Lawmakers at odds on property insurance changes

Apr 30, 2008

Palm Beach Post--April 29, 2008

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

TALLAHASSEE — Negotiations broke down Tuesday night between House and Senate Republicans over a bill to freeze windstorm premiums for Citizens Property Insurance Corp. customers, leaving in doubt the outcome of the session’s most sweeping property insurance changes.

"We’re running out of time," said Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican and lead negotiator for the House. "I thought we were really close with the Senate, but things just blew up today."

Ross expected the House to miss a deadline Tuesday night for debate on the bill. Lawmakers can still consider the legislation, but with three days left, it will take an extraordinary vote that requires Democratic cooperation.

Ross and Sen. Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican and sponsor of the bill, both expressed frustration late Tuesday with the negotiations.

Ross said Atwater has re-opened issues once considered closed. Atwater said the Senate approved the bill nearly three weeks ago: "How many times can I go into their office and negotiate on my own bill?"

The collapse of the talks on Tuesday raised questions about the possibility of a related bill, offered by Democratic state CFO Alex Sink, to reduce the state Hurricane Catastrophe Fund from $28 billion to $25 billion.

The bill is favored by House Republicans, but Atwater said that bill would pass or fail on "its own merits."

But Ross said there was "nothing" in Atwater’s bill "to help customers if a storm hit this summer."

Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and House and Senate Democrats are wary of Sink’s proposal, which could reduce the amount the state would have to pay after a hurricane. But it could also come with a 7 percent increase in premiums in Palm Beach County.

An amendment to Atwater’s bill from Ross showed House Republicans were willing to strip insurers’ ability to use an arbitration panel to resolve disputes with state insurance officials.

But there remained significant disagreements over how long to freeze 1.2 million Citizens premiums – six months or a year? – and, when the freeze ends, how quickly to square rates with market conditions.

Competing amendments also show disagreements over how much to fine insurance companies that violate the state insurance code, whether to prevent companies from dropping more than 10,000 policies all at once and time limits for companies to notify policy holders of non-renewals.

House Democrats, whose approval will be needed to revive the bill today, were unlikely to stand in the way of debate. But House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach has offered his own amendments, including one that would freeze Citizens rates for two years.

Atwater said his only "linchpin" for the bill was that it remained "consumer friendly."

"That was our goal when we started this," Atwater said. "And that’s the goal for the finish line."