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Winds change in Tallahassee -- taxpayers may bear insurance risk
SOURCE: Orlando Sentinel
Jason Garcia and John Kennedy
January 11 2007

TALLAHASSEE -- More of the financial risk of dealing with hurricanes in Florida would shift from insurance companies to you and your state government, under plans taking shape this week in the Capitol.

Lawmakers predicted that the changes they're considering would bring big premium savings to home and business owners across the state. But the only people guaranteed to get help would be the mostly coastal customers of government-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp.

"We understand some of the risks inherent in some of the measures that we're taking," said House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami. "But we understand the realities of what this is doing to our economy if we do nothing or if we allow what exists now to continue."

House Republicans offered the first public glimpse of their insurance package less than a week before lawmakers begin a special session aimed at lowering rates.

The plan, which won early praise from Democratic lawmakers, includes provisions designed to crack down on insurance companies, including one that would force companies selling homeowner's policies in some states but only coverage such as auto in Florida to offer property coverage in this state, too.

Mark Delegal, a lobbyist for State Farm, called it "anti-market, punitive in nature."

But the most significant proposals center on having the state assume more of the risk from hurricanes.

The House plan includes measures to roll back and temporarily freeze rates for customers of Citizens, the state-run insurance company for people whom private companies won't cover. Senate Republicans already have signaled that they support similar changes.

It's a remarkable reversal for Republican lawmakers, most of whom voted for a law just last spring aimed at forcing Citizens' rates higher. Backers of last year's law said they simply misjudged how much rates would rise at Citizens. In fact, some customers have seen their premiums leap several times over.

"Circumstances have certainly changed," said Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach. "We recognize that the ideas and solutions we put forward [last year] need to be re-evaluated."

Lowering Citizens' rates, however, also increases the chances that it will not have enough money to pay claims after another major hurricane or hurricanes. Homeowners who buy their insurance from private companies would be assessed to make up the difference.

In addition, House leaders said they want to offer insurance companies much more state-subsidized reinsurance, which the companies rely on to bail them out after catastrophic storms. Insurers say rising reinsurance costs on the private market are one of the main reasons they have increased their own rates.

Under current law, insurance companies have to pay out a cumulative amount of more than $5 billion worth of claims before they can tap into the state's reinsurance fund. The state also caps the amount of damage it will cover at $15 billion. The House wants to lower the initial threshold to $2 billion and raise the maximum payout to $20 billion, for two years.

Any companies that want to use the state's below-market reinsurance would have to reduce rates by at least 25 percent, although they could apply for a waiver.

But that change, too, could be risky. When insurance companies run through the state's money -- as they did during the 2005 hurricane season -- consumers of almost all types of insurance are charged to recoup their losses.

House Majority Leader Marty Bowen, R-Haines City, billed the package as the "the most consumer-friendly, pro-homeowner that we have ever considered." But Rubio declined to estimate just how much people could expect to save on their insurance premiums

"I think that's impossible to predict," he said.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of Senate leaders threw another idea into the mix that aimed at lowering insurance costs by increasing the state's financial exposure to hurricanes.

The Senate plan would effectively cap at just more than $21 billion the amount of damages for which the insurance industry would be liable. Florida taxpayers, rather than insurance companies, would cover any higher costs.

The idea of a state super-insurance pool would ease the industry's fear of getting hit by a massive, once-a-century storm. It could result in insurance premium reductions of one-third to 40 percent of windstorm coverage, senators said.

"The probability is 75-to-1 that the state will not have to pay a penny," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Hallandale Beach.

The Senate-proposed fund is yet another shift in strategy from this past spring, when the GOP-controlled Legislature insisted more risk should be borne by the insurance industry, which passed on those costs to homeowners through skyrocketing rates.