rivals unite in Legislature to rein in
property insurance rates
Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel
Hollis and Linda Kleindienst
Published January 15, 2007
TALLAHASSEE -- One is a heavy-set, Bronx-born Democrat, a lawyer
with a wife and two kids who lives in south Broward County. The other is
the wiry Republican son of a Long Island meat cutter, an unmarried
investment adviser who lives north of Tampa.
Seemingly everything, from politics to suit size, sets Steve Geller and
Mike Fasano apart. But when it comes to resolving the most combustible
issue -- Florida's insurance crisis -- these veteran state senators see
eye to eye.
In the statewide showdown over how to deal with wildly spiraling property
insurance costs, this odd tag team shows that when it comes to insurance,
there's a new political reality in Tallahassee.
As the Legislature prepares for a special session on insurance starting
Tuesday, the hue and cry of homeowners over premium costs has been heard
by legislators from Key West to Pensacola.
Realization of the situation's potentially devastating effect on Florida's
economy coupled with voter anger directed at all levels of government --
as witnessed during the fall elections -- have prompted a new attitude and
new coalitions among Republicans and Democrats, coastal residents and
Legislators who don't join in the broad and bipartisan drive to bring down
Floridians' property insurance rates might do so at risk to their
political futures. "There was an election, and we all got it,"
said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, a Republican whose landlocked
district is centered in Orlando. "People want us to work together to
solve the state's problems, not regional problems."
Last week, Webster stood alongside Geller and Fasano as a diverse group of
senators unveiled a bipartisan insurance plan they hope will reduce
premium rates across the state by as much as 40 percent.
Joked House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, "The House
and Senate are now competing to see who can build a better mousetrap.
Perhaps an election cycle really can change perspective."
Helping fan the fire of change is newly inaugurated Republican Gov.
Charlie Crist, who spent a year on the campaign trail touting the need for
statewide insurance reforms, and who began his four-year tenure as
governor this month insisting that his No. 1 priority would be easing
homeowner insurance costs.
Crist has already thrown down the gauntlet, demanding that any changes by
the Legislature must result in "meaningful and broad-based rate
reductions." He said he learned during his campaign that Floridians
won't accept anything less.
"We've heard the people's demand, and it's to reduce rates now,"
Only a year ago, Republican legislators from Florida's interior led the
way in crafting legislation that forced radically higher rates, especially
for policy holders whose homes are covered by Citizens Property Insurance
Corp., the state-backed company that covers homes the private insurers
won't. Citizens now has 1.2 million policies, about half of them in South
Florida's high-risk zones, mostly coastal areas east of Interstate 95.
Because Citizens ran up a deficit of roughly $2.3 billion after the
devastating back-to-back hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, a statewide
assessment on all homeowner policies was levied to help mop up the red
ink. That irked many who weren't in the path of those storms, especially
Floridians who live far from salt water.
"This whole Citizens insurance is a joke," said Tom Little, 59,
a Winter Park retiree. "A whole lot of us in inland Florida are
paying for people who choose to live, not forced to live, on the coast. I
am subsidizing their insurance."
Critics of last year's legislation, including Fasano and Geller, contend
the changes were made because legislators were pressed by the insurance
lobby to make private insurance more attractive at the expense of
Citizens. They say the inland legislators who controlled the debate went
along with the industry, thinking that the changes would have had less
effect on their constituents. But because legislators also amended state
law to allow private insurers to boost their rates, inland constituents,
already compelled to pay the special assessment to bail out Citizens,
ended up just as riled as folks on the coast.
The widespread fury among Floridians has rattled legislators of almost
every political stripe, forced conservatives to consider mandating more
government intrusion into the private sector, and made politicians more
sensitive to consumer needs.
"I'm a farmer, not an insurance guy," said Sen. J.D. Alexander,
R-Lake Wales, an in-lander who helped craft last year's industry-friendly
insurance bill. "I try to do my part to understand the issue. But
we'll do our best to make a good bill and we'll see what the effects are
and if it needs adjustment, we'll come back and adjust it again."
Some South Florida legislators say consumer-friendlier solutions are
emerging in the Legislature because more people are engaged in the debate.
"The public is tuned in on this issue like none other," said
Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, chairman of the Palm Beach County
legislative delegation. "Politicians get parochial when they don't
think the public is paying attention. But the public is engaged and
High on the special session's agenda is a repeal of rate increases decreed
by Citizens. But because legislators realize that the insurance crisis is
now statewide, legislation is also being tailored to address the cry for
relief from homeowners covered by private companies.
These privately insured includes many South Florida residents who have
been hit with double- and triple-digit rate hikes in recent months.
Shirley Scheyer, 75, a retiree living west of Boca Raton, has lived in her
home for 27 years. It never sustained hurricane damage until Hurricane
Wilma barreled through her neighborhood in 2005. Her insurance bill went
from $2,800 to $8,478. She wants legislators to bring down her rates, but
to do the same for other Floridians, too.
"I have no quarrel with Citizens, and I'm willing to help everyone
who needs it, but I want the legislators to help everyone," said
Scheyer, who knocked the bill down to $5,160 after her home was inspected.
"I will not be tossed out of my house because of this."