From across state, they came to be heard

Published January 17, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - They wore armbands of blue masking tape. They waved dozens of signs. They ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And, 150 people strong, they rallied at the old state capitol steps, decrying the high insurance rates that have become the norm in Florida.

Their message: Florida lawmakers need to cut rates and reform the way companies can offer homeowners insurance.

"You work for us," organizer Ginny Stevans of New Port Richey said over a bullhorn to lawmakers who began a special session on insurance Tuesday. "You don't work for them," she said, referring to insurance companies.

The angry residents had traveled hours to make their voices heard among the politicians and insurance lobbyists working in the Capitol.

A coalition of reform groups and the Florida Justice Association, a trial lawyer lobbying group, had organized the rally.

Two buses carrying about 50 residents apiece rolled up shortly before noon. One came from New Port Richey, another from Brooksville. Organizers with Having Affordable Coverage had asked for $25 a head to pay for buses.

Thirty more people flew from the Keys at a cost of $17,000 for a chartered plane, said Heather Carruthers, a board member of the group Fair Insurance Rates in Monroe County. The group's fund for lobbying travel paid for the trip, she said.

A few dozen others came by themselves, several Hernando and Pasco county commissioners.

Marty Altner, a Clearwater Beach resident who owns 130 rental properties, said his properties face 20 to 60 percent insurance hikes, plus a rash of bureaucratic red tape. A condominium resident, Altner also said his community association's insurance premium has more than doubled through Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

"There's no free market for insurance in Florida," Altner said, carrying a sign that read: "Take A Stand Against Insurance Companies."

Nearby, another sign read: "Mom - Need Money ... Wind Storm Premium Due."

Riled as they were, Stevans, president of HAC, and other reform activists said there are good points to bills being considered by lawmakers.

They like rolling back Citizens' rates, and tighter oversight of the state-run insurer, for example.

But residents' demands were clear: No more allowing national corporations to create Florida-only companies. No more allowing insurers to raise rates and then get approval. No more "cherry-picking" by insurers on which risks to cover.

After the rally, they went inside to speak to lawmakers.

Many of the west-central Florida residents filled rows inside a Senate insurance committee meeting, sometimes grimacing as precious minutes ticked past and lawmakers talked about points in a bill.

With their buses due to depart, the residents left their seats about 3 p.m. - an hour into the four-hour meeting and well before the first public comment was planned near the end of the meeting.

Once more, they were angry at the system that didn't meet their needs. "What they did to us today was unconscionable," Stevans said as she walked to a bus.

She was upset that the activists didn't get to speak. But lawmakers said they were following the order of the meeting. Residents who stayed were allowed to speak.

A couple of hours later, the Senate committee took up the list of people signed up to speak. One by one, Stevans and others' names were read.

But nothing was heard from them.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or 727 869-6232.