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Legislative Loose Ends

While most of official Tallahassee was watching the bottom line on political fundraising last week, a couple of loose ends from legislative sessions past were cleared up.

A Florida appellate court upheld the popular "Save Our Homes" property tax provision in the constitution that caps assessment increases on Florida homesteads to protect full time Florida homeowners from dramatic increases in property values, but not on properties owned by seasonal residents.

Out-of-state residents with Florida vacation homes were unhappy with the amendment though - their properties aren't covered by it - and some Alabama residents filed suit in 2007 in a Leon County court, alleging that the amendment was discriminatory toward people who own property here, but aren't full time residents. The circuit court upheld the law, and the case was appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which also upheld the constitutional provision on Wednesday.

Following seven hearings and several years, the Florida Supreme Court cleared the way this week for a proposal to ask voters next year to change the constitution to require a local vote before a change to an area's comprehensive plan.

By unanimous vote, the state's highest court approved a financial impact statement that must accompany the proposal - now dubbed Amendment 4 - to the ballot box. It was the third time the court had been asked to approve the financial statement after rejecting previous efforts, and apparently it was the charm.

The luck will run out for some customers of Florida’s largest property insurer, which approved a 10 percent rate hike this week for many of its nearly 1 million customers, while at the same time also approving up to a 10 percent rate decrease for other eligible customers. Citizens Property Insurance Corp. had frozen its rates for three years but state lawmakers this past session agreed to end the freeze in 2010 as part of an effort to bolster the finances of the state-created company.

The vote to raise some premiums, however, followed a contentious discussion over whether thousands of customers should get a decrease if computer models showed they were eligible. Most of the company’s South Florida customers are in line to get rate hikes early next year. But those living in other parts of the state, such as Sarasota, Duval, Santa Rosa and Escambia counties, are eligible for actual decreases.

Some members of the Citizens board, however, said no one should get a rate decrease at a time when Citizens is collecting $1.8 billion less than it needs to be financially sound. They warned - unsuccessfully - that all insurance customers throughout the state will get hit with surcharges if Citizens can't pay its claims in the event of a major hurricane.

Also on the housing front, local officials charged with overseeing the federally-backed effort peppered state officials with questions this week as they geared up to begin offering a $30 million state-backed program to help first-time homebuyers in less than three weeks.

State lawmakers earlier this year set aside $30 million to help qualified buyers tap into the tax credit program without having to come up with the down payment on their own. Homeowners would, in turn, repay the state after receiving the federal tax credit. But some local housing officials say they may not be ready to open their doors Aug. 1 as they deal with questions about eligibility, repayment and whether the state will get caught holding the bag for the Florida Home Buyer Opportunity Program, or FHOP.

Representatives from the Florida Housing Finance Corp., acknowledged Tuesday that some communities are more ready than others to help lead prospective buyers through the process.

Elsewhere, saying they ran into opposition from leery local governments, advocates of diverting the mentally ill from prisons, jails and high-security mental hospitals said this week they would push for legislation again next to do so.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The doldrums of summer were shaken up this week by news from the various campaign trails about fundraising. And the biggest drums where beaten by Gov. Charlie Crist, who raised more per day than some campaigns managed to squeeze out in the whole three month fundraising period.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Once you hire staff, you've got to start paying them," Florida Association of District School Superintendents CEO and state Senate candidate Bill Montford, describing why he hasn’t hired staff - a problem that will be bigger for some than others after a busy week of “can you top this” fundraising.

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