Crist's proposal for Citizens draws lawmakers' opposition

Article Courtesy of The Orlando Sentinel

By John Kennedy & Jason Garcia
Published  April 29, 2007


With Florida lawmakers consumed this spring in debate over how to lower property taxes, talk of the state's other pocketbook crunch -- the high cost of hurricane insurance -- has been largely muted.

But with the 2007 session entering its final week, that's about to change.

Florida lawmakers are poised for a last-minute showdown over Citizens Property Insurance Corp. That's the government-run insurance company once considered the state's insurer of last resort, but which now covers more than 1.3 million Floridians, many of whom live along the state's vulnerable coastlines.

Gov. Charlie Crist has been aggressively lobbying legislators to adopt changes designed to expand Citizens by holding down its rates through an extension of an existing rate freeze and letting it compete more directly with the private insurance industry. The governor sees a competitive Citizens as a way to force private insurance carriers to lower rates or risk losing business.

But the governor faces heated opposition, particularly from inland lawmakers. They fear that allowing Citizens to issue more policies will make it more likely that customers of private insurance carriers -- including most Central Florida homeowners -- will be taxed to bail Citizens out should it run out of money following another hurricane, as happened following the 2004 and 2005 storm seasons.

"There's concern," said House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami. "Largely regional. Largely depending on whether you live in an area that has a lot of Citizens concentration or not."

The dispute stems from a sweeping insurance overhaul the Legislature adopted in an emergency session earlier this year.

That law made it possible for the first time for Florida homeowners to voluntarily choose to enroll in Citizens even if a private carrier also offers to sell them coverage. They can only select Citizens, however, if the private company's rates are at least 25 percent higher.

Crist, however, wants that threshold lowered to 15 percent, if not eliminated. He also wants to extend a current Citizens rate freeze -- which was adopted as part of the special session insurance law -- from Jan. 1, 2008 to Jan. 1, 2009.

Though bills aimed at making the changes limped through the first eight weeks of the nine-week session, the governor made it clear last week that he doesn't intend to let the issue slip away.

In a news conference aimed at pressuring lawmakers into forging a compromise on property taxes, Crist also brought along Stan Whitney, a Port Charlotte retiree whom the governor has transformed into the face of the state's insurance crisis.

"We have to finish strong," Crist said into a phalanx of cameras and microphones. "These have been the twin towers of financial issues that have been crushing our people."

Rubio, himself a Citizens customer, said the governor's issue will be taken up on the House floor. Look for the Senate to pass it and ship it to the House for a final vote.

"That will be addressed, one way or another," Rubio said.