Political rivals unite in Legislature to rein in

soaring property insurance rates

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Mark Hollis and Linda Kleindienst
Published  January 15, 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- One is a heavy-set, Bronx-born Democrat, a lawyer with a wife and two kids who lives in south Broward County. The other is the wiry Republican son of a Long Island meat cutter, an unmarried investment adviser who lives north of Tampa.

Seemingly everything, from politics to suit size, sets Steve Geller and Mike Fasano apart. But when it comes to resolving the most combustible issue -- Florida's insurance crisis -- these veteran state senators see eye to eye.

In the statewide showdown over how to deal with wildly spiraling property insurance costs, this odd tag team shows that when it comes to insurance, there's a new political reality in Tallahassee.

As the Legislature prepares for a special session on insurance starting Tuesday, the hue and cry of homeowners over premium costs has been heard by legislators from Key West to Pensacola.

Realization of the situation's potentially devastating effect on Florida's economy coupled with voter anger directed at all levels of government -- as witnessed during the fall elections -- have prompted a new attitude and new coalitions among Republicans and Democrats, coastal residents and inlanders.

Legislators who don't join in the broad and bipartisan drive to bring down Floridians' property insurance rates might do so at risk to their political futures. "There was an election, and we all got it," said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, a Republican whose landlocked district is centered in Orlando. "People want us to work together to solve the state's problems, not regional problems."

Last week, Webster stood alongside Geller and Fasano as a diverse group of senators unveiled a bipartisan insurance plan they hope will reduce premium rates across the state by as much as 40 percent.

Joked House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, "The House and Senate are now competing to see who can build a better mousetrap. Perhaps an election cycle really can change perspective."

Helping fan the fire of change is newly inaugurated Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who spent a year on the campaign trail touting the need for statewide insurance reforms, and who began his four-year tenure as governor this month insisting that his No. 1 priority would be easing homeowner insurance costs.

Crist has already thrown down the gauntlet, demanding that any changes by the Legislature must result in "meaningful and broad-based rate reductions." He said he learned during his campaign that Floridians won't accept anything less.

"We've heard the people's demand, and it's to reduce rates now," Crist said.

Only a year ago, Republican legislators from Florida's interior led the way in crafting legislation that forced radically higher rates, especially for policy holders whose homes are covered by Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed company that covers homes the private insurers won't. Citizens now has 1.2 million policies, about half of them in South Florida's high-risk zones, mostly coastal areas east of Interstate 95.

Because Citizens ran up a deficit of roughly $2.3 billion after the devastating back-to-back hurricane seasons of 2004 and 2005, a statewide assessment on all homeowner policies was levied to help mop up the red ink. That irked many who weren't in the path of those storms, especially Floridians who live far from salt water.

"This whole Citizens insurance is a joke," said Tom Little, 59, a Winter Park retiree. "A whole lot of us in inland Florida are paying for people who choose to live, not forced to live, on the coast. I am subsidizing their insurance."

Critics of last year's legislation, including Fasano and Geller, contend the changes were made because legislators were pressed by the insurance lobby to make private insurance more attractive at the expense of Citizens. They say the inland legislators who controlled the debate went along with the industry, thinking that the changes would have had less effect on their constituents. But because legislators also amended state law to allow private insurers to boost their rates, inland constituents, already compelled to pay the special assessment to bail out Citizens, ended up just as riled as folks on the coast.

The widespread fury among Floridians has rattled legislators of almost every political stripe, forced conservatives to consider mandating more government intrusion into the private sector, and made politicians more sensitive to consumer needs.

"I'm a farmer, not an insurance guy," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, an in-lander who helped craft last year's industry-friendly insurance bill. "I try to do my part to understand the issue. But we'll do our best to make a good bill and we'll see what the effects are and if it needs adjustment, we'll come back and adjust it again."

Some South Florida legislators say consumer-friendlier solutions are emerging in the Legislature because more people are engaged in the debate. "The public is tuned in on this issue like none other," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, chairman of the Palm Beach County legislative delegation. "Politicians get parochial when they don't think the public is paying attention. But the public is engaged and outraged."

High on the special session's agenda is a repeal of rate increases decreed by Citizens. But because legislators realize that the insurance crisis is now statewide, legislation is also being tailored to address the cry for relief from homeowners covered by private companies.

These privately insured includes many South Florida residents who have been hit with double- and triple-digit rate hikes in recent months.

Shirley Scheyer, 75, a retiree living west of Boca Raton, has lived in her home for 27 years. It never sustained hurricane damage until Hurricane Wilma barreled through her neighborhood in 2005. Her insurance bill went from $2,800 to $8,478. She wants legislators to bring down her rates, but to do the same for other Floridians, too.

"I have no quarrel with Citizens, and I'm willing to help everyone who needs it, but I want the legislators to help everyone," said Scheyer, who knocked the bill down to $5,160 after her home was inspected. "I will not be tossed out of my house because of this."