Next Speaker Not Seeing Insurance Relief

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

Published  December 7, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - No current political plan offers dramatic relief from soaring property insurance rates, the new speaker of the Florida House said yesterday.

"I don't think anyone is claiming to have that plan yet," said Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Miami. "It is the goal. We'll continue to search until we get there."

Rubio was speaking toward the end of a three-day special conference on insurance issues, designed to prepare members of the House for a special legislative session in January.

Rubio was saying publicly what experts have been saying for months. Other politicians, though, are starting to talk about another probable reality that may be even more upsetting for homeowners who have seen their rates double and double again in recent years.

"I think we can all agree that cheap insurance is not going to be available in Florida," said Alex Sink, a Democrat and former bank executive from Thonotosassa who will become Florida's new chief financial officer in January.

Asked whether that meant that rates are unlikely to return to the levels of two or three years ago, Sink said that's probably the case.

"But we have to have affordable insurance. We have to reach a point of equilibrium," she added, expressing hope for long-term stability in the market.

During the legislative conference, legislators offered numerous ideas on how to deal with the insurance crisis, which erupted after eight hurricanes hit Florida from 2004 to 2005, causing more than $30 billion in damages. Among them:

•Temporarily freezing all rate increases

•Using 1 cent of state sales tax revenue to fund a hurricane loss fund

•Adopting a statewide building code

•Increasing - or dramatically decreasing - regulation of insurance companies

•Increasing state funding for mitigation programs

Rep. Kevin Ambler, a Tampa Republican, suggested a big-government plan to use taxpayer money to build 10 huge supply storage depots across the state stocked with bulk-purchased building materials and supplies

He said that would give contractors a dependable, affordable source for repair material after a storm. Theoretically, the savings would get passed on, resulting in lower insurance claims.

Rubio noted that the core of the debate is how much of a role the state - and thus taxpayers - should have in the insurance market. State-run Citizens Property Tax Insurance Corp. was created to be an insurer of last resort, but many private companies have stopped writing policies after massive hurricane losses, and Citizens is now the largest insurer in the state, with about 1.3 million policyholders.

When Citizens loses money, taxpayers and policyholders foot the bill.

"I don't think anyone is saying a complete government takeover on one extreme, and no one is saying a complete government hands-off on the other extreme," Rubio said. "There's going to be a need - at least in the short term - for government involvement."

"How you structure that is what the debate is all about," he said.

Rep. Ralph Poppell, a Republican from Titusville, said there needs to be a hard look at whether Citizens is, in effect, setting market rates for the private sector. That was never the intention, but many legislators feel that a law that requires Citizens to have the highest rates in any market is outdated.

The idea was to discourage people from going to Citizens for insurance.

Rubio said that legislative committees will start working on a draft bill, with a goal of having one ready by early January. The weeklong special legislative session will start Jan. 16, with hopes that some legislation can be passed then.