Crist sets stage for insurance rate cuts
For Tuesday's special session, the governor frames the debate this way: Lawmakers are either for consumers, or against them.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 14, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Using the same populist rhetoric that got him elected, Gov. Charlie Crist has defined success and failure for this week's special legislative session on property insurance.
Crist's call for lower premiums could be seen as the kind of "bumper sticker solution" that brought criticism from his campaign rivals. But by prodding lawmakers to choose between consumers and insurance companies, he has built a stark political framework: Anything less than a cut in rates will likely be seen as a failure by the public.
Cutting rates is the one campaign promise Crist made that people won't soon forget. What unfolds in the state capital over the next 10 days could be a defining moment for the self-proclaimed "people's governor," too.
At times, Crist appears as if he is still in campaign mode: Keep it simple, stay upbeat, mobilize support and demonize the other side - the insurance industry.
In a meeting with consumer advocates, he sounded like a campaign consultant as he coached them on pushing their message. "Be articulate, clear and concise," he told them, "and unintimidated."
In the runup to the Tuesday session, Crist's strategy is working so far.
The once-invincible insurance lobby is on its heels. Lawmakers are demanding lower rates and new restrictions on the insurance industry's use of "cherry-picking" and Florida-only subsidiaries that isolate financial risks.
But Crist's populism has a price. As the titular head of the Republican Party in Florida, he must abandon his long-standing advocacy of a free market that is safe from excessive state regulation.
What Crist has endorsed in the way of insurance reform is not the "less government" he talked about on the stump.
Crist, who calls himself a pro-business conservative, has become the loudest critic of the insurance industry, at times accusing it of "deceptive practices" and "profiteering."
The fix favored by Crist and some Republican legislators includes new limits on private insurers and an expanded Citizens Property Insurance Corp., the state-run behemoth.
The new Citizens would be able to sell fire and theft policies to its windstorm customers, in direct competition with the likes of Allstate and State Farm.
Citizens is the insurer of last resort. When Crist ran for governor against one of its creators, Tom Gallagher, Crist knocked Citizens as a scandal-ridden enterprise.
Now Crist, who ran for office as "the people's governor," calls Citizens "the people's company" that deserves a fresh start.
"If we're going to be in this business - and hello, we are - well, then, the one entity that we have direct control over ought to have the opportunity, I believe, and the ability, to compete," Crist said. "This is another form of cherry-picking. They've been left with the pits."
In steering the debate over insurance rates, Crist has plenty going for him, starting with the long-simmering public outrage over rates.
Left unaddressed, that outrage is sure to be a campaign issue in 2008 when all House members and half of the Senate is up for re-election.
Republicans, having lost seven House seats to the Democrats in November, do not feel as invincible as they once did.
What's unusual about this special session is that lawmakers can feel their constituents watching this time, and expecting results. That is, in part, the result of Crist's rhetoric.
In addition, Crist is still in his honeymoon as a newly elected governor, and he has a much better rapport with the Legislature than did his predecessor, Jeb Bush.
Crist has said he won't sign an insurance bill unless it contains the promise of rate relief, and legislators don't appear likely to challenge him on the point just two weeks into his term.
"I think he's laid out some principles. They're certainly up here, not detailed," said Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, gesturing with his hands. "But still, if it doesn't have this, this and this, he's going to balk at signing it."
Webster dismissed criticism of Crist that suggests he has a Reaganesque style of offering a brief, one-page set of talking points in lieu of a 300-page bill.
"I don't recall Lawton Chiles ever providing a bill," Webster said of the former Democratic governor. "He would just say, 'I'm concerned' and people jumped."
Crist's style reflects the dramatic differences from the man he replaced.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush likely would have drafted a huge piece of legislation as a template for the Legislature, and dispatched allies in the House and Senate to carry "the governor's package" to the finish line.
"I don't know a whole lot about the insurance industry. Nor do I endeavor to," he said.
Crist has no bill, and is relying on lawmakers to do that. By stressing bipartisan cooperation and a team approach with legislators, Crist has shrewdly put everyone in the boat with him. They will all succeed together, or they will all sink together.
To some conservatives in the Legislature, the emerging answers to Florida's insurance crisis smack of socialism. Some say they find it especially unnerving that Crist is drawing praise from the liberal-leaning trial bar and its allies in the capital.
"He recognizes that this is a nonpartisan issue that requires a bipartisan resolution," said Rep. Jack Seiler, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat. "He's saying and doing all the right things right now."
The insurance industry is not so confident. While publicly supportive of the need to reduce rates, companies are leery of increased state regulation.
"We support the efforts of leadership to lower rates," said State Farm spokesman Justin Glover. "To the extent that you put more risk on the state, you do risk greater assessments."
During the campaign for governor, some consumer advocates criticized Crist's insurance ideas as simplistic or unworkable, such as requiring insurance companies that sell homeowners policies in other states to offer them in Florida if they do any other business here.
But now, some of them, such as Bill Newton of the Tampa-based Florida Consumer Action Network, are cheering Crist on.
"I did say that, and I'm certainly skeptical," Newton said, "But he's the governor, and he says it will work. So why not give it a try?"
Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or 850 224-7263.
Special session this week
The Legislature is scheduled to convene on Tuesday at 1 p.m. to begin a seven-day special session to address the crisis in property insurance.
A special session can be called for any reason. In recent years, former Gov. Jeb Bush called several special sessions, with mixed success:
May 2003: Lawmakers approve the 2003-04 budget and adopt plans for two voter measures: shrinking public school class sizes and banning smoking in public places.
June 2003: An attempt at reforming medical malpractice insurance ends in disarray.
July 2003: Second session on medical malpractice insurance fails.
August 2003: Lawmakers approve caps on doctors' liability in third session on medical malpractice.
October 2003: Legislators give Bush authority to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case and agree to spend $369-million to lure Scripps Research Institute to build a Florida campus
December 2004: Lawmakers approve plans to help homeowners hit by hurricanes in 2004.
December 2005: Bush wins approval to privatize Medicaid administration in two counties; lawmakers establish slot machine regulations in response to 2004 ballot measure.
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The state estimates it spends $40,000 daily during special sessions, a price that combines travel and living expenses for lawmakers and their staff, additional electricity and printing costs.