State Politics

Insurance reform effort stalls

A push to let Florida property insurance companies aggressively raise rates with unregulated policies appears unlikely this legislative session, a victim of Gov. Charlie Crist’s threatened veto.

State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, sponsor of the Senate version of the deregulation bill (SB 876), conceded Wednesday that “we just didn’t feel this was the right year” for passage. One of the biggest obstacles, he said, is Crist’s strong opposition to the bill and his support for Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty, another critic.

“The governor continues to listen to a person who has proven to me to be totally inept,” Bennett said. “Until the governor decides to replace Mr. McCarty — the way he should have last year, when he lied to the governor and the Cabinet — I don’t think we have a chance of any insurance reform.”

It is also a political calculation. Legislative leaders don’t want to give Crist another easy victory with a veto, as they did with an teacher merit pay bill and a campaign finance overhaul earlier this session, which Crist also vetoed.

Crist, who is trailing Marco Rubio in a Republican primary for U.S. Senate and weighing a run as an independent, received a recent jolt on the campaign trail after vetoing the education overhaul bill.

Last year, the governor rejected a similar deregulation measure aimed at major insurance companies like State Farm.

Crist on Wednesday defended his veto threat and said he was “very happy” it forced lawmakers to withdraw the legislation.

“We do need to try to protect the consumers of the state,” he said, emphasizing that, to him, that means “not allowing those rates to be increased on their backs at this time in this economy.”

With a week and a half remaining in the Florida Legislature’s session, it is still possible a compromise could emerge. But it would need Crist’s consent to go forward.

Another insurance measure is pending in the Senate. Containing a hodgepodge of proposals, the bill (SB 2044) could lead to higher insurance rates, fewer hurricane-mitigation discounts and more red tape to get full replacement costs for damaged property.

Other pieces of insurance legislation still on the table include a three-year limit on hurricane insurance claims, a streamlined sinkhole litigation process, and a provision to let regulators better supervise payments that struggling insurers make to the managing general agencies that oversee them.

But that legislation is less controversial than the deregulation bill, which would let insurance companies raise rates up to 10 percent as a statewide average, with hikes capped at 20 percent. The Florida Office of Insurance Regulation under McCarty currently has the authority to reject rate requests that are deemed excessive.