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Session pays off for the consumer

From safety to financial issues, pro-consumer bills fly. Business groups, however, see few victories.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


From safety to financial issues, pro-consumer bills fly. Business groups, however, see few victories.

TALLAHASSEE -- Here's a switch from recent legislative sessions: After the gavel dropped late Friday, consumer interests were touting their small victories, while business advocates were pointing to few major wins.

"Overall, I can't say this was much of a business session," Associated Industries of Florida lobbyist Mary Ann Stiles said Saturday, bemoaning the defeat of a much-watched bill overhauling Florida's troubled workers' compensation system.

Everyday consumers, though, will see some tangible effects from this session of the Republican controlled Legislature if a number of bills make it past Gov. Jeb Bush.

Enjoy specialty beer? Your selection should expand soon because lawmakers lifted a longstanding ban on beer that comes in anything but conventional 8-, 12-, 16- or 32-ounce containers.

Have young children? You may soon need a booster seat, because starting next year all children between 4 and 9 years of age who are under 4 feet 9 must be in a booster seat rather than just a seat belt. That would be in addition to the current law that requires children up through age 3 to be in a child car seat.

Want to save some money and buy a secondhand crib? The newly passed Florida Infant Crib Safety Act should protect you, making illegal the sale of cribs that don't meet current safety standards.

"This was a great, great year for consumer safety," said state Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, dubbed the "safety queen" of the Legislature.

Bush, however, has expressed qualms that both of those safety measures may smack of overregulation.

Other help for consumers includes a bill pushed by Republican state Sen. Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor giving relocation assistance to mobile home owners forced out of closing mobile home parks. Florida has more than a million mobile home residents.

Thousands of Floridians would also save money on some popular drugs, including the popular blood thinner Coumadin, under a bill allowing pharmacists to substitute generics for brand name drugs.

All Floridians can save money July 28 -- Aug. 5, thanks to a return of another "sales tax holiday" on clothing of $50 or less and school supplies of $10 or less.

Few consumer-oriented initiatives received as much attention as the effort to improve nursing homes this year. Lawmakers passed a $72-million bill that raises nursing home staffing requirements and caps punitive damages on lawsuits against nursing homes.

AARP officials offered a cautiously optimistic message about the bill, saying that they would be closely monitoring the implementation and enforcement of the law.

"We've raised the bar on the standards for nursing homes," AARP lobbyist Lynn Bodiford said.

The group was almost entirely consumed with the nursing home issue this session, but Bodiford said it also watched and applauded reforms in the payday loan industry. Under a newly passed bill, customers would be limited to one $500 loan at a time and would get a 60-day grace period if they get credit counseling.

Bodiford was also pleased to see nothing come of ambitious plans earlier this year to deregulate electricity in Florida.

"It's not that we're opposed to deregulation, but we feel there has to be a real careful approach to it so that consumers are protected," she said.

That wasn't the only ambitious business legislation to fizzle. Several insurance bills, including a proposed merger of state-run insurance pools of last resort, died without action.

But the Florida Insurance Council industry group cheered the passage of an anti-fraud bill that caps fees charged by brokers who line up medical services for traffic crash victims. A grand jury that looked at personal injury protection fraud said brokers charge insurers as much as $1,700 for MRIs that cost regular insurance programs only $350 to $500.

Perhaps the biggest far-reaching loss for business groups was the defeat of a workers' compensation overhaul bill. The Senate and House couldn't agree on details before the session ended.

Opposed by unions, the bill would have limited lawyers fees on workers' compensation claims and increasing some benefits while decreasing others.

In contrast to recent years when businesses won corporate tax break after tax break, lawmakers had far less money to work with this year.

Still, Bill Herrle of the National Federation of Independent Businesses applauded a cut in intangibles taxes on investments that passed the Legislature. Some 700,000 taxpayers, including 120,000 business owners, should benefit.

For individuals, lawmakers raised the exemption from the current $20,000 of value to $250,000, and for couples from $40,000 to $500,000. Businesses won a new $250,000 exemption.

"For most small businesses now the intangibles tax is gone," Herrle said.

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