Davis touts his insurance plans

One of the Democratic candidates for governor hosts a hurricane roundtable to hear residents' woes.

Published July 11, 2006

ST. PETE BEACH - As boaters sped by on a blazing Monday afternoon, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis stood inside Oyster Shuckers restaurant, shaking his head at each tale of misery.

The hotel manager whose property insurance bill is up $2-million. The homeowner who has been dropped by four different insurers despite never filing a claim. Around the table they went.

Cynthia Bishop, 48, said the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. increased her bill this year by $1,300, telling her that her St. Petersburg home had greatly appreciated. "No one even came to my home," she said. "If I have to get a second job to keep my home, I will."

Davis, a Tampa congressman, has traveled the state in the past month listening to such stories and offering his plan to ease the crisis, including reversing a 2005 state law he says made it easier for wind and flood insurers to pass responsibility to each other, leaving consumers out in the cold.

On Monday, his Democratic challenger released his own proposal and dismissed Davis' as "bumper sticker slogans."

"You can't do it and attract insurance companies to Florida and hold rates down," state Sen. Rod Smith said of Davis' plan. Smith's plan calls for creating a constant pool of money to fund debts at Citizens and the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund. Davis said the state should first investigate whether Citizens is functioning properly.

Smith also pitched a proposal to create a new state pool for hurricane losses. Policies would cover some portion of the first $50,000 to $100,000 of insured value. Private insurers would handle all the paperwork and be expected to offer policies for greater losses. Davis fears that would amount to writing a blank check in the event of widespread disaster - something Smith acknowledged earlier this year.

Both men call for a consumer advocate to deal with insurance companies, but their approach differs. Davis would create a "policyholder advocate general" under the governor's office. Smith would create an independent public counsel office.

Those and other differences will be debated in the coming weeks as the campaign heads to the Sept. 5 primary. Republicans Charlie Crist and Tom Gallagher also have ideas to deal with the problem.

But as the discussion Monday at Oyster Shuckers illustrated, the problem far transcends election politics.

Dave George, who owns the restaurant and the rustic Woody's bar behind it, said he has seen his insurance bills skyrocket in recent years. But he said it is unwise to pass the cost along to his customers.

One of the most dramatic stories came from Keith Overton, vice president and general manager of the TradeWinds resorts on St. Pete Beach. Overton said his bill for the 796-room resort went from $800,000 annually to nearly $2.8-million, while the amount of coverage plummeted by tens of millions. Overton estimated it would take a $10 increase in each room rental but "it's just not possible with the competitive market."

Even as he applauded Davis for getting serious about the issue, Overton said the plan seemed too long-range and that he was still shopping for a candidate to support for governor. "The government response has to be dramatic," he said. "It has to be significant. And it has to be quick."

Davis plans two more hurricane "roundtables" this week in South Florida.