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Insurance reform a win for Crist

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 23, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Charlie Crist didn't get all he wanted on insurance relief from the Legislature, but he says he got enough to keep his promise of lower rates.

The question is whether most policyholders will agree.

In his first days as governor this month, Crist challenged lawmakers on the biggest pocketbook issue to hit Florida in decades with two words: reduce rates.

He called for rate relief that was substantial, broad-based and immediate. Whether he got it is subject to broad interpretation, depending on where people live and where they buy insurance.

"People are going to get a reduction. It will vary. There's no question about that," Crist said when the session ended. "I'm going to be straightforward with the people because they're my boss. But really, not long ago people said this could not happen, and it is."

Some lawmakers say the result falls short, especially for the 1.3-million Floridians covered by Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

"Anemic" is Rep. Dan Gelber's term for the relief for coastal-dwelling customers like himself who buy coverage from Citizens Property Insurance Corp. He said South Floridians could see their rates drop by less than 10 percent.

In declaring victory, Crist focused on rates, downplaying proposals that met resistance.

For example, Crist demanded an end to Florida-only insurance subsidiaries that allow companies to isolate risk. The Legislature rejected that idea.

He wanted to stop insurance companies from "cherry picking" by selling only the more profitable lines of coverage in Florida but not homeowners policies.

Lawmakers delayed a ban on that practice until 2008.

Not all lawmakers shared Crist's enthusiasm.

"I feel like we have failed the governor, and ultimately we have failed the people of Florida," said Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, who said his constituents will not see a major rate cut.

Despite their criticism, Garcia and others voted for the bill.

Some of the strongest praise of the Republican governor also came from Democrats.

"You have to give credit to the governor," said Gelber, the House Democratic leader. "He has been unrelenting in his call for rate relief."

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, said Crist "set the stage" for legislative action by amplifying consumers' demand for cheaper insurance. She said Crist deserves credit for tilting the "balance of power" in Tallahassee away from the insurance lobby and toward consumers.

"If we saw one thing over the course of this week, the power's back in the hands of the citizens," Sink said.

In legislative contests across the state in 2006, each party bludgeoned the other over insurance rates in TV attack ads - ads funded to a large extent with insurance industry money.

But they tackled the problem with a notable lack of posturing and grandstanding, and worked late into the night with Democrats writing significant portions of the bill.

In so doing, lawmakers showed civility Crist said has been sorely lacking in Washington and Tallahassee.

The new governor, who ran on a populist platform, may have raised consumers' expectations to unrealistic levels.

Some lawmakers, aware of that possibility, tried to tamp down the high expectations. "We still have a long way to go," said Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg.

"A drop in the bucket," said Rep. Shelley Vana, D-Lantana.

Crist briefly threatened to veto the bill Monday morning, saying he had "some consternation" about a provision that could hamper Citizens' ability to compete with private insurers. But he said he's happy with the final product and may sign it as early as Wednesday - just 22 days after taking office.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.