Insurance plan stirs outrage

A proposal for Citizens to raise rates brings calls for a legislative fix .

Article Courtesy of St. Petersburg Times

Published  November 18, 2006

The cause of all the angst is tucked deep inside Senate Bill 1980, a major piece of insurance reform legislation passed last May by the Florida Legislature.

Friday, after the St. Petersburg Times reported that actuaries for Citizens Property Insurance propose an additional rate hike that averages 55.8 percent for most of its residential policies, and an average 610 percent increase for its commercial policies, homeowners and many in the business community reacted with disgust.

And at least one local legislator jumped at the chance to fix the "fix" in state law that Citizens cites as the reason it has to seek such a huge rate jump.

Cobbled together in the waning minutes of the 2006 legislative session, the insurance bill includes a provision that requires Citizens to have rates that factor in the cost of private reinsurance, something the state-run insurer hasn't bought and doesn't plan to. Citizens is also required by law to have rates that are noncompetitive, leading to the mammoth proposed increase in its commercial rates.

Greg Landry, vice president of the Florida Insurance Council, the state's largest insurance lobbying group, said state law prohibits Citizens from having artificially low rates, so as not to drive out the private market.

"You have to have a level playing field," Landry said. "One key ingredient is reinsurance costs."

And it was those costs that bumped up Citizens' residential rates significantly.

"We have to charge adequate rates," Landry said. "People have been lulled into cheaper coverage rates for a long time."

Thursday, they got a megawatt wakeup call, and the reaction was swift.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Friday that he has a bill ready to be filed if a special legislative session is called that will specifically address the Citizens issue.

"It's outrageous that this issue was even put into a bill and signed into law when all someone had to do was ask if Citizens was required to buy reinsurance," said Fasano, who voted against the bill.

"Why are they Citizens being forced to come up with money and raise rates if they have no need to buy reinsurance?"

The answer, Fasano said, is that legislators were pressured by the insurance lobby to make private insurance more attractive at the expense of Citizens policyholders.

"I truly believe this issue was pushed by the insurance industry very late in the session so they could go before (state regulators) to get huge rate increases as well," Fasano said.

"What's laughable is that the insurance companies are not even writing new policies."

Fasano hopes regulators won't approve the rates, which is unlikely because it is now law.

"Then it's up to the Legislature to act prior to March 1," Fasano said, "and the simple solution is to repeal the two provisions in Senate Bill 1980."

Earlier, Gov. Jeb Bush said he was reluctant to seek a special session unless lawmakers could craft measures that would lead to rate relief next year.

Fasano said that based on conversations Friday with legislators including in-coming Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, he believes there will be a special session, called either by Bush in December, or early in 2007 by Gov.-elect Charlie Crist.

"We've got time to rectify this. If not, you'll see economic chaos in Tampa Bay and across the state like you've never seen before," Fasano said.

At least some of that chaos, business leaders agree, will be the result of a crisis in the commercial market that would only worsen with a 610 percent increase in Citizens commercial rates. Citizens has 1.3-million residential policies, but just 16,827 commercial policies, most of them small businesses along the coast.

But many of those businesses are already struggling.

"It's atrocious for businesses," said Craig West, president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "Most small businesses are leasing their space, so they're looking at costs passed down to them by the owner of the property."

Few beach communities typify - and rely on - a homey feel more than Treasure Island, where small, family-owned motels and businesses hold their own against condominiums.

"But one motel owner had to sell one of his cottages the other day just to pay his insurance," said Larry Hoffman, president of the Treasure Island Chamber of Commerce. "If insurance goes up more, it will run every single small business owner out of here.

And if the small businesses leave, Hoffman said, it will have a negative effect on tourism.

"It's out of control and needs immediate attention by the governor and the Legislature." Hoffman said. "They campaigned on the issue, and we're all going to hold their feet to the fire."