On storms, our heads are still in the sand

Mar 27, 2008

St. Pete Times--Mar. 26, 2008
By Howard Troxler, Times Columnist

Sorry to bring up a sore subject, but we haven’t fixed this hurricane insurance thing yet.

In fact, you could argue that we in Florida have just about put ourselves in the worst possible position.

As long as we continue to be lucky, our cheerful governor, Charlie Crist, can go right on being cheerful.

But if we’re not so lucky …

We are in a lousy position both in the public insurance sector, which has taken on a big chunk of the risk, and in the private sector, which is still fouled up.

Public sector first.

With our state outfit, the Citizens Property Insurance Co., we have waved a magic wand and said, “Y’all can’t charge us enough money to cover your risk.”

That makes us all happy. The governor can be Mr. No Rate Increase — until there’s a storm.

Citizens recently produced a report for the Legislature on what would happen in a worst-case scenario, a “100-year” storm. The probable maximum loss to Citizens is estimated at $24-billion.

That kind of dough is not sitting around in the bank. Here is where most of it would come from: You. Me. Everybody in Florida. We would be socked with assessments that would make us squeal like pigs.

“It’s just a reckless thing we have done, and it continues,” warns state Rep. Don Brown, chairman of the House Insurance Committee, who is waging a campaign (largely unsuccessful) to call attention to the risk. “Politicians would rather take their chances with people’s money, and face the people AFTER the storm.”

Then there’s the private sector.

We taxpayers are on the hook there, too. We have agreed that our state’s catastrophic fund will kick in earlier to help private companies. There is a bill in the Legislature to scale back some, but only some.

Meanwhile, it’s not like the private companies are overjoyed. The big guys are still canceling policies or not writing new ones. There are some new guys writing policies, but a recent report questions just how solid some of them are.

A storm of any size at all threatens to devastate the private market all over again. So say all the smart folks. I believe ’em. The current mood of the governor and state Senate, to talk tough and pass more rules, will not strengthen that market.

Is there a magic answer? Not one that is painless.

We could strengthen Citizens financially on the front end — but that means we would all have to pay more now. Can’t have that.

We could turn the private companies loose, and let them charge whatever they wanted. You know what? That might “work” — the market would correct itself. There might be a voter revolution, though.

We could take over the entire windstorm risk in Florida, sharing the risk universally, instead of having only the worst risk borne by the public sector. Seems unlikely.

So here is what we are doing, more or less. We are keeping our fingers crossed. There are some proposals in this Legislature, but nothing that really changes the structure of the market.

No storm? Lucky, lucky us.

But if a day of reckoning comes, let no one be surprised, or go looking for someone to blame. It is this governor, and this Legislature, and this crop of Floridians, you and me, who have made this decision. We will deserve whatever we get.