Florida insurance crisis yields bipartisan efforts

With nowhere else to turn, Republicans reach out to Democrats

for insurance solutions in a rare show of bipartisan cooperation.

Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald

Published  January 22, 2007

It was a sight unseen in recent history: Top Democrats and Republicans pouring out of a secret meeting where they put ideology aside to fix a major state crisis and stick it to one of the state's most powerful lobbies.

Just a day into the special lawmaking session to lower hurricane-insurance rates, Democrats were not only given a seat at the table in House Speaker Marco Rubio's office, they got the same briefings and the same statistics and the same sense of power.

And armed with that information -- which is power itself in the Capitol -- Democrats have helped craft some of the most innovative solutions.

The unprecedented bipartisan cooperation is born of political necessity: The insurance package cobbled together last year by the Republican-led Legislature was a dismal failure. Insurance rates rose. Companies continued to leave the state. And Republicans paid dearly this election.

So with citizens screaming, and Jeb Bush gone along with his government-is-the-problem ideology, GOP leaders soon saw government as the antidote and Democrats -- such as Rep. Jack Seiler of Wilton Manors and Sen. Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach -- as their doctors.

As the de facto smartest-guy-in-the room who dreamed up one of the cornerstone solutions, the jokey and voluble Geller is a picture of the new Legislature.

But the idea he has devoted so much time to -- state discounted backup insurance to private companies to help them cover the biggest storms -- also illustrates one of the pitfalls of such intimate bipartisanship.

Amid all the backslapping and praise over the innovativeness of the proposal, no lawmaker noticed that the plan didn't do much to help Citizens Property Insurance -- the largest insurer in South Florida, where rates have risen the highest. Lawmakers began working on a proposal that included Citizens after a Miami Herald story pointed out the lack of rate reductions for homeowners covered by the state-backed insurer.

''There are perils to bipartisanship,'' said former House Speaker John Thrasher, a Republican who lobbies for a number of top-flight clients including Florida Family Insurance. ``Without that tension between the minority and majority parties, you don't always get that skepticism to make the best work product.''

Thrasher, though, said the bipartisan push by the GOP is also a smart move.

''Everyone is in the same boat.'' he said, ``If they can pass a good bill, everyone gets to wave the victory flag.''

Now that Democrats are invested in this year's solutions and have become pivotal to the negotiations, hard-core fiscal conservatives, such as GOP Rep. Don Brown of DeFuniak Springs, are on the outs, and Democrats know they can't play politics.

''When [Republicans] stop dealing with our concerns, you will see the loyal opposition come roaring back,'' Geller said. ``But if they're accepting our concerns, we can't complain.''

As lawmakers negotiated the final deal on Saturday, the tension grew between House Republicans and Senate Democrats. Geller complained that while Senate Republicans were on board with his idea, House Republicans hadn't been very open-minded about it.

Rep. Dan Gelber, the Miami Beach Democrat and House Minority Leader, joined Geller to talk to the media. When he finished, Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican, asked if any reporters wanted to hear what the ''Republican majority that actually runs the House'' had to say.

Despite the mid-negotiation turmoil, Republicans and Democrats spent much of the week stroking themselves for their newfound show of unity.

''This is a member-driven process that allows the state to function like the founding fathers intended,'' said Sen. Bill Posey, the Rockledge Republican who heads the Senate insurance committee.

Rubio, the House speaker from Coral Gables, called the cooperation ``a testament to what's wrong in American politics -- that we're remarking on the fact that we're actually working together. . . . The reality is that's the way it was meant to be.''

The arrangement also has produced some strange alliances. When House GOP leaders wanted to shore up opposition to a Senate plan to expand Citizens, the Democrats called on Alex Sink, the new chief financial officer who is a Democrat, to weigh in.

Sink insisted that any expansion of the state-run company should have a business plan first. That became the compromise the Senate agreed to.

Unlike Bush, who had a well-thought answer for everything and was eager to present it, Crist is comfortable with few details. He's leaving the numbers work up to the Legislature, hinting at a veto if his demand isn't met for ``meaningful rate reduction.''

But Crist is using his bully pulpit to keep the pressure on, and may emerge to be the independent voice.