The results: a freeze, a scam and a big tradeoff

By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist
Published January 19, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - It would be great to be able to say:

The average Florida family will save X dollars a year from all the things our Legislature is doing this week.

But it can't be said, because nobody knows.

A few things are swimming into better focus, though, from this week's special session on Florida's insurance crisis:

(1) Everybody wants to freeze the rates of the state's last-resort insurance pool, Citizen Property Insurance Corp., for the rest of this year.

Okay, so let's freeze 'em. Hooray for us all. For sure, that would stop the next big Citizens rate hike that was going to occur as early as March 1.

(2) Furthermore, everybody also wants to repeal the last Citizens rate hike, a 25 percent jump that took effect on Jan. 1.

It's a popular idea, but it has a big downside. That last increase for Citizens, believe it or not, was financially justified.

Just pretending to wave a magic wand now and repealing it will leave Citizens in bad shape. We'll have to pay for it later, one way or the other, as early as next Jan. 1 when Citizens will have to jack up rates again.

So the Citizens' repeal is kind of a scam. Sorry.

(3) As for the two-thirds of Florida homeowners who aren't in Citizens, how does this week's action help them? Do they get any relief in the short term?

Yes. I mean, maybe. Both the Senate and the House have come up with ways to take more of the risk of a megahurricane off the backs of private companies.

You might read that last sentence and say:

"Jumpin' Jiminy! Why do I want to help those $%## by taking risk off their backs? Why can't we just pass a law cutting their rates?"

Because we can't, that's why. They'll cancel us, sue us, or go belly-up. Sorry, once again.

So there are four ways to go. We take more of their risk. We let them charge us a bazillion-zillion dollars. We turn Commie and take over the whole industry. Or we do nothing.

Of those four options, the Legislature likes the first one the best. So that's the direction we're going in. That's the biggest headline from this week.

The state takes more of the risk. The insurance companies save money and cut premiums.

How much? The latest estimates (which are changing constantly) are 21 to 48 percent off the windstorm portion of insurance bills. Maybe.

Next question: How, exactly, do we take over more of the risk? That's the question to be answered in the next few days, as the Senate and House negotiate.

The Senate says, heck, let's just promise to use future tax dollars if we get a storm that's too big for our catastrophic fund.

The House has a more complicated idea. We'll sell more coverage through the state, to the private companies, on the cheap. If they choose to buy it.

Which idea is better?

The Senate idea is guaranteed to work. The cost to the private companies above a certain level would be zero. They would save money and could cut rates.

The House idea? Dunno. Nobody knows. I talked to the guys from State Farm, the biggest private company in Florida, and they didn't know either. Too soon to tell. But if the companies don't buy into the House plan, we don't save anything, and it's all been done for nothing.

But be warned. If we take the Senate deal, we have to have the stomach for putting billions of tax dollars on the line.

If we are lucky, we'll never have to do it.

But with bad luck, we will. And on that day, we will rend our garments and gnash our teeth and wail, "Why, oh why, did we take that foolish Senate idea?"

What a tradeoff! What a mess.