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Terrorism's trickle-down effect

Higher insurance costs? Less privacy? Floridians could be touched in ways they never dreamed possible.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 26, 2001


Higher insurance costs? Less privacy? Floridians could be touched in ways they never dreamed possible.

TALLAHASSEE -- Your homeowners insurance could go up. A librarian may peek over your shoulder when you log on to a public computer. And the state could pull the plug on public records you want if an agency says they are related to an investigation.

Those are just some of the changes Floridians could see in the aftermath of the biggest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Gov. Jeb Bush and members of the Florida Cabinet discussed those changes Tuesday after hearing several reports on how Florida responded to this month's suicide hijacker attacks. A full report by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on that response and where the state can improve is expected at the end of the week.

Meanwhile, homeowners who think their rates are steady because they insure with a Florida-based company can think again, Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher said. Many Florida companies contracted with others to spread the risk, a practice known as reinsuring.

But some of those second-tier companies are expected to have astronomical claims after the attack, Gallagher said. Although many of those companies have said the claims won't bankrupt them, the pressure of paying out so much could be felt as far away as the Sunshine State, he said.

"Homeowners could be affected," Gallagher said. The state will know more in December, when companies begin negotiating policies for the new year, he said.

Floridians who want to research insurance rates online, or just e-mail a friend, at a library may have to tell more about themselves than they're used to doing. Secretary of State Katherine Harris told Cabinet members her office was putting together a list of guidelines for libraries, including some protocol to follow when people use public access terminals.

"Instead of just giving your first name, you may have to give your last name," Harris said after the meeting. Some of the suspected suicide hijackers may have used public libraries to access the Internet.

Harris spokesman David Host said that department is answering questions libraries have on a case by case basis, but said a set of guidelines for beefing up security without compromising access to the library's holdings or patrons' privacy may come later.

Another change Floridians could see is temporarily shutting access to public records to further a criminal investigation. Currently, all government records in Florida are public unless lawmakers pass a specific law exempting them.

But state agencies have refused public records requests several times since the Sept. 11 attacks because they were asked by state or federal law enforcement to keep the documents confidential.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, for example, after the attack asked all local agencies to stop processing records requests for driver histories. Federal agencies are looking at how several suspects in the attacks obtained Florida driver's licenses and ID cards.

The ban was lifted a short time later, but the reason the agency gave for withholding the records was incorrect, Attorney General Robert Butterworth said after Tuesday's meeting.

"What they cited was not the correct thing to be cited," Butterworth said. His staff is reviewing state law to determine whether it allows the kind of shutdown the department used.

If they find it doesn't, Butterworth said he'd certainly provide his input if lawmakers decide they need to amend the public records law to allow agencies to close records during an investigation.

"Highway Safety made a decision to to go along with the FBI and, you know, I don't blame them," Butterworth said.

The Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services was asked not to release information about the 150 people who hold crop-dusting licenses, department spokesman Terry McElroy said.

FDLE Commissioner James T. "Tim" Moore said he supported Florida's public records law but said withholding records was necessary, given the scope of the investigation into the terrorist attack.

"I've got some concern in times like these when the news media is beating us to the door of people we want to talk to," Moore said.

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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