Crist touts catastrophe fund idea

The governor gets a warm reception from Democrats, but there still is no consensus.

Published February 27, 2007

WASHINGTON - Gov. Charlie Crist brought his charm offensive to Capitol Hill on Monday, winning a warm reception from top Democrats in Congress for a plan to create a national catastrophic insurance fund.

But it also was clear that any federal solution to the volatile property insurance market rocking Florida and many other states is a long way off.

Crist, a Republican, was in town for the three-day National Governors' Association meeting. He spent about 15 minutes making his pitch to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Earlier, he and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid and Pelosi were encouraging but noncommittal.

"I'm happy to take a look at it," Reid said of the catastrophic insurance fund. "It's obvious the insurance industry is failing us all in a lot of different ways."

Members from Florida and other coastal states have pushed for a national fund for years, with little progress.

Insurers are split on the idea, and opponents in Washington fall into two camps. Some don't want the federal government meddling in a state-regulated industry, and others, from inland states, say it won't help them.

The Democratic takeover of Congress probably improved the advocates' chances, members of both parties agree. With high insurance costs becoming a potent issue in many states, several versions of a national catastrophe fund are expected to be introduced in Congress early this year.

As proposed last month by Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, the fund would be financed by state catastrophe funds, like Florida's, which are financed by fees levied on policyholders.

The national fund would provide a safety net for state funds in the event of a major hurricane, earthquake, drought or other disaster.

State participation would be voluntary, but advocates hope it would encourage states to establish tougher building codes and require insurers to maintain larger reserves.

Meanwhile, Nelson has won assurances for Senate hearings on a bill that would create a bipartisan commission to study ways to settle the insurance market, including a catastrophe fund.

"The whole idea is there's no consensus among anybody," Nelson said. "You got to build the consensus, and this is what this commission is designed to do."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or 202 463-0577.