State Politics

House committee OKs insurance bill

TALLAHASSEE — With less than four full weeks left in the 2009 session, lawmakers started moving legislation Friday aimed at reducing a multibillion dollar property insurance risk politicians have laid on Florida consumers and taxpayers.

After running through more than a dozen amendments, the Insurance, Business and Financial Affairs Committee approved a bill to make the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. a last-resort insurer. The measure would also draw down the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund obligations by several billion dollars.

“We’ve got a problem,” Catastrophe Fund manager Jack Nicholson told the committee. “Solvency could be an issue.”

Neither Citizens, which has about 1.1 million policies, or the Catastrophe Fund have enough money to pay claims if a major hurricane — or series of damaging storms in highly populated areas — hits Florida this year.

The state has escaped serious hurricane damage the past three years.

But a solution to reduce the financial liability for taxpayers and insurance consumers has been elusive for just as long while the risk on Florida taxpayers grows in part as a result of a global recession.

“We’re in a world of hurt and we’ve got to work our way out of it,” said Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, the sponsor of the House bill. “We can’t get out of it in one year.”

A Senate committee got hung up on a similar bill earlier in the week, but scheduled another meeting for Monday to get that measure on its way through committee and onto the floor for debate.

Both proposals are supported by The Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Florida, both big business lobbying organizations.

Lawmakers will have to whittle down their differences and agree on a final bill to forward to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has led a populist crusade against insurers seeking rate increases from the state.

The governor, however, has softened his hardline stance recently with comments he’d allow a gradual rate increase for Citizens’ customers to get that company actuarially sound.

The state’s Office of Insurance Regulation supports lifting the rate freeze.