Senate postpones controversial Citizens vote

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Maria Mallory White and Kathleen Haughney

Published April 19, 2013


In the wake of intensifying pressure from consumer advocates and increasing misgivings from fellow lawmakers, a massive bill to overhaul Citizens Property Insurance Corp. may not have the votes to pass the Senate.

Sen. David Simmons, author of the sweeping and controversial bill to reform the state-funded property insurer, requested and received a temporary postonement of Tuesday's scheduled final vote by the full senate.

In announcing the postponement, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, provided no reason for the delay. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, the ranking democratic member on the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee and an opponent of the bill, said that Democrats were told Simmons simply needed more time to make some last-minute changes to the legislation.

Simmons' request has some onlookers doubting the Altamonte Springs Republican can corral the support necessary to get the bill (SB1770) passed in its current form.

"I know this is looking to be a very close vote," Clemens said.

The bill has faced increasingly strident opposition since its inception. Gov. Rick Scott weighed in last week, asserting that Floridians should be shielded as much as possible from dramatic rate increases. In response, Simmons presented a watered-down version of his original proposal on the Senate floor last week.

Still, the revised proposal is intended to quickly shift more than one-seventh of Citizens' 1.3 million policies into the hands of private insurers, reduce the maximum value of properties that could be covered, impose higher rates on new policies, and make the company's executive director an appointee of the governor and state's chief financial officer.

Proponents, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, say the fixes are needed to reduce the size and financial risk Citizens places on all policyholders in Florida who face potentials assessment should the company comes up short in post-storm payouts. The Chamber and others support Simmons' goal of returning Citizens to its original mandate as the state's insurer of last resort.

Opponents, which include consumer advocates such as the Florida Association for Insurance Reform (FAIR) and Policyholders of Florida, spent Monday lobbying members to reject the proposal. They claim the measure could hinder the recovery of Florida's real estate market by raising costs on home buyers and homeowners, with new rates up to 90 percent higher in some parts of the state.

Simmons had hoped his proposal would be taken up by the House, which has been advancing only certain portions of the Senate package through a number of individual bills.

State Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, and himself a Citizens' customer, said he simply could not agree with portions of the proposal to kick current Citizens' customers out if there is a private insurer available charging within 10 percent of the Citizens' rate. He also objects to a part that would not insure houses that cost more than $500,000 to replace.

"In our area, that's not necessarily a really wealthy person's home," he said.

State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, for one, wants legislators to to walk away from the bill in any form.

"My hope is that the bill never gets voted on in the Senate and that any bill that would raise premiums on homeowners in the state of Florida would just die away," he said. "The legislature doesn't need to be dealing with that this year."

Separately, the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee, which is chaired by Simmons, voted to confirm Citizens President and CEO Barry Gilway. Gilway now faces a vote by the full Senate.