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Crist ponders veto of property insurance bill for second year in a row

TALLAHASSEE — The veto watch began Monday for an industry-backed insurance bill that received limited vetting as it won approval in the final moments of the legislative session.

It's a remake of last year when lawmakers left town and dumped a big property insurance bill in Gov. Charlie Crist's lap.

Crist, a frequent critic of the insurance industry, vetoed the bill last year because he said it hurt consumers and raised rates.

But this year's legislation (SB 2044) is not an automatic kill.

Even though it makes it easier for property insurers to get a 10 percent rate increase and puts a three-year time limit on hurricane claims, it also includes regulatory language to ensure the financial stability of insurers and monitor money transfers to affiliate companies.

"You know I'm not a huge fan of insurance companies," Crist told reporters Monday. "You can sort of apply that to (the bill). But I haven't concluded yet because (the rate increase is) less than it may have been otherwise."

Crist used his veto threat earlier this year to kill a related insurance industry bill that would have allowed companies to offer unregulated rates with hefty rate hikes.

But Kevin McCarty, the state's top insurance regulator and a Crist appointee, likes the second measure, saying it addresses the factors fueling the increase in property insurance rates.

"I am grateful that the Legislature has addressed some of the cost drivers causing instability in our homeowners' insurance market," the commissioner said after the bill passed. "Furthermore, the legislation strengthens our solvency tools to ensure that insurers are capable of paying claims."

The Office of Insurance Regulation fought to have language included that:

• Requires new property insurers to have $15 million in capital, up from $4 million, with a 10-year grace period for existing companies.

• Limits fraud by reining in public adjusters and putting strict new limits on inspectors who verify policy mitigation discounts.

• Upgrades an agency website that gives consumers the ability to compare rate prices and company complaint records.

Even state Consumer Advocate Sean Shaw, who repeatedly spoke against the insurance industry this session, wants to see the legislation become law.

"Some of these things are good for consumers as a whole," he said in an interview, calling it a compromise.

But the final product didn't satisfy Rep. Rick Kriseman, a St. Petersburg Democrat.

He cites three main concerns in the language that give insurers the ability to:

• Withhold a full claims payment until homeowners repair structural damage, contrary to current replacement-cost-value policies.

• Increase rates each year up to 10 percent to cover reinsurance and inflation costs under a separate filing that gets "expedited review."

• And offer fewer mitigation discounts to policyholders who strengthen homes against storms and even charge fees to those with inferior protections.

But more than anything, Kriseman said, he disliked the way the Republican leadership in the Legislature strong-armed the bill, blocking all amendments and limiting debate.

"I think there is good reason to veto it," he said. "Just the mere process alone, the way it was shoved down our throats."

Another critic is Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who lobbied against the bill for the trial lawyers association.

He said the legislation unfairly reduces the time for filing a hurricane claim from five years to three years, even though damage like mold doesn't appear until much later.

"I think he needs to veto because it's a giveaway to the industry," Farmer said. "And we're hopeful he'll follow through."

Times/Herald staff writer Lee Logan contributed to this report. John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Crist ponders veto of property insurance bill for second year in a row 05/03/10 [Last modified: Monday, May 3, 2010 10:26pm]
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