LIBERTO and TOM ZUCCO
TALLAHASSEE - An uncharacteristically agitated Gov. Charlie Crist pounded his desk Tuesday as he railed against insurance companies over a crisis in the homeowners market that has defied government resolution.
Premiums remain high, policies continue to be dropped and members of Florida's Cabinet, in a regular meeting Tuesday, seemed to agree on little else but a shared sense of frustration.
"Let's make sure, or find out, if these companies are adhering to the letter law. It's the law!" Crist roared, punctuating each word with a fist to the desk. "And there are consequences to not adhering to the law."
Crist heightened his anti-insurance rhetoric, wondering out loud whether companies are colluding to keep rates high despite new laws designed to lower them.
But it became clear after Crist's tirade that the rest of the Florida Cabinet doesn't necessarily think the best solution is to get tougher on insurers.
For example, Agricultural Commissioner Charles Bronson worries that by having state regulators make sweeping rejections of the higher premiums that insurance companies seek, homeowners may find themselves insured by companies that don't have the money to fully pay claims.
"Let's just be honest with everybody and not play games where nobody really knows what that coverage is going to be," Bronson said.
Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, the Cabinet's lone Democrat, suggested it might be time to undo the insurance law changes that were made in January.
"Let's go back to where we were before, if it's not going to make any difference," Sink said.
The entire Cabinet is under heavy political pressure to do something about insurance rates, but no one more so than Crist, who made crusading against insurance premiums central to his gubernatorial campaign and his first months in office.
January's special session of the Legislature, and the regular session that followed in the spring, were aimed to do just that. Lawmakers expanded the state's catastrophe fund to give retail insurance companies access to cheap backstop insurance, which would generate savings passed on to policyholders.
But it hasn't worked.
A few companies have simply declined to use the state fund because it's more profitable to buy reinsurance from an affiliated company, and many are adding extra layers of reinsurance to what they buy from the state, effectively negating the savings.
Lately, a few dozen companies have been asking for rate hikes in regulatory filings.
Policyholders are growing more angry as the promises of insurance premium relief evaporate.
"You lied to us and you betrayed us. ... I never should have trusted you," homeowner John Primrose of Holiday wrote in an e-mail to Crist in early July.
Complaining that his insurance rates remain high, Primrose said he is disappointed that Crist, who got his vote in November, "said he was going to do all this stuff, but he hasn't been able to deliver."
At the Cabinet meeting, Crist directed Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty to dig into insurance rate requests and try "ferreting out" the motive behind the increases being sought.
Crist told McCarty to use subpoenas on companies whose practices regulators question. The agency has the authority to issue subpoenas, but typically insurers respond voluntarily.
State Farm Florida already got a subpoena. The company has been ordered to appear at a hearing in mid August to explain why it wants to drop 50,000 coastal policies.
"We're not questioning their ability to do so, but they do have to follow underwriting guidelines," McCarty said. "If you're dropping 50,000 policies, you owe an explanation to the people of Florida."
Also, McCarty announced on Tuesday that regulators rejected State Farm's proposed rate decrease of 7 percent as too low, directing them to decrease rates by 11 to 12 percent. State Farm Florida has said since January that the 7 percent savings would be all that policyholders would see under the new law.
Although Crist was in high dudgeon, others on the Cabinet said the problem is more complicated than simply believing that insurance companies are "gaming the system" to preserve high premiums.
"I'm disappointed that the rates aren't coming down for some of these companies, but I think each company has a good argument to make, and I think that's why we have a process and the Office of Insurance Regulation," Attorney General Bill McCollum said.
After the meeting, McCollum said he doesn't believe rates will come down much until the state has a federal backstop for hurricane claims in the form of a national catastrophe fund.
Sink suggested the Legislature could take a step backward and get rid of the expanded state-run backup insurance fund, since it exposes the state to heavy hurricane losses and it's not translating into lower premiums.
"The thought has crossed my mind, too," Crist said.
"Let's get the people of Florida off the hook for the extra $12-billion that they'll be making up for in assessments," Sink said.
"It's a good thought, what the Legislature gave, they can taketh away," Crist said.
Then in his next breath, Crist reiterated his idea about forcing companies to adhere to the current law.
"There are a couple of good options we have for the people in the fight for them," Crist said.