As of 4 pm Friday, no bills had yet been posted on the Florida Legislature’s website for the special session on property insurance. The scheduled week-long session starts Monday.
This is not good government. Floridians shouldn’t expect dramatic relief from whatever legislators pass. We all know better because we’ve seen this movie before.
Seven months ago, legislators met in a special session to update the insurance legislation they had passed two years ago. Back in May, everyone agreed that even in a best case scenario, homeowner premiums would not drop. But if hurricane season wasn’t too bad, perhaps they wouldn’t go up too much in 2023.
Instead, we got the devastation of Ian and Nicole. Insured losses just from Ian could hit $50 billion, though some of that will be from flood damage, which falls under a federal program.
If Florida had a property insurance crisis before Ian and Nicole, it got worse. Twelve more companies have stopped writing policies. The state’s $13 billion reinsurance fund, a subsidy to help carriers pay claims in bad years, will take a financial hit. All policyholders will pay to replenish it.
This crisis threatens the state’s real estate market. It puts Floridians at risk of being unable to rebuild after a storm because their damages exceed what companies will pay.
Given the complexity of insurance, a functioning Legislature would start by getting the most reliable information possible about the problem. That would start with extensive committee hearings well before the regular session and continue with as much debate as possible.
Instead, legislators will have the weekend, maybe, to read long, detailed bills and prepare for floor debate as early as Tuesday. As state Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, told the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board, “We will get a baked pie. Then we decide if we want a piece.”
All the bakers are Republicans. The GOP now has supermajorities of more than two-thirds membership in both chambers.
Fortunately, the proclamation for the session is broadly worded. Because it covers all aspects of insurance and relief for storm-damaged areas, legislators can offer many amendments to improve the bill.
But the rushed schedule likely means that bills won’t change much from what the sponsors offer. Here’s a novel idea: Since Republicans have not resolved the crisis using their same old ideas — meaning whatever the insurance industry wants — how about considering some ideas from the Democrats?
Mon. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, would like an independent analysis of the industry’s contention that 80 percent of all insurance lawsuits nationwide are in Florida, even though the state has only nine percent of all claims. “I don’t believe that’s good data,” said Polsky, an attorney who mediates insurance claims.
The industry’s response to fraud has been to restrict policyholders’ access to the courts and to portray lawyers and their fees as the villains. Meeting with all parties before the session, Polsky said she found that in some cases trial lawyers are the only ones holding insurance companies accountable for paying claims.
That is the balance Tallahassee must strike. Legislation that gives relief to companies but not to customers won’t ease this crisis. Homeowner insurance rates in Florida are already increasing 33 percent every year, compared to 9 percent nationally. Floridians should get something in return for those premiums.
The state needs more companies writing homeowner policies — not fewer. That would take the pressure off state-run Citizens, which is supposed to be an insurer of last resort but is back above 1 million policies and wants to raise rates to discourage more people from signing up.
Especially in South Florida, Citizens may be the only alternative, as other companies keep dropping policies.
So we suggest again that the Legislature requires any company that writes insurance in Florida to offer all lines of coverage, not just lucrative auto policies. The industry will resist. But more of the same obviously isn’t working.
And if insurance fraud is so rampant, regulators should ask for money to crack down. Gov. Ron DeSantis got millions for an election security unit and to ship Texas migrants out of state.
Finally, any legislation that reduces costs for insurers should require them to pass savings on to customers.
Insurance should have been the priority during regular sessions both this year and last. Instead, Republicans focused on culture war sideshows instead. This rush job of a special session holds little promise that Tallahassee considers the insurance crisis to be anything special.
The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney, and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. Editorials are the opinion of the Board and written by one of its members or a designee. To contact us, e-mail at [email protected].