Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
May 10, 2007
Floridians hoping for insurance and property tax relief were disappointed
when neither appeared as the legislative session closed last week. But there
is some good news for homeowners and consumers tucked among the bills now
awaiting Gov. Charlie Christ's signature.
Home inspectors would have to be licensed and more accountable, as would
mold inspection and cleanup specialists. Homeowners may be eligible for an
interest-free loan for storm-proofing improvements such as hurricane
shutters. And low-income Floridians will be automatically enrolled in a
program that provides a $13.50 monthly credit toward basic phone service.
"Given that the overarching theme was property taxes, I'm sure
consumers won't feel it's a good year until that's addressed," said
Leslie Spencer, associate state director for advocacy with AARP, the senior
citizen and consumer lobbying group. "But there were some good
provisions that went through for consumers that could save money and provide
access to more programs."
Two bills that should help homeowners slipped by with little fanfare.
The first, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Wise, requires licensing, testing and
certification of mold and home inspectors, as well as mold clean-up
specialists, by 2010. Consumers currently have little recourse against these
professionals as they are not licensed or regulated.
Wise, R-Jacksonville, said he had to spend more than $5,000 in repairs to a
condo he purchased, even though an inspector he hired claimed the unit was
in good condition. "He had no license so there wasn't much I could
do," Wise said.
Another bill expands the popular My Safe Florida Home program, which gives
matching grants up to $5,000 to Florida homeowners for improvements to
better protect their residences from hurricanes. The state now would help
provide interest-free loans to lower-income consumers who could not
immediately put up their share of the costs to start the projects.
Of course, there's some bad news, too, according to consumer advocates and
One bill that passed would allow landlords two charge two months' rent to
tenants who break their leases, even if their units already have been
re-rented. Lawmakers failed to pass legislation that would have required
product rebates be issued within 15 days of meeting retailers' requirements.
And hospitals won't be required to post their nursing staffing levels so
patients and their families could easily check them.
"The argument was that consumers would not be able to understand what
the [staffing levels] meant. I give consumers a little more credit than
that," said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, who sponsored the nursing bill.
"We already have transparency for infection and mortality rates in
hospitals. Why not add transparency for nurse staffing ratios?"
Bill Newton, executive director of the Consumer Action Network, said
insurance companies might use the mold inspector guidelines to block claims
by homeowners who didn't use certified professionals. But he supports
licensing mold cleanup specialists. "You want the best people you can
find to do that job," he said.
Lawmakers also passed a bill to deregulate cable television. But advocates
are divided on whether the legislation is good or bad for consumers.
AARP supports the proposed law -- primarily because it includes a provision
to automatically enroll low-income Floridians in Lifeline, a program that
provides a $13.50 monthly credit toward basic phone service. The bill also
would eliminate previous legislative action that allowed phone companies to
raise rates, a move that could save consumers up to $157 million, AARP said.
But the Florida Public Interest Research Group and several others are
pressing Crist to veto the legislation, known as Consumer Choice Act. They
say the bill will not necessarily lead to lower cable and phone rates but
instead will bypass local accountability, reducing the number of public
access channels and giving dissatisfied customers less ability to voice