For $11M, what will insurance lobby get?
That's how much the industry just spent on political contributions. But will it help them?
By ALEX LEARY and CONNIE HUMBURG
Published January 19, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - The insurance industry has long been one of the most generous campaign contributors in Florida politics, spreading its largesse among Republicans and Democrats alike. In the last election alone it doled out more than $11-million.
It's the kind of generosity that gets positive results for a multi-billion dollar industry. Usually.
But as lawmakers head into the final intense days of a weeklong special session on property insurance, advocates for the insurance industry are looking like uninvited guests at the state Capitol.
"Can't you see the blood on my forehead?" insurance lobbyist Tim Meenan asked Thursday afternoon as lawmakers met in a crammed conference room to discuss pending legislation.
Though there's a measure of humor in his words, the lobbyists working the Capitol hallways these days often appear slumped, lacking their usual confidence.
The glum mood is the result of populist outrage. Hundreds of residents have come to protest at the Capitol, where a new governor routinely lambastes the insurance industry for skyrocketing premium rates. Lawmakers themselves, who campaigned on promises of fixing the problem, have given fiery, anti-industry speeches.
But will that last?
The industry's long history of influence suggests the sharper aspects of lawmakers' reforms may still be softened.
"Of course they have influence and I'm very worried about that," said state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, who did not face re-election last year but has received insurance money in the past. "They don't give millions to campaigns to be kicked to the curb."
Lobbyists argue insurers are no different than any other major industry , including trial lawyers, doctors and home builders. In an arena where their livelihood is determined they play hard, giving to campaigns, getting to know lawmakers and trying to influence policy.
It's not a one-way street. Lobbyists say they are deluged with faxes from candidates in both parties seeking contributions.
"Our clout comes because we articulate right-thinking public policy that is good for the economy and good for the consumers," said Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for Florida's largest private insurer, State Farm Florida.
More than anyone, Delegal has spent the week trying to put a human face on the industry, going from meeting to meeting with a simple message: Insurance is not evil; hurricanes are.
"Insurance is not polluting the groundwater. It's not killing people. It's a valuable, integral piece of the economy," he said Wednesday as other lobbyists crowded around the large TV monitors outside the Senate chamber to watch the floor debate.
"So I don't apologize for the insurance industry," he went on, "or for the industry participating in the political process."
In the two years leading up to the November elections, insurers contributed just over $11-million in Florida, according to research by the St. Petersburg Times using campaign finance databases.
The biggest portion went to the Republican Party of Florida, $4.5-million. And individual Republican candidates collected another $2.5-million. By contrast, the Democratic Party received $425,000, while Democratic candidates got $487,000.
Six-figure sums went to political committees. The Florida Association of Insurance Agents committee, for example, got $356,000 from insurance officials and agencies. In turn, the committee gave $500 checks to candidates and larger sums to re-election funds.
Money went to winners and losers.
Kim Berfield, the former Republican state representative who lost to Charlie Justice in the contest to represent Pinellas County in the Senate, got nearly $79,000.
State Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, received $32,000, more than any other current House member.
"There always will be concern that campaign contributions equate to favorable legislation," said Hasner, part of the Republican leadership in the House. "This special session is demonstrating that it's not the case."
Among the provisions worrying the industry during the seven-day special session: language that would require them to sell property insurance here if they sell it in any other state and a proposal to allow the state-backed insurer, Citizens Property Insurance Corp., to compete head-to-head with private insurers.
"In a rush to satisfy folks, it seems (lawmakers) are not really thinking about the full consequences of what they're doing," said William Stander, assistant vice president for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
Stander contends forcing insurance companies to write property insurance in Florida if they write it in other states could lead some companies to pull out of the state.
Topping the list of recipients in the Senate was Jim King, R-Jacksonville, with $44,000.
"The insurers have a right to play in an arena that has such ability to affect not only their profitability but, in some cases, their own existence," he said Thursday afternoon.
Like Hasner, King played down the influence of contributions.
"I know it reads well when you say, 'Here's an industry that has been contributing money to virtually every one of the elected officials' campaigns and so, by consequence, they are going to get home cooking.'
"In fact, when you look at what we've been projecting today and will ultimately come out of this bill, I'd say it's anything but insurance-friendly."
Times staff writer Joni James and staff photographer Scott Keeler contributed to this report.
Top recipients of insurers' dollars
Top 10 recipients of campaign contributions from the insurance industry during the 2006 elections:
- Republican Party of Florida: $4,540,315.41
- American Insurance Assocation political committee*: $670,000.00
- IMPACT (independent insurance agents): $502,994.17
- Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Gallagher: $473,230.24
- Florida Democratic Party: $425,175.67
- Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist: $370,286.61
- Florida Association of Insurance Agents political committee: $356,852.16
- Republican CFO candidate Tom Lee: $237,152.00
- Democratic CFO candidate Alex Sink: $169,561.48
- Florida Association of Insurance and Financial Advisers political committee: $168,756.98
* Such groups distribute money to individual political candidates and re-election funds.