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Update: Processing of rape kits, life insurance payouts

February 17, 2016
By SEN. LIZBETH BENACQUISTO , Lehigh Acres Citizen

With next week's conclusion, we are three weeks away from the end of the legislative session.

Although Tallahassee is a long way from home, the citizens I have the privilege of representing are in my thoughts when I am away.

I encourage you to share any thoughts that you have with me while I am in Tallahassee.

SB 636: Making rape victims a priority

This week one of my top priorities passed its second committee of reference. SB 636 calls for rape kits to be timely processed in the state of Florida. Nationally and in our state, there is an epidemic of sexual assault kits going untested.

Florida took the first step towards fixing this problem in our state last fiscal year. Florida funded an audit of law enforcement agencies statewide, run by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, to wrap our arms around the size of the issue in our state.

The data collected shows that we have the opportunity in Florida to help thousands of victims. In our state there are thousands of rape kits that are on backlog and untested. Testing these kits would provide valuable evidence that will help law enforcement and states' attorneys lock up predators.

This bill provides that any DNA evidence collected in a sexual assault investigation must be submitted to a member of the statewide criminal analysis laboratory system for forensic testing within 30 days after the forensic evidence is received by a law enforcement agency, or earlier if the request is made by a victim, a victim's parent or guardian, or the alleged victim's representative if deceased.

The kit must then be tested with 120 days from submission.

Rape kit testing sends a two tiered message. To all survivors it says that they matter and so do their cases. It sends a message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes. They will be brought to justice.

Please join me in providing a solution to testing evidence faster and helping victims in Florida.

SB 966: Promises made, promises kept

SB 966 is one of the most important bills filed this year, and I am incredibly proud to be the sponsor. The bill will make sure that life insurance companies honor the promises that they make to families when they sell an insurance policy.

Starting in 2008, Florida and 43 other states began auditing life insurance companies for compliance with state unclaimed property laws. Many life insurance companies have held onto policy benefits until they are contacted by a beneficiary. If never contacted, the company never pays the benefit.

I think they should be proactive about making sure the benefit is paid if one of their policy holders has passed. In difficult times, taking steps to help return policy benefits to consumers could help millions of families.

The auditor's strategy involved comparing policy information to data maintained in Social Security's Death Master File, a database used to ensure Social Security benefits are not paid beyond an individual's death.

Some life insurers were in the practice of using the Death Master File to determine whether they could stop payment on annuities. These same insurers would not use the Death Master File to determine whether their life insurance policyholders had died and had to be paid benefits.

As a result of these settlements, $5 billion has been returned to consumers nationwide. In Florida specifically, $340 million has been returned directly to Floridians from insurance companies and $168 million has been remitted to the state as unclaimed property.

This bill will amend Florida statutes to require life insurance companies to consult the Death Master File, which would hold all insurance companies to the same requirements as those that participated in the earlier settlements. This will help return valuable benefits to Floridians

Lake Okeechobee discharges, budget

As we get into our budget negotiations in Tallahassee, I am focused on ensuring that we find the funding to will help solve Florida's ongoing water crisis.

Southwest Florida water quality projects were prioritized over many projects in the state's budget last year, however many in the Legislature understand that Amendment 1 funds weren't implemented to the full satisfaction of the people we have the honor of serving.

That is why I was the very first co-sponsor of the Legacy Florida bill sponsored by Sen. Negron in the Senate. This bill dedicates 25 percent of Amendment 1 funds towards Everglades projects that implement the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, the Long-Term Plan or the Northern Everglades and Estuaries Protection Program.

Finding a dedicated funding source such as this will ensure that the projects most important to water quantity and quality can move forward with funding stability, and we can finally finish projects rather than leaving them in the planning or construction phases.

It is important that we are proactive on this issue. This year we have already seen record rainfall. We need a diversified approach to solving this problem, which includes calling upon the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress to finish repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike. It should also include keeping dispersed water storage projects on line, especially during peak rainfall seasons to add to our storage capabilities especially in times of emergency.

That is why I have supported budget amendments that help add storage in the short term, so that more water can be safely stored in Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto represents District 30 in the Florida Senate. Contact her at (239) 338-2570. Her district office is at 2310 First St., Unit 305, Fort Myers.



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