Fla. Legislature Passes Hurricane Insurance Bill in Final Hours of Session

May 8, 2006

The Florida Legislature passed and sent to Gov. Jeb Bush a plan Friday they hope will be a long-term fix for the state’s ailing property insurance market but one that its architects admit won’t provide much short-term relief for residents with spiraling premiums.

The Senate passed the measure 22-16 and the House followed with a 77-39 vote in the last hour of the annual session.

The issue was one of lawmakers’ highest priorities with more and more property insurers refusing to do business in a state ravaged by eight hurricanes in the last two years. Facing the prospect of a more active storm cycle, the Legislature is trying to make the state more attractive for companies to insure homes. They hope that if more companies do, rates will come down.

“We are facing a severe insurance crisis here in the state of Florida,” said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “We don’t have the luxury of not coming to terms with it.”

The wide-ranging bill would allow for a gradual move to higher rates for customers of Citizens Property Insurance, the state-created company that was created to provide coverage for those who can’t get private coverage but now is the second largest insurer in the state.

Backers of the bill say the company’s rates are unrealistically low and that’s why it has come up short in the last couple years. When Citizens has a shortfall, every homeowner in the state sees their bill go up as they pay an assessment to cover Citizens’ losses. The bill aims in part to shift some of that burden on to Citizens customers and away from other Florida homeowners.

It also provides $715 million in tax money to ease that burden on homeowners now, putting the money into Citizens to erase much of the shortfall from the last two years. That means that rather than facing the prospect of paying nearly $200 for every $1,000 of premium, Florida homeowners will now pay around $10 a year over the next 10 years to cover Citizens’ shortfall.

The measure also aims to make it easier for private insurance companies to tap into the state’s insurance backup account, known as the Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, that essentially provides insurance for the insurers. It also would allow companies in areas where “a reasonable degree of competition exists” to raise rates by 10 percent in that area once a year without regulatory approval.

Backers of the bill say that right now, there aren’t many areas, if any, that would be considered competitive.

The effort was a balancing act, trying to make it more palatable for companies to do business here, yet trying to keep rates from going so high that Floridians can’t afford it.

It was also a compromise between the House and Senate, and one many lawmakers voted for reluctantly.

“It’s not an ideal bill, but right now we’ve got to buy some time,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. “I don’t want to go back to the citizens I represent and tell them, ‘I brought you nothing.’ I would rather go back and tell them we tried to do something.”

A number complained that there was no guarantee it would bring insurance companies back, and didn’t do anything to quickly eliminate the biggest problem, that of skyrocketing rates.

“I’ve heard it called a Band-Aid over a bullet wound,” said Rep. Greg Evers, R-Baker. “Well, you’ve got to start somewhere.”

“The problem is you’ve left the bullet in the body,” responded Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, who said the Legislature should get rid of Citizens Property Insurance and replace it with a state program that provides some coverage for everyone in Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush has not committed to signing the bill, but helped negotiate the compromise and has said all along that the state must do something to restore the insurance market.

“We’ve got to have insurance reform so we can continue to grow as a state,” Bush said Friday a couple hours before the measure passed.
Another part of the legislation that supporters trumpeted as extremely important in lowering rates was a provision aimed at reducing hurricane losses in the first place.

That section creates matching grants for homeowners to make improvements to their houses to make them more storm-sturdy.
The $250 million program is aimed at lowering insurance companies’ liability.

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