TALLAHASSEE - On a Tuesday afternoon midway through the Florida Legislature's regular session, the House Insurance Committee played to a sparse crowd except for the usual band of industry lobbyists.
An arcane bill to bring the regulation and education of insurance agents in line with federal law drew little notice. If you weren't an agent, why would you care?
A lot of people care now.
Buried inside the bill on April 15 was a sentence that would raise from $10 to $20 the fee pocketed by agents on every car insurance policy written in Florida. It appears the fee also applies to renewals of existing policies.
The fee was discussed briefly during that Insurance Committee meeting. No one in the House said a word about it after that. The House and Senate later voted unanimously for the fee increase, which the Department of Insurance estimates would be worth at least $134-million a year to agents.
Embarrassed lawmakers, who pride themselves on not raising taxes, are scrambling to wipe out the fee most didn't know they approved until the St. Petersburg Times published an editorial May 13. Gov. Jeb Bush said it "looks like a stinker" and deserved a veto.
The agents are in an uproar, too. They say the $10 fee increase is reasonable and long overdue. One Tampa agent is circulating petitions among her customers, hoping to keep the fee alive.
The story of how the fee came to be illustrates how the state Capitol works and how legislators sometimes vote for bills without realizing what's in them.
"We missed it," said Rep. Randy Johnson, the Orlando-area Republican who's leading the charge to repeal the fee in the special session. "We're human."
It was Johnson, perhaps unwittingly, who made the fee possible.
After the Insurance Committee approved the bill that included the fee increase, Johnson agreed to let the full House vote on the bill without debating it first in the Finance & Tax Committee he chairs. That virtually guaranteed that no one in the House closely examined how the bill affected people's pocketbooks.
That was what lobbyists wanted. Johnson's decision kept the bill moving with a minimum of scrutiny. "That left an opening to gouge the consumer," he said.
By the end of April, both the House and Senate versions of the insurance bill included the fee increase. The Senate unanimously passed its version of the bill on May 1 and sent it to the House. The House voted for the bill 116-0, leaving Bush to decide whether the fee increase becomes law or to veto it.
Before Bush could act, Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher quietly raised objections about the fee increase with fellow Republicans in the Legislature. He also made sure the public found out.
In a meeting with the Times' editorial board and a reporter on May 12, Gallagher mentioned the fee increase during a discussion about the Republican legislators' opposition to any tax increases. The Times published a critical editorial about the fee increase the following day.
"Agents should be paid a fair commission in a free, open marketplace," Gallagher, the state's insurance regulator, said Wednesday. "That's regulated by the companies. I don't believe it's good public policy for the Legislature to get in the middle of that."
The fee increase has long been sought by insurance agents who specialize in marketing car insurance policies to low-income, high-maintenance customers who have lousy credit and drive clunkers.
"We have a clientele that requires a lot more care," says Pat Lorello, owner of AssetAmerica Insurance in Pinellas Park. "We work hard. We kill ourselves to keep our clients, and the clients are very labor-intensive."
Lorello is a board member of the Specialty Agents Association of Florida. The group's lobbyist, Travis Moore of Largo, went to work enlisting legislative support for the fee increase.
At Moore's request, Rep. Stacy Ritter, D-Coral Springs, offered the amendment raising the fee from $10 to $20 per policy and expanding it to cover all car insurance policies, not just the personal-injury coverage typically purchased by poor customers.
Every insured motorist, rich and poor, would pay the higher fee.
"Amendment 3 applies the per-policy fee to all motor vehicle policies rather than only PIP and property damage liability," Ritter said at the April 15 meeting, "and increases the fee from $10 to $20 to cover the administrative costs to the agent associated with selling the motor vehicle insurance policy."
Ritter, who still supports the fee increase, said Wednesday she backed the amendment on one condition. She wanted the lobbyist to find a Republican supporter so the increase had bipartisan support. "If it only had my name on it," Ritter said, "it would have been dead. Everything is so partisan up there."
Moore didn't go far to find a Republican. His friend and Pinellas County neighbor, Rep. John Carassas, R-Belleair, signed on. Carassas did not respond to telephone and e-mail messages.
The fee that no one knew existed two weeks ago now is the talk of the Capitol.
Senators on Wednesday amended an insurance-fraud bill to eliminate the fee increase, in effect killing it for this year.
"This has become an issue in the House," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "We want to fix it."
In Tampa, Adrienne Decker, owner of A. Kilbride Insurance, continued to collect signatures from customers Wednesday on a petition to save the higher fee.
Decker said she loses money on her car insurance customers, but feels an obligation to help them. Her petition states that "the service I get is worth the $20 fee so I can sit and talk to somebody in an office, instead of an 800 number."
"This is a consumer bill," Decker said. "If it's not good for the consumer, it's not good for the agent."
-Times researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.