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Tampa Bay Times

Four things that could affect Florida business this summer. One involves flood insurance.

The state has already had a pile of big business stories this year.

Blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, on the east coast of Florida. Associated Press

Blue-green algae enveloping an area along the St. Lucie River in Stuart, on the east coast of Florida. Associated Press

By Graham Brink
Published May 30
Updated May 31
It’s already been a busy year for Florida business.

The governor signed off on 350 miles of new toll roads, Amazon struck a deal to bring an air cargo hub to Lakeland, and several South Florida companies were caught up in the largest Medicare scam in history.

Closer to home, health care giant Centene announced the purchase of WellCare Health Plans, one of the area’s largest corporations, and home sales kept chugging along, though they have shown signs of wavering.

What happens next? I’m no fortune teller, but here are four things to keep an eye on this summer.

Algae watch

Reports of slimy green algae plagued the state last summer. The worst of the toxic brew flowed out of Lake Okeechobee and contaminated the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee rivers, killing fish and other marine life. It smelled awful and hurt businesses, from fishing guides to name-brand hotels. Photos and video of the brightly colored ooze beamed across the world. Not a good look for a state so reliant on tourism.

Are we in for a repeat performance?

So far, experts have spotted only a few small algae blooms on the lake, which didn’t stick around long and were only mildly toxic. More good news: Nutrient levels aren’t as high as recent years.

The Army Corps of Engineers has also kept the lake’s water levels lower, which reduces the risk of needing a large-scale discharge into the two rivers as the state enters the rainy season.

Flood insurance

Late last year, Congress extended the National Flood Insurance Program until May 31, the 10th short-term continuation since September 2017. That’s 10 failed opportunities for lawmakers to come up with a long-term fix.

More recently, the flood program was caught up in the fight over a $19.1 billion disaster aid package that lawmakers have argued over for months. The bill extends the flood program until September, pushing the problem off until the middle of hurricane season.

On Thursday, lawmakers approved an emergency 14-day extension of the flood program, so it wouldn’t expire while they fight over the disaster aid package.

The idea is for lawmakers to figure out a permanent solution for the program, which has hemorrhaged money since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The debt load — now more than $20 billion — got worse after Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston in 2017 and Hurricane Irma raked Florida the same year.

Mortgage companies require many homeowners to buy flood insurance, but few private insurers offer the coverage. That leaves the tattered national program, which can’t go on losing money. It needs a major overhaul, but it’s hard to believe that Congress will come up with a remedy soon. Expect them to punt again.

Assignment of benefits

You may have heard the buzz about “assignment of benefits” lawsuits. They involve policyholders who grant third parties like construction contractors or windshield repair companies the right to bill insurers on their behalf.

The lawsuits have become all the rage. In 2004, there were less than 10,000, according to the Florida Justice Reform Institute. By 2017, the number nearly hit 100,000.

Florida’s “one-way” attorney fee law helped drive the increase. In assignment of benefit cases, insurers could be held liable for all attorneys’ fees if they lost a case. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, were not obligated to pay the insurers’ attorneys fees. The idea was to level the playing field for consumers when they took on large insurance companies.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys argued that the arrangement helped ensure that insurers paid a fair price, instead of letting them get away with lowball estimates. Critics pushed back in recent years, saying contractors and attorneys abused the system by running up large legal bills, especially in water damage cases. Insurers complained that the numerous lawsuits forced them to increase rates, contributing to the high cost of insurance in Florida.

Gov. Ron DeSantis came down on the side of the insurers. He recently signed a bill that limited attorneys’ fees in assignment of benefits lawsuits filed by contractors. The bill also allows insurers to offer policies that restrict or ban people from signing their rights over to a third party.

The changes to the law should curtail the number of lawsuits, unless cagey attorneys find a way around it.

The law takes effect July 1.

Rays attendance

The Tampa Bay Rays are winning a lot of games. They play a fun brand of baseball, and the players are easy to get behind.

Still, Tropicana Field feels like a graveyard.

On Tuesday night, the Rays drew a record-low turnout of 5,786 against the Toronto Blue Jays. The Tampa Bay Rowdies, a second-division soccer team, averaged better than that last year.

If it was just a one-game blip, it wouldn’t matter. But Rays attendance has been dismal for years. If the popular New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox didn’t come to town several times a year, the numbers would look even worse.

The Rays have explored stadium sites in Tampa. The team also has been linked with moves to other cities including Las Vegas, Charlotte and Portland. They won’t be going anywhere soon, but the rationale for staying in St. Petersburg is hanging by a thread.

Will another summer of lousy attendance end the argument once and for all?

Contact Graham Brink at [email protected]. Follow @GrahamBrink.