tampabay.com

Question for the top man

An activist and County Commission candidate seeks action from the governor on homeowner's insurance increases.

By BRIDGET HALL GRUMET
Published June 20, 2006


Gov. Jeb Bush had just finished signing an energy bill at the Port of Tampa when a young woman with her 2-year-old son on her hip piped up from the back of the air-conditioned tent.

"Gov. Bush, what are you going to do about the thousands of people in Pasco County who are going to lose their homes?" Nicole Deg shouted.

The governor, who was about to shake hands with some children from a nearby Boys & Girls Club, said they would talk later.

"I hope so," Deg replied, "because you didn't talk to me when my husband was in Iraq."

A moment later, the governor's aide ushered Deg to the side of Bush's silver SUV. Her gutsy stunt accomplished something that letters, phone calls and a confrontation at the Capitol had not: a private audience with the governor.

The New Port Richey stay-at-home mom, whose soaring homeowner's insurance bill has turned her into an activist and County Commission candidate, laid the crisis at Bush's feet.

The state-run Citizens Property Insurance plans to raise rates 139 percent along Pasco's coast and 86 percent in most of Hernando. Most of those increases are due to sinkhole claims. Deg said the Legislature responded with a "Band-Aid bill" that attempts to curb costly sinkhole claims by sending them into mediation.

The solution to the larger problem will have to come from the governor, Deg told Bush.

"You have to understand that this is hitting people that once had money to take care of this issue," said Deg, 30, who took out a $1,500 home equity loan this spring to cover her rising premiums. "Now they don't."

The governor seemed interested and took down her contact information, Deg said.

"He was actually really cool," she later told the Times.

Deg first tried to reach the governor three years ago, when her husband, Chris, a National Guardsman, was sent to Iraq. She said she left phone messages and sent letters, only to get a form letter back from another state agency.

"You just want some sort of support," said Deg. "You want someone to tell you it's going to be okay and to understand what your family's going through."

Then this spring, after hundreds of frustrated homeowners gathered for a hearing with Citizens Property Insurance executives in Pasco County, Deg organized a bus trip to Tallahassee to lobby for reform. The group saw the governor talking to reporters on the steps of the Capitol and Deg asked if he could help.

"He said, 'I'm not here to talk about that,' " Deg recalled. When she asked again, she said, he walked away.

When she learned Bush would be in the area Monday afternoon, Deg figured it was as good a time as any to get the governor's attention. Carol Howard, a Spring Hill resident who belongs to Homeowners Against Citizens, came along for support.

"It's a cancer that's got to be fixed," said Howard, whose bill shot up from $500 to $1,600 this year.

Deg, a Democrat, said she plans to follow up with an e-mail to the Republican governor. But she's confident he got the message loud and clear.

"He asked me not to shout," she said.

Times staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report.