Fla. Gubernatorial Hopefuls Focus on Rising Insurance Costs

Gerlinde Thomas doesn’t often get deeply involved in politics, and during a recent interview she wasn’t even 100 percent sure what party she’s in.

“I think I’m a registered Democrat,” said Thomas, a nurse who lives in Pinellas County, near St. Petersburg.

But she’s starting to pay close attention to the race for governor, primarily for one reason: her property insurance premiums have soared to the point she and her husband can barely afford it and she hopes someone can do something about it.

Like for many Florida homeowners, insurance costs have become a crisis for Thomas and her husband, and the No. 1 public policy issue in their mind.

“It’s big in our book,” Thomas said. “I’m looking to stay in Florida, hopefully until I retire. But as it looks now I won’t be able to. If I have to pay an insurance bill of three or four thousand dollars a year I can’t afford to live here.”

All four major candidates for governor know that the affordability and availability of homeowners insurance is on the mind of nearly every voter who owns a house.

Thomas’s experience isn’t out of the ordinary. She’s seen her annual premium for coverage by Citizens Property Insurance go from $600 a year to nearly $3,000 in the eight years she’s lived in her house. And that house is six miles from the Gulf coast, at the highest point in Pinellas County. She’s never had a hurricane claim.

Her decision on who to vote for may come down to whose plan seems to Thomas most likely to at least stabilize, if not lower, rates.

Unfortunately, all four candidates have extensive plans that are hard to wade through without a lot of knowledge about how insurance works.

And in the end, many experts — especially those in the insurance industry — say little can be done to immediately lower rates simply because it’s just plain risky to sell property insurance in a state surrounded by tropical waters that spawn hurricanes.

That’s not stopping Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher and Democrats Rod Smith and Jim Davis from trying to convince voters that they’ll fix the situation.

All of the candidates have had considerable dealings with hurricane insurance questions, but Gallagher probably has the most direct experience, including being the only one of the four who served as the state’s insurance commissioner.

He has, perhaps, the least rosy outlook — having said there are no silver bullets that will quickly lower premiums. He does have several proposals to try to stabilize rates, including making it easier for companies to get backup coverage by tapping into the state’s Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. Crist has proposed that too.

Gallagher is also a big proponent of trying to find ways to strengthen Floridians’ homes, and the agency he currently runs is administering a program to help people afford improvements.

Crist wants to require companies that sell any kind of coverage, such as car insurance, be also required to sell homeowners policies.

But several experts say such a plan might not stand up in court. Gallagher and others say companies would simply leave the state, which would then also have a car insurance crisis.

The insurance industry, obviously, would have a problem with the state telling private companies what they must sell, especially if would mean they could lose money.

“You can’t force Progressive and Geico to start selling homeowners,” said Sam Miller, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, which represents several major insurers. “Homeowners is the riskiest insurance business in the world right now.”

Crist also stands out from the rest of the field by saying Florida should find a way to make national insurance companies stand behind their Florida subsidiaries more. Crist has complained that Florida subsidiaries often have losses while their national parent companies have large profits.

Gallagher also has complained about that arrangement, but said that now that companies are allowed to do it, Florida can’t realistically “put the genie back in the bottle.”

Davis stands out from the other candidates by taking on a law the Legislature passed a couple years ago that clarified that wind insurers don’t have to pay for damage if they can prove it was caused by water, which is supposed to be covered by flood insurance.

Davis said that simply gives wind insurers an avenue to avoid paying claims and has promised to push to undo it, calling it a loophole.

His Democratic rival Smith voted for the law that clarifies that wind and water damage are separate and says it’s not a loophole, that flood insurance was created exactly for water damage.

Davis and Crist, who have both portrayed the industry as the enemy. One Davis TV ad has a couple of shadowy figures making a backroom deal as it mentions the insurance crisis.

Davis and Crist have both called for a more powerful consumer advocate to scrutinize rate requests, although there already is such a person in the state’s Office of Insurance Regulation. Davis has suggested putting the person directly in the governor’s office to give that person more access.

Industry officials say that doesn’t change the central issue in rate cases.

“No disrespect, but you could put a consumer advocate on the moon, and if that person is intellectually honest, they are going to support a lot of rate increases,” Miller said.

If there are lots of damaging hurricanes, and companies have to pay lots of claims, they have to raise rates, Miller argued.

That’s not what voters like Thomas want to hear. She and her husband are considering moving solely because their cost of living isn’t keeping up with wages, and insurance is the biggest part of that.

“We’re thinking of moving out of Florida, to Arizona or New Mexico,” she said. “I think we can afford to retire there.

“It’s a big disappointment.”