Scott’s power over state rule making, restore tax credits for renewable energy and expand online learning for elementary school students.

There are also tax breaks for businesses and new laws that increase penalties for human trafficking and video voyeurism. Another law will require student-athletes who suffer head injuries to be pulled from competition until cleared by doctors. The state’s new $69.9 billion budget also goes into effect.

The changes to auto insurance affect the state’s personal injury protection – or PIP – coverage. Since 1972, Florida motorists have been required to buy such coverage to make sure anyone injured in a crash gets money to treat their injuries without delay. A driver’s insurance company is required to pay up to $10,000 for medical bills and lost wages no matter who is at fault.

Bogus claims and faked accidents, though, are largely responsible for a $1.4 billion increase in PIP costs since 2008, state officials say.

The new law puts a 14-day limit on seeking treatment after a crash. Benefits also are capped at $2,500 unless a doctor, osteopathic physician, dentist or a supervised physician’s assistant or advanced registered nurse practitioner determines there’s an “emergency medical condition.” Chiropractors cannot make that determination.

After the inspirational messages law was adopted, local school districts were warned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida that adopting policies permitting student-led inspirational messages would “very likely lead to prolonged litigation.” Any district that adopted the measure could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands in legal fees.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State also is prepared to take legal action, said Alex Luchenitser, the group’s associate legal director. The law doesn’t use the word “prayer” but it still invites government-controlled prayer, Luchenitser said.

“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said the ACLU’s Florida executive director, Howard Simon. “For all of the efforts of our Legislature to try to entice school officials into joining their religious crusade, school officials are smarter than legislators.”

The law’s sponsors, though, remain confident it will be implemented. Rep. Charles Van Zant, a Keystone Heights Republican who carried the bill in the House, said some school officials have told him they’ll push for allowing inspirational messages but he declined to identify them.

Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who is the law’s prime sponsor, said he expects it to be an election issue for school board members.

“I would assume they don’t want to tell parents their children can’t pray in school,” Siplin said.

The Cuba-Syria law is already in court: Odebrecht Construction Inc., a Coral Gables-based subsidiary of a Brazilian engineering conglomerate, challenged it in a Miami federal court. The lawsuit contends the Florida statute violates the U.S. Constitution, which gives the federal government, not individual states, power to set foreign policy.

District Judge K. Michael Moore agreed, and on Monday he issued a temporary injunction, saying Odebrecht likely will prevail at trial.

Odebrecht has been involved in state and local contracts totaling $3.9 billion since 1990 while another subsidiary has been working on a project to expand a Cuban port. That could result in the Florida firm losing its state and local government business.

Even Scott expressed doubt about the law’s constitutionality. The Republican governor wrote in a signing letter that it could not go into effect unless a federal law is passed allowing the states to impose such sanctions. Scott, though, backtracked and said he’d defend the law after his letter caused an uproar in South Florida’s reliably Republican Cuban-American community.

Moore’s ruling was the latest in a series of court decisions that have gone against state laws passed in the last two years by the Republican-led Legislature. Others include laws requiring public employees to contribute to their pensions, privatizing prisons, barring doctors from asking patients if they own guns, restricting voter registration drives and requiring welfare applicants to be tested for drugs.

Another of the new laws responds to a Florida Supreme Court ruling that Scott exceeded his authority when he ordered state agencies to freeze rule making so his office could first review and approve or reject proposed rules. The new law gives Scott the power that the high court said he lacked. Environmentalists and other critics say that will make it harder for the public to challenge proposed rules.

The renewable energy measure became law without Scott’s signature but he rejected requests by tea party activists for a veto out of deference to lawmakers and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a fellow Republican.

One of Putnam’s top legislative priorities, the law restores expired tax credits and other incentives for renewables. Tea party opponents claim the credits will put the state in the position of choosing winners and losers in the energy field, which Putnam denies. Some renewables advocates also have criticized it for repealing a requirement that electric utilities set renewable energy goals.

Another new law will let the Florida Virtual School expand part-time offerings to children in kindergarten through third grade and lift a requirement for students to spend at least a year in a regular public school before enrolling in Virtual School classes. That’s expected to benefit home-schooled children.

A tax-cutting law totaling nearly $120 million will be going into effect. It includes a small reduction in the state’s corporate income tax as the result of doubling the exemption to $50,000. The law that Scott touts as part of his “jobs agenda” includes tax breaks targeted to specific industries and for purchases of machinery and equipment. Another section reauthorizes the popular back-to-school sales tax “holiday” by exempting purchases of certain school supplies and clothing between Aug. 3 and Aug. 5.

A separate new law scales back an increase in the unemployment compensation tax paid by employers, which is expected to save them $800 million over three years. It also revamps the system into a “reemployment assistance” program including job training for unemployed workers who score low on a skills test.

Maximum penalties will double from 15 years to 30 years for human trafficking and increase from one year to five years for video voyeurism – the secret recording of another person while naked or in some state of undress.

The head injury law also requires that parents or guardians sign an “informed consent” form about the dangers of concussions before a student can join a team.

The budget includes a $1 billion increase for public schools, although that’s not enough to make up for cuts they received a year ago. It also slashes state support to public universities by $300 million.