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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Rubio's invisibility on flood insurance issue drawing questions

Senators on Tuesday call for passage of a bill to delay flood insurance rate increases

Alex Leary | Times

Senators on Tuesday call for passage of a bill to delay flood insurance rate increases



WASHINGTON - When Christine Ross shows up at Sen. Marco Rubio's office Wednesday, she's looking for an answer to a question she says many Floridians are starting to ask: Does the Florida Republican support legislation to delay flood insurance rate increases?

That's been hard to gauge because Rubio has been largely silent on the issue, despite standing with a group of senators on Oct. 1, when the rates went into effect, to announce they would tackle the issue.

Rubio hasn't appeared with the group since then. His office said he opposes the rate increases and is working to improve the legislation, without providing specifics. But the high-profile lawmaker's lack of visibility has drawn questions.

“They are very curious about why that’s happening," Ross, president of the Bonita Springs Area Chamber of Commerce, said in the Capitol on Tuesday after appearing at a news conference with more than a dozen lawmakers pushing for a vote this month. "He’s a Florida senator and Florida is literally one of the largest (affected) areas. We’ve got water on both sides and rivers everywhere. They don’t understand it and they are really kind of looking forward to hearing what his position is.”

Florida has more subsidized flood insurance policies facing sharp rate hikes than anywhere in the country — 50,000 in Pinellas County alone — and some homeowners are seeing annual increases from $2,000 to $10,000 or more under the 2012 Biggert-Waters Act.

The proposed reform legislation, backed by a diverse coalition of Democrats and Republicans from Massachusetts to North Dakota, would delay any changes for four years while the affordability of rates and accuracy of flood maps are explored. It affects people who buy homes that have subsidized rates or those who will see higher rates under new maps.

Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon this afternoon reiterated what she said last fall calling it "an encouraging proposal to provide Floridians with immediate relief from massive rate increases, and Senator Rubio still hopes to make significant improvements to this legislation to add further protections for Floridians and ensure it doesn't create longer term problems that will eventually hit people even harder."

Despite the alarm some flood-prone state senators are showing, others have criticized the subsidized rates under the National Flood Insurance Program, which is about $24 billion in debt. Rubio has generally railed against growing government debt. (A CBO report issued Tuesday showed the bill reversing some of the reforms would add $2.1 billion in flood debt.)

Ross said she will bring real-life stories to Rubio's office tomorrow, citing a case in which a couple who bought a small second home for a relative to live by them in the winter. The insurance on the home has increased $5,000, Ross said, as a result of the 2012 law.

More broadly, Ross said the increases are chilling the housing market. “What we’re seeing is a very fragile recovery in the real estate market begin to just complete dissipate because folks are finding out about this at the moment they are going to sign. And deals are just dying on the table.”

Asked where his colleague was on the issue, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who appeared at the news conference Tuesday, would not say.

"I get along very well with him. You're not going to get me to say anything bad about him," Nelson said. "You draw your own conclusions."

The senators backing the bill were hoping for a vote Wednesday but backed off that during today's news conference. Nelson said they hope for action next week.

Nelson said the real hurdle is in the GOP-led House, where he said "tea partiers" only look at the issue as a matter of actuarial soundness.

"A lot of us are happy to talk about actuarial soundness," Nelson said, adding that debt racked up by the National Flood Insurance Program came not from normal times but calamities such as Katrina.

"It's not fair that people are suddenly having to pay 10 times what they were just paying," Nelson said.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 11:08am]


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