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    Candidates tangle over disaster bill

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 2000


    Ratcheting up the hostile rhetoric in the U.S. Senate campaign, Bill McCollum is accusing Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson of putting politics ahead of Floridians' safety by refusing to embrace a controversial disaster insurance bill in Congress.

    Nelson has expressed concerns that the Homeowners Insurance Availability Act sponsored by McCollum would increase consumers' insurance premiums without increasing the availability of homeowners insurance in disaster-prone areas. But in an Aug. 24 letter sent to Nelson and media outlets across the state, the Republican congressman suggested Nelson's position was based mainly on election-year politics.

    "Bill, don't play politics with the safety and well-being of the citizens of Florida," wrote McCollum, a congressman from Longwood. "Isn't there anything that isn't just plain politics to you?"

    McCollum's letter brought a furious response from the Nelson campaign: "I will not allow his mean-spirited, harsh, deceitful campaign to turn this issue into a political football," Nelson campaign spokesman Dan McLaughlin shouted. "No one can question Bill Nelson's commitment to creating a national catastrophic insurance program. And until Connie Mack opened the doors for Bill McCollum to fulfill his political ambitions, where was Bill McCollum on this issue?"

    For most of the past six years as insurance commissioner, Nelson has advocated creating a federal disaster program to induce more companies to offer insurance to homeowners in high-risk areas, such as Florida's coast.

    The bill sponsored by McCollum and fellow Republican Senate candidate Rick Lazio of New York, would enable insurers to buy reinsurance through the Treasury.

    The federal government would cover half of all homeowner damage from a natural disaster above certain thresholds, with federal payments capped at $25-billion a year nationwide.

    The McCollum campaign pointed to Nelson's prior support of that concept and suggested he was backing away from the McCollum bill because he didn't want his chief rival for U.S. Senate to benefit. Officials in the state insurance department said Nelson remains strongly supportive of the concept, butthe Lazio-McCollum bill is written so that the costs of the catastrophic funds could be shifted onto policyholders.

    The bill has support by Democrats and Republicans in the Florida congressional delegation, but has drawn strong opposition from consumer, taxpayer and environmental groups. Critics call it a bailout package for big insurance companies. TheHouse was supposed to vote on the bill in June, butHouse leaders pulled it before a vote was scheduled.

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