Lawmakers braced for bashing; felt the love

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published June 27, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY -- When about 200 people gathered over Florida's insurance crisis Tuesday night, lawmakers braced for a bashing over the slow pace of relief.

But they got a steady stream of love at the start of the public meeting in a Spartan Manor banquet hall.

Greg Armstrong, a candidate for Pasco County clerk of courts, lauded state Sen. Mike Fasano and state Rep. John Legg, prompting applause.

"In January during the special session, I don't think I've ever seen two people who worked harder," County Commissioner Michael Cox said to the meeting's emcees.

Meanwhile, members of Pasco-based Having Affordable Coverage -- frequent critics of local lawmakers -- could only enjoy the view from the second row. Their silence wasn't deafening. It was just, well, silent.

HAC members waited the first two hours to speak, even though they arrived an hour early to be among the first to sign comment cards to be able to speak.

"The first to arrive and obviously, the last to speak," complained HAC president Ginny Stevans once she spoke to a thin crowd.

"We were clearly blackballed until the media left," she told a Times reporter.

Fasano said they were not, that he "went with the cards that were given to me."

Twice before in the past 16 months, large crowds in the same banquet hall had feasted on lawmakers and state insurance officials over insurance costs. Not this time.

In front of local television news cameras, a few more residents thanked Fasano for his hard work. Others offered measured criticism of the state insurance system, or asked questions about changing their coverage. Members of HAC stewed.

Fasano and Legg have increasingly sparred with HAC over insurance laws, particularly a change to state law passed this year making sinkhole coverage optional for homeowner policies. Fasano and Legg sponsored the bills.

When HAC member Joy Timmons gave barbed questions to Fasano, the lawmaker chirped, "You've disagreed with everything we've done so far, HAC has."

HAC member Wil Nickerson -- "a good friend," Fasano said -- took another tack. Nickerson lauded the lawmakers.

But when Stevans spoke with 40 minutes left in the three-hour forum, she challenged Fasano on a statement that he had no knowledge of any mortgage lenders requiring sinkhole coverage. At least two banks have said they will not allow homeowners to drop sinkhole coverage -- a point Fasano acknowledged before dispatching Stevans for the next speaker.

Starting Sept. 1, state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. will drop sinkhole coverage as part of standard policies in Pasco and Hernando counties, but will still cover "catastrophic collapses" that leave homes unlivable. Residents will have the option, however, of buying sinkhole coverage with a smaller rate cut.

Tuesday's meeting was an attempt to deal with the changes and promote the potential savings.

For a $150,000 masonry home in coastal Pasco, a policy with sinkhole coverage costs $2,239. Dropping it will lower the premium to $1,057, according to Citizens.

But only in Pasco and Hernando counties -- places hardest hit by sinkhole claims -- will customers automatically lose sinkhole coverage under Citizens. Sinkhole coverage will remain standard in policies elsewhere, although residents can opt out of it and save money.

HAC members handed reporters a sheet of criticism about risks of excluding sinkhole coverage.

Asked if HAC helps improve insurance, Fasano said, "They are a fine organization."

But he wouldn't say a word more.