TALLAHASSEE - Providing substantial rate relief for policyholders of the state-run insurer is the thorniest issue left for lawmakers as they scramble to hammer out a final insurance reform bill.
But there's little time to investigate and debate some very complex plans.
Between today and Monday afternoon when the week-long special session ends, they must reconcile almost-opposite approaches to Citizens Property Insurance.
The stakes are huge. The House and Senate have passed a package of bills that offer options for homeowners to lower their insurance premiums -- from strengthening their homes to selecting less coverage. While legislative leaders believe differences on those and other consumer-related issues can be resolved, the differences that divide them on Citizens could become a deal-breaker.
''I won't agree to something that doesn't allow some changes at Citizens,'' said Sen. Bill Posey, a Rockledge Republican and chairman of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. "It's probably one of the most important things we can do for lowering rates.''
Both Senate and House plans for Citizens start out in the same place: eliminate a proposed 56-percent rate hike, do away with a 25 percent hike that was to kick in Jan. 1, freeze rates at 2006 levels for one year, and no longer require the insurer to charge the highest rates in the state.
Although these measures would provide real relief, rates could remain at unaffordable levels for some Citizens policyholders.
Gov. Charlie Crist repeated his call for significant rate reductions Thursday, which he now says must be at least 25 percent across the board, including for Citizens -- with more than 459,000 policyholders in South Florida and nearly 1.3 million throughout the state.
''The idea and reason for being here is to reduce rates, and we have said it over and over again,'' said the governor after a cabinet meeting.
Senate leaders believe Citizens needs to change to realize future rate reductions for its policyholders. They propose allowing the insurer to expand so it could write other more profitable lines of insurance, such as fire, theft and liability on homes.
Citizens officials champion this idea because, they say, it would allow the insurer to collect more premiums and spread risk over a larger pool of policyholders.
Such a plan, Citizens has said in the past week, could mean a near 20-percent rate drop on windstorm insurance for Citizens policyholders in South Florida. But the rate savings would work out only for homeowners who choose to have all their home coverage under Citizens.
The governor is amendable to the idea.
''I think the more we make Citizens competitive, the more we give them an opportunity to have lower rates and not be the insurer of last resort as it has been and have the highest rates,'' said Crist.
House leaders, though not opposed to an eventual restructuring of Citizens, don't go that far now.
The House proposals offer some management changes, such as removing the board of governors, and some operational changes, such as allowing premiums to be paid in installments and setting up a task force to review outstanding claims and suggest ways to resolve them -- all meant to make life somewhat easier for Citizens policyholders.
But the House would prefer to defer making broader changes at Citizens until the regular session when there's more time to study such a complex, and possibly risky, venture.
Under the Senate plan, Citizens would be taking on more risk. If there's a massive storm in the next couple of years and the insurer hasn't raised enough reserves, any rate savings for policyholders -- with any insurer -- could be wiped out by assessments.
After waiting out its year with frozen rates, the insurer would most likely have to file for rate increases to start kicking in January of 2008 that would bring rates back to actuarially sound levels, required by law. This could be done over a period of time.
''We have been saying all along that the expansion of Citizens may have merit or may not have merit, but [that's] impossible to determine because we have such limited time,'' House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Coral Gables Republican, said late Thursday.
A strong voice in the Citizens debate could turn out to be Alex Sink, the state's newly elected chief financial officer.
She, too, would like more time to study the ramifications and impact of expanding Citizens' operations, though she said the idea "has merit.''
Sink is urging lawmakers to ask Citizens to draw up a business plan before the start of the Legislature's regular session.
''Show us your numbers. Show us how [you] would operate under this new environment,'' said Sink. "Just like any new business, we should see if they can handle the business.''
Writing a complete homeowners policy that includes windstorm coverage as well as fire, theft and liability wouldn't be entirely new for Citizens. It already provides those coverages for more than 738,000 homes in the state, including 110,000 policies in the high-risk coastal areas.
To be sure, both House and Senate leaders want Citizens policyholders to enjoy a rate cut, possibly along the same lines that could be achieved from another proposal that helps out the policyholders of private insurance companies.
Depending on which plan is finally approved, there could be savings on the windstorm portion of home insurance if private companies take advantage of buying lower cost reinsurance from an expanded catastrophe fund.
But even the governor may be increasingly resigned to the shortage of time to study ways to change Citizens.
''I don't think it needs to be done in the next five days, but it needs to be done soon,'' Crist said.
Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican and a key negotiator on the Citizens' piece of the House plan, said that the bills may fall short of meeting the governor's goal.
''You have the governor saying that he wants 25 percent, across the board, and my assumption is he means that for Citizens, too,'' she said. "We would have to do more than what we currently have on the table to accomplish that goal.''
Said Crist: "Let's face facts. We're in the insurance business now . . . so we're already here, why not make it a company that can compete? I hope the private insurance companies aren't afraid of competition.''