Democrats dog GOP over insurance rates
The minority party accuses Republicans of making it easier for insurers to raise rates and calls for a special session. The governor says it's just politics.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 25, 2006
TALLAHASSEE - Sensing an election year opportunity, Democrats hope to exploit outrage over skyrocketing insurance premiums by blaming Republicans for not ending the crisis.
Days after Gov. Jeb Bush signed a Republican-sponsored insurance bill into law, Democrats said it would do little more than make it easy for insurance companies to raise rates. The Democrats demanded a special legislative session to consider ways to make homeowners insurance more affordable.
Republicans dismissed the suggestion. "Pure politics," Bush called it.
Democrats also launched a Web site that urges homeowners to host meetings on insurance rates and mail copies of their latest insurance bills to key Republican legislators. The site, www.stormingmad.org, is paid for by the Florida Democratic Party.
The minority's assault on Republicans over insurance comes as homeowners have begun to take matters into their own hands. People with no history of political activism are dealing with the panic of huge rate hikes by signing online petitions protesting rate increases by the state-run insurer of last resort, Citizens Property Insurance Corp.
The Democrats' moves are a sign that 2006 could be the year that a predicted busy storm season, unstable insurance market and outraged electorate could combine to have a powerful, but unpredictable, impact on the elections.
Democrats, vastly outnumbered in the Legislature, largely voted against the insurance bill and claim they had little input in it.
Now they are putting the blame for the state's insurance mess squarely at the feet of the Republican majority.
"There's only one group to blame for increased and obscene windstorm premiums: It is the Republican leadership of the Florida Legislature," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, the incoming House minority leader.
Democrats rejected the notion that insurance rates have been artificially low for years, a result of actions by both political parties. The state's last elected insurance commissioner was Bill Nelson, now a Democratic U.S. senator seeking re-election.
The Democrats' alternative would replace Citizens with a nonprofit, state-run windstorm insurance pool, modeled after the national flood insurance program, which would shoulder a large portion of the risk now borne by private insurers.
Coverage would be limited to $100,000, with varying mandatory deductibles.
"I don't think that's appropriate. You're putting at risk government assets, and the taxpayers, in lieu of private capital," said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, chairman of the House Insurance Committee.
Ross called the national flood insurance program a disaster, and said it has been widely criticized for inefficiency and for using actuarially unsound rates.
Ross strongly denied the Democrats' assertion that their proposals were never heard. He said much of a House Insurance Committee hearing was spent discussing a proposal by Rep. Priscilla Taylor, D-West Palm Beach.
Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, said Florida could create more competition by allowing reinsurance companies in foreign countries to sell policies in Florida. He also called for cuts in what is known as risk load, which includes an insurer's profit margin.
Geller said the Republican solution to Florida's insurance crisis was to price the cost of coverage out of reach for many middle-class people.
"Having available insurance that nobody can afford accomplishes nothing," he said.
When Democrats floated the idea of a state-run pool months ago, Republicans derided it as the socialization of homeowners insurance. Reminded of that criticism Wednesday, Democrats insisted that the state is already in the insurance business - with Citizens.
The debt-ridden Citizens, meanwhile, just got a rare bit of good news. Standard & Poor's rating service has raised the company's debt rating from A to A+ as a result of the decision by the Legislature to spent $715-million in tax money to offset steep increases in statewide assessments.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com.
[Last modified May 25, 2006, 05:21:59]
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