tampabay.com

Leaders in insurance talks are criticized

By ALEX LEARY
Published December 14, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - The top Democrat in the Florida House was sharply critical Wednesday of the Republicans who were picked to lead talks on how to solve the state's property insurance crisis.

"The guys writing the last insurance bill will be writing the next insurance bill," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "And the last insurance bill was obscene. It was nearly venal."

Gelber identified the two "guys" as Reps. Don Brown, R-De Funiak Springs, and Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland. Brown is an independent insurance agent and Ross is a partner in a law firm whose clients include Publix and State Farm.

On Tuesday, House Speaker Marco Rubio made Ross head of the Insurance Committee, while Brown will oversee a council that will have broad control of any proposed legislation.

"This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue. This is an issue that affects everyone," said Rubio's spokesman, Jose Fuentes. "And the focus should be on finding a concrete solution once and for all for this problem."

Brown and Ross, he said, are well-prepared to lead that discussion.

The lawmakers helped craft the insurance law that passed in May and is now being roundly blamed for doing nothing to curb double-digit premium increases for property owners.

Lawmakers plan to meet in special session Jan. 16 to work out a new law. Several proposals are being discussed, but the only one that might bring direct relief would be to repeal a provision mandating additional rate hikes for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. customers in March.

The Republicans accused Gelber of acting his partisan role as minority leader and defended themselves as having expertise on insurance.

"I can only suggest it's a political response trying to polarize us at a time when we should be together," said Ross, who has been involved in insurance legislation for several years.

Ross financed his own campaign in the recent election, but did get money from the insurance industry in previous ones.

Brown, who received at least $17,000 in campaign contributions from the insurance industry in the last election, said he is no more beholden to the industry than lawyer-lawmakers are to legal matters and those in the health care field are to medical concerns.

Referring to the bill passed last session, Brown said he did not think there was a "whole lot wrong fundamentally." He said recent hurricanes have issued a new reality: "It costs more to live in Florida than we thought it did."

It is the first time Gelber has taken aim at Rubio, whom he considers a friend. The normally garrulous Democrat kept mostly quiet when it was recently revealed that Rubio was hiring staffers, including his press secretary, at six-figure salaries. Gelber said he would reserve criticism for policy.

He and the Democrats are calling for creation of a hurricane self-insurance fund, in which the state would assume part of the risk for all residential and business property. House Republicans generally oppose the idea, saying it creates too much government.