CFO candidates spar on insurance

Published August 15, 2006

SARASOTA - Everywhere he goes, state Rep. Randy Johnson carries a copy of the state's insurance code.

It's heavy, hardcover and several inches thick. Inside are the 1,200 regulations that Johnson, a Celebration Republican running for chief financial officer, says helped create the state's insurance crisis by discouraging smaller companies from entering the Florida market.

"These policies have kept them out," Johnson said Monday to the Argus Foundation, a Sarasota business and civic group.

The group's largely Republican membership turned out to hear Johnson and fellow Republican CFO candidate Tom Lee, the Senate president, discuss their insurance plans before the Sept. 5 primary.

The two are in a three-way race for the GOP nomination for CFO, with the winner facing Democrat Alex Sink in November. Long-shot Republican candidate Milt Bauguess was not at the forum.

As CFO, Johnson said, he will ask state lawmakers to review every single insurance law and discard those that don't protect consumers by fostering a healthy market. And that includes shrinking state investment in the market - which is where Johnson says he and Lee differ and why Johnson calls his plan the "Republican plan."

"A bigger government solution, folks, is not the answer," Johnson said.

"Let's go get the private sector back in the business," he added.

Johnson also called for a thorough audit of Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-backed insurer of last resort.

Everywhere he goes, Lee says, he hears simple ideas for one of the most complex problems to face the state.

Finding a solution to spiraling homeowners' insurance costs will involve more than just deregulation and private sector enticements, Lee said. And it certainly will take more than accusing lawmakers of ignoring the problem, or of passing legislation that doesn't work, as Johnson has accused Lee of doing.

"Too many people in America run for office on the basis of defining the problem" and not solving it, Lee said during the forum.

Rather than be involved in the direct writing of insurance policies, as it is through Citizens, Lee wants the state to shift its focus to reinsurance, which backs up the insurance companies that write the policies.

By doing that, Lee said, the state will attract more firms to Florida, which should help lower rates.

Lee, too, wants private companies to come back to Florida and siphon customers away from Citizens, but he said they will need to know the state is there to reinsure them before they come.

And being in reinsurance is less risky for the state, which Lee said has a "huge unfunded liability hanging over the heads of taxpayers" in the event the state has a 100-year storm and pays out $30-billion in Citizens' liability.

It's also more nimble and will allow the state to respond to the market faster, Lee said.

"We can easily get in and out of the reinsurance market a lot faster than we can depopulate" Citizens, Lee said.

At one point, Johnson conceded that his opponent had some good ideas, but said it was too bad they weren't in the mammoth insurance bill lawmakers approved this year without Johnson's vote.

"I wish they had been included in your insurance bill that passed ... on the last day of session," Johnson said.

The sparring continued with Lee saying good ideas were included in the insurance plan, and that Johnson chose not to be part of the solution.