Special session might be called

It appears likely that legislators will return to Tallahassee after the September primaries for a special session to come up with some near-term solutions to the state's insurance crisis.


Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald


Published  August 24, 2006

Florida lawmakers could soon be making a return trip to the state capital to wrestle with the state's deepening insurance crisis.

Heeding the pleas of beleaguered businesses and homeowners, Gov. Jeb Bush is talking about concrete proposals that could be tackled during a special session shortly after the September primaries.

While Bush still maintains the need to have ''consensus'' before he calls legislators back to Tallahassee, he said, "There's one really good reason why to [proceed], which is: People are hurting.

''Businesses can't get insurance for their assets. The price is making it harder for people to expand the economy,'' Bush said Wednesday in Tallahassee. "Homeowners, particularly seniors on fixed income, are having a tough time making ends meet.''

Here are some of the possible near-term solutions being discussed. The newly formed Property and Casualty Insurance Reform Committee, chaired by Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings, will expand on these proposals:

 Make it easier for insurance companies to tap the state's Catastrophic Fund, which provides reinsurance, or insurance for insurance companies.

 Beef up a program that gives homeowners subsidies and insurance breaks to strengthen their homes.

This $250 million program was just bolstered with $100 million from the federal government, and Bush says he would like to see the program funded year after year.

 Provide subsidies from windfall tax surpluses to keep insurance premiums low, particularly in the Citizens Property Insurance pool.

 Remove the building-code exemption that allows the construction industry to build weaker homes.

 Give the insurance consumer advocate great power, similar to the public counsel who represents consumers in utility rate cases before the Florida Public Service Commission.

 Allow offshore reinsurance companies to more easily enter the Florida market.

 Lower commissions that insurance agents charge when they put homeowners in Citizens.

SERIES OF MEETINGS

The insurance reform committee meets in Orlando today as part of a series of meetings it is holding.

''Allowing insurers to buy more reinsurance from the state's CAT Fund is a quick, easy solution'' because it allows insurers to write more policies, said Alex Soto, president of InSource, a Dadeland insurance agency, and incoming president of Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, a national trade group.

One solution that won't be up for debate: Allowing insurers to raise rates.

''We're trying to provide support so [insurers] don't have to raise premiums,'' Bush said. Higher rates have played a big role in prior legislative fixes.

Senate President Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican, is also skeptical about the continued demand for higher rates from insurers.

''How can you have a free market when you don't even have a market? The people saying this are the people with a monopoly,'' Lee said.

INSURANCE BILL

The massive insurance bill passed in May already allows insurers to raise rates in small increments without regulatory approval, a move that dismayed many South Floridians who have seen their premiums double in recent years. This bill also requires the state-run insurance pool, the largest insurer in the Florida, to push up rates to build reserves more rapidly.

''It seems to me that the Legislature had to make a choice between homeowners and insurance companies. My insurance bill tells me exactly who they voted with,'' wrote Nancy Trowbridge of Boca Raton in a letter to legislative leaders earlier this week.

For months, Democrats have said Republican leaders didn't do enough to fix insurance during the regular lawmaking session. A Democratic windstorm subsidy plan was never even discussed, they said.

POLITICAL SHORTFALL

''This is a tacit admission not only that the Republicans failed, but that people are angry about this. And finally these guys are paying attention,'' said incoming House Minority Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach.

But ''the idea that we have to wait until we agree in a backroom for a consensus to agree is absolutely crazy,'' Gelber added.

Bush is still in the process of figuring out which ideas need immediate attention -- and have a good chance of passing in the Legislature.

''If there's a consensus on how to proceed, we will call a special session because I believe that we're in a crisis mode and there's no reason to wait,'' said Bush. "So we're working on the consensus, first by vetting the ideas, then by engaging members of the Legislature.''

Bush said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn't yet spoken to House Speaker Allan Bense about the proposal.

Bense said he would need to hear more, but fretted that the looming elections could complicate matters.

Clearly, businesses and homeowners don't need consensus. They're convinced there's a crisis.

Insurance was one of the key topics at this week's International Council of Shopping Centers state convention in Orlando. If a commercial property Joint Underwriting Association isn't formed soon, industry leaders say it is going to mean a devastating blow to the economy.

MECHANICS OF JUA

The Florida Cabinet last week approved the formation of a commercial JUA. Insurance regulators are working out the mechanics of how it would operate.

It could sell insurance to property owners and businesses directly or provide reinsurance to commercial insurers.

But that's a short-term fix. The shopping center association launched a petition drive at the convention, collecting signed letters from nearly 1,000 property owners, developers and retailers that will be delivered to both state and federal officials, demanding a special session.

On the federal level, retail property owners are calling for congressional hearings to examine the insurance industry's need for such massive rate hikes, which in extreme cases have jumped more than 800 percent.

The Beacon Council, the Miami-Dade economic development agency, is studying how the sharply higher cost of insurance is affecting the county's ability to attract and expand local business.


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INSURANCE DISASTER