Crist takes on insurance rates

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  January 14, 2007

Florida Republicans stunned the business community and shocked Democrats last week when they did something they never would have done under a Jeb Bush administration: They decided that when it comes to the state's insurance crisis, government is not the problem, it's the solution.

House and Senate leaders concluded that to reduce premiums, the state needs to get more control of the insurance industry, put money into government subsidies to help insurers buy backup insurance and impose tough new measures that make it harder for insurers to hide profits or shift costs.

The ideas were proposed by House and Senate leaders in a bipartisan display of unity, and Republicans openly admitted that many of the ideas came from Democrats. Those are the same Republicans who, just a few weeks ago, went out of their way to lower Floridians' expectations that a special session on insurance would lead to reduced bills for windstorm coverage.

Yet now, two days before that session is set to begin, they have done an about-face. The difference: the inauguration of Charlie Crist.

The Republican governor came into office with a populist agenda and a promise to accept nothing less than lower insurance rates. That, coupled with the defeat of 7 Republicans in the state House -- whose soft-on-insurance proposals for the past two years did not stop insurers from filing giant rate increases or dropping policies -- has been a wake-up call for the Republican-led Legislature.

''You cannot underestimate the impact Gov. Crist has had on this debate,'' said Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring a bill that includes the governor's proposals to crack down on insurance companies' profits. "He's the No. 1 driver behind the approach being taken by the Legislature.''

Crist may not have come up with the answers, ''but he framed the issue up front and hasn't backed down,'' said House Republican Leader Dan Webster, of Orlando, one of the Legislature's strongest conservatives.

Crist's public call for lower rates has given lawmakers the backbone to stand up to the insurance industry.

Insurance companies ''tell us they're going to leave; we're calling their bluff,'' said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a House Republican leader from Fort Lauderdale who is sponsoring one of six bills that would put more of Florida's insurance market under state control.

''There is no cover for somebody who wants to advance an insurance agenda right now,'' said Rep. Dan Gelber, the House Democratic leader from Miami Beach. By demanding lower insurance premiums, Gelber said, Crist "has pushed into the shadows all the industry apologists, or forced them to change their tune.''

Crist says the credit goes to the willingness of House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt "to listen to the people.''

At a press conference the day after the House announced its plan for six wide-ranging insurance bills, Crist was practically giddy that a Legislature once reluctant to tackle skyrocketing insurance premiums had embraced his approach.

''The powerless have now become the powerful, and that's an important and dramatic move,'' Crist said. He called it ''truly extraordinary'' and said he was ``probably the happiest guy you're going to find around Florida today.''

Rep. Webster matter-of-factly admitted that none of this would be possible if Jeb Bush -- who railed against government involvement in private enterprise -- were still governor.

Bush convened a task force on insurance reform that recommended proposals that shifted more of the risk of paying for storm damage to homeowners and rejected forcing insurers to undergo more scrutiny, such as requiring company officials to sign oaths of truth when they file their financial documents.

The House and Senate proposals are a significant shift from the present system because they put state coffers -- meaning, ultimately, taxpayers -- at risk of having to absorb massive losses from a monster storm, or a series of storms. But the trade-off is that homeowners would see their insurance bills go down this year after watching them rise by double digits for the past three years.

''Yes, it's a shift [of the risk] to taxpayers,'' Rep. Bogdanoff said. "If we do this, they will get short-term relief. But we either pay now or pay later, and we're taking a gamble. If you don't like to gamble, you need to go to the original plan, which is pay that [rising] premium.''

The business and insurance lobbies oppose the approach and prefer to let premiums increase in the belief that for too long the cost of insurance has not reflected the risk of loss.

''For the short term, you're going to be able to lower rates. In the long term, you're setting [the state] up for major failure,'' said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, the business-backed lobbying group.

The bipartisan support for the proposal is so widespread that Gelber, the Democratic leader, believes it has "taken away what might have been a partisan fight.''

The risk of the bipartisan support, Gelber said, is that if the gamble fails, the governor and both parties in the Legislature will have failed, too.

''They probably want all hands in the boat in case it goes down,'' he said.